Nation-building in Egyptian museums

Unreliable past + imperfect present    
By BRITTA KONAU  |  August 3, 2011

art_Larkin_Museum6_480
‘MUSEUM 6’ Giclée print, 30 x 30 inches, by Jason Larkin, 2008-2009.

Jason Larkin's photographs taken in 2008-2009 inside Egyptian museums have gained an aura of premonition in light of the country's recent turmoil. Larkin received the second annual Arnold Newman Prize, which recognizes a person's innovative approach to photographic portraiture. The prize comes with $15,000 and an exhibition at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland — where images from Larkin's winning series "Past Perfect" are currently on view.

The London-born Larkin's documentary photographs have a socio-political focus and include images of the environmental disaster and nascent nationalism in the Karakalpakstan area of Uzbekistan, and of India's emerging middle class in Mumbai. The Farnsworth's exhibition is Larkin's largest solo to date, with 13 giclée prints of 30 inches square. The photographer aimed his camera not so much at the objects on display in Egyptian agricultural and political history museums, but at the manners of display itself. "By deciding how the past is presented and memorialized, museums not only preserve the past, they also play an important role in the construction of our ideologies, identities and the understanding and interpretation of ourselves," he says in his artist statement.

Much of the beauty of Larkin's photographs, their quietness and intriguing color palette, stems from their subject matter, from museological practices. Subdued, harmonious colors predominate in an atmosphere of hushed silence and respect. Compositionally the photographs reflect the architectural use of symmetry, spatial openings, and sightlines that guide visitors' experience. These are staged spaces full of theatricality and props like columns and swags to signify importance and authority. The objects displayed thus include recreations and paintings of battles, collections of weapons, and representations of historical figures (a painting of now-ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is displayed in a grandiose architectural place of honor including stanchions to keep visitors in check). The few images shot inside an agricultural history museum indicate clearly where ideological priorities lie — these spaces and displays are old-fashioned and neglected.

In a way, Larkin's photographs too are now museological objects, as they captured a moment in time before the recent changes and threats to historical artifacts. His focus on political and agricultural history, and not Egypt's celebrated archeological past, reflects Larkin's tendency to look beyond the predominant storyline. In the case of Egypt that includes his other series of images (not represented here) that focus on the country's intention to turn a stretch of desert into farmland and housing for 19 million people, and on child laborers at a brick factory, among others. Larkin's images of Egypt's museums are only one complex facet of his portrait of a nation, and each series comments on the other — with "Past Perfect" having the strongest intellectual aspirations. He has an undeniable talent for capturing emerging or disappearing societal phenomena — societies in flux — with empathy and a sensitive eye toward beauty.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Photography, Museums, Egypt,  More more >
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