Think Egypt and you might think of Elizabeth Taylor’s classic film “Cleopatra”, or The Bangles 1986 hit, “Walk Like an Egyptian”, or try BrendaNapoleon in Egyptn Fraser’s ridiculous adventures in “The Mummy”—the movie’s tagline speaks straight to Hollywood’s outlandish versions of ancient Egyptian culture: “The sands will rise. The heavens will part. The power will be unleashed.” Yea right.

The SUArt Gallery’s new exhibit, “Napoleon on the Nile: Soldiers, Artists, and the Rediscovery of Egypt,” is hardly a blockbuster exhibition. In fact the soberness of the show may be enough to turn most of you away, because if you’re looking for an exhibit filled with artistic creativity and avant-garde expression, pass this round. For those willing to take a chance, you’ll find this show’s really a new kind of history lesson on Egyptian culture as a reflection of the French ethos. The collection brings together life-sized maps, engravings, handwritten letters (in French and Arabic), and documentary paintings. It’s also proof that the West’s obsession with Egypt didn’t just start in 20th century Hollywood.

Here how the story goes: When the dumpy general took his army to Egypt, he also took the Commission des Sciences et des Arts d’Egypte—meaning, some 150 artists, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and biologists tagged along for the hot desert ride. Their three-year stay produced an impressive collection of scientific observations and artistic recordings that are still considered the “foundation of modern Egyptology.”

Make sure to check out the wall dedicated to the hundreds of celebratory medallions manufactured by Napoleon during the occupation. My favorite one shows a crocodile under the shade of a palm tree—supposedly a symbol of France’s successful occupation over exoticism. I just liked the palm tree and croc combo. Step to the other side of the wall and you’ll find a collection of old books like something found in grandpa’s attic. The marbleized covers and blue tinted pages far more interesting than the French (that I can’t read) printed inside.

And at the end of exhibit you’ll find a small painting—a portrait of a Nubian man only some 6” high and 5” wide. Painted in semi-profile, the dark skinned man wears an elaborate headpiece and sports three dark-lined tattoos under each eye. And after the exhibit’s extensive string of maps, documentary engravings, books, and letters, it’s this haunting face I think reveals Egypt’s cultural latitude best—reaching far beyond the narrow scope of a Caucasian Cleopatra and a haunted army of mummies.

The paradox of it all is that Napoleon’s three-year occupation of Egypt turned into a military and colonial failure, but the careful scientific and artistic recordings of that campaign remain one of his greatest feats.

At the very least this exhibit reminds us that art used to explore a culture is far better than art used to exploit one. I’d call that the little general’s big mistake.
~ Sarah Parker

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