Sunday, November 8, 2015

Searching for the Queen of Sheba, and Other Enlightening Entertainments



Jerry Cullum



Social media have turned us all into third- or fourth-rate aphorists. Le bon mot is about all we are capable of when we are not running the words together with the numeral sign serving as a hashtag mark. #lebonmot #runningthewordstogether #andtheresnotimetothink

Clich├ęs are what serve when we cannot think of an aphorism.

This is all apropos of my inability to turn out the perfectly brilliant reflective essay that is deserved by a couple of recent examples of what the scholars barbarously call material culture (a phrase that they should have realized sounded like the flip side of “historical materialism” but scholars are noted for having very little feel for linguistic resonances)—but since that is the phrase (amplified lately by the even more barbarous “material religion”), let me explain that I wanted to talk about the kinds of physical objects from distant history that those of us operating out of the city of Atlanta rarely get the chance to look at up close and personal. (These days, we more typically view them postage-stamp-size in digital images on our phones, which only works if the topic being investigated is postage stamps.)

Since “Habsburg Splendor” at the High Museum is getting ample press without anyone reflecting on the oddity of its collection of art and objects owned by the members of the Habsburg Dynasty, or on what the paintings and suits of armor and robes and uniforms and vessels made from a rhinoceros horn or a sea coconut say about Central European culture or the culture of Europe at large in the centuries in which the Habsburgs flourished…

…it is unnecessary to attempt that epic task at the moment.


I shall instead try to promote “Searching for the Queen of Sheba,” at Fernbank Museum of Natural History through January 3, as a perfectly credible opportunity to get a look at an entire body of art and other aspects of ancient cultures that we in the American South do not usually have much of a chance to examine at all, never mind in depth.

Using the legend and truth of the story of the Queen of Sheba as a conceptual hook was a brilliant idea; in the first place, the story has scriptural warrant in all three religions of the Abrahamic revelation (that would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and a good deal of currency in Ethiopia, where the descent of the royal house from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba was a longstanding article of faith.

Hence the emphasis of the exhibition on the archaeological remains of Saba (Sheba) and the other kingdoms of South Arabia (the presumptive origin of that Queen of the South who paid the splendiferous visit to King Solomon), with side glances across the Red Sea at the other ancient empires of the Incense Road. The wealth generated by the caravan trade in gold, frankincense, and myrrh was sufficient to support levels of royal splendor far beyond the spectacularly lovely, innovative but less ostentatious mud-brick high-rises currently being bombed into ruins in the latest conflict.

It is good for any number of reasons to be enlightened as to the depth and longevity of the culture of the South Arabian kingdoms of classical antiquity (they were among the exporters with whom Imperial Rome ran a persistent trade deficit), even if the objects with which the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale “G. Tucci” was willing to part temporarily are mostly smaller and sometimes inadequately provenanced. (It would be intriguing to know more about the acquisition of objects prior to or apart from systematic archaeological excavations in this part of the world, where the search for historical clarification has been put on hold by present-day tragic events.)


The beautifully designed catalogue rounds out the exhibition in essays that further elucidate the scope of the Sheba legends and the known historical realities behind a figure who has been inextricably confused with the historically attested Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, a more distant city on the Incense Road, also in the headlines in the past year or so.

Although “Searching for the Queen of Sheba” features an incense burner from western Syria, anyone hoping for examples of the remarkable art of Palmyra will have to resign themselves to remembering the incredible array of Palmyra portraiture that Fernbank presented in 2002, in the oddly named “Syria: Land of Civilizations” blockbuster, which toured various North American museums in complement to the turn of the millennium in the commonly accepted calendar.

But the point is well taken that, legend or truth, the story of the Queen of Sheba has stirred individual and collective cultural imaginations for so many millennia that an entire genre of what this exhibition labels as “tourist art” arose in Ethiopia long before mass tourism was ever thought of. Tourist art arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to demand by the influx of foreigners carrying out Menelik II’s modernization program; the 44-panel narrative painting reproduced here was painted for an American delegation by the young self-taught artist Balaccaw Yemar (I have Anglicized slightly the catalogue’s transliteration from Amharic). Later anonymous examples of tourist art omit many episodes of this story of how the Queen of Sheba founded the royal house of Ethiopia.

Bizarrely, the catalogue caption dates the piece as “1894/5 – 1957,” which are Yemar’s dates. We know he didn’t produce the panels as a newborn infant, nor did he produce it after his death, but it is difficult to believe that it found its way into the Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico “Luigi Pigorini” without some more exact indication of the approximate date of its creation.

I, for one, would like to know much, much more about the history of Ethiopian tourist art and the biography of Balaccaw Yemar. This is too much to ask of a popularizing exhibition, but Yemar seems to be absent from other scholarship.

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