The Beauty and The Beast - The Hippo as a Symbol of Power and Fear in Ancient Egypt

While most of us have only ever seen a hippopotamus on TV or in the safe confines of a safari park, for the Ancient Egyptians, the animal found a permanent home in visual culture and mythology.

Despite sharing territory, hippopotami and the Ancient Egyptians had a complicated relationship. On the one hand, the creatures killed and maimed many civilians whilst roaming wild, and had an appetite for top vegetarian cuisine (in the form of farmers’ crops), often devastating harvests and livelihoods.

On the other hand, hippos lived in the murky waters of the Nile - a national symbol of life and fertility - and were respected for their power and strength.

The most prominent way the Egyptians incorporated these animals into their visual culture, was through the crafting of statuettes and amulets. Made with great care and attention, these earthenware objects were often decorated with botanical imagery to symbolise the hippos’ lives in the rivers, and placed in the tombs of important figures and dignitaries.

Hipppotamus (“William”), 1961 - 1878 BC, Faience | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

It’s thought that these hippo statues were placed inside tombs to safely guide the deceased through dangerous waters on their way to the afterlife.

The Egyptians passionately believed in their power - so much so that the legs of the hippos were often broken off before being put in place (as with this one above - its legs have been restored), to make sure the hippo didn’t come to life and harm its entombed companion.

This illustrates just how formidable the animals were in Ancient Egyptian society. Whilst civilians sought to capture and emulate their power, they never forgot about the huge threat they posed.

Hippopotamus, 1981 - 1650 BC, Faience | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

As well as their heavy involvement with burial rituals, hippos’ behaviours were studied, and connected with representations of the gods. The Egyptians took particular notice of the animals’ fierce protection of their young and the ominous way they sunk down and back up again in the water (which they attributed to mirroring the movements of the sun). This lead to them being associated with many gods ranging from Seth (the god of chaos) to Taweret (the goddess thought to protect mothers and children).

When looking at these creations, it’s almost impossible to believe they were created thousands of years ago - they wouldn’t look out of place in a modern-day ceramicist’s studio! The care and dedication that went into producing these works of art is so evident, and a true gift to artists, historians and museum visitors. It’s as if we’ve been built a window into an Ancient Egyptian world.

Sources/Further Reading:

Delange, E. The Louvre, Available at: , (Accessed: 07/08/2018).

The Met Museum, Available at: , (Accessed: 07/08/2018).

The Met Museum, Available at: , (Accessed: 07/08/2018).

Stünkel, I. (2017). The Met Museum, Available at: , (Accessed, 07/08/2018).

Art In Unusual Places - Cochineal

As my travel 'wish list' continues to grow, I find myself becoming more and more infatuated with the idea of merging art and travel. 

More than simply visiting a country and its galleries and museums, I want to understand the true roots of a region's art-making, and for some reason natural dyes seemed like a good place to start.

As luck should have it the perfect jumping-off point fell into my lap a few weeks ago, when I watched an art documentary that mentioned cochineal. Admittedly I have absolutely zero knowledge of the making and uses of natural dyes, so it's safe to say that up until now I've taken them for granted.

Really, how often do we consider where the colour in our paints, dyes and make up comes from?

I guess if I had to really mine my brain for solutions I'd say that dye was made from a vague combination of plants, or that all dye nowadays was just made from soupy chemicals, but as it turns out, cochineal is made from huge quantities of parasitic insects, and is still widely used today.

'Cochineal' (aka Carmine, or the pigment shades 'Crimson' and 'Scarlet') is the name of the dye made from tiny parasite-like bugs that live on cacti, commonly produced in Central and South America. 

Once the bugs have cultivated a gross, crusty surface on the cacti, they're brushed off and then boiled, sun-dried and crushed to make a powdered dye. Oh, and it takes 70,000 bugs to make 453 g (1 lb) of cochineal dye.

Now I should probably mention at this point that the cochineal bugs aren't really bugs at all, rather 'scale insects', which seem to be somewhere between insect and plant-parasite-growth thing. 

They don't have any visible legs or antennae, so really the only thing making them bug-like is their hard outer shells. Despite possibly angering some vegans, I find the whole process fascinating.  

Before the discovery of cochineal by colonial explorers, Europe had never seen such a vibrant red. Despite succeeding with colours like blue and purple, European-made red often turned out to be murky, dull and underwhelming, often comprising a mixture of cow dung, plant roots and bull's blood. 

It's thought that Mesoamerican peoples began utilising the cochineal bug as early as 2000 BC, and the process of cultivating and harvesting was fine tuned by indigenous peoples over the ages. The societies of Central and South America had hundreds of years to perfect and economize the cochineal bug, and it was used as a status symbol amongst the dignitaries of the Aztec empire.

Once conquistadors invaded, and stole sack-loads of cochineal to send back to Europe, its popularity, not to mention demand for the product, exploded. European Renaissance painters finally had the 'perfect red', and immediately set to using it in grand portrait paintings. 

This is just one example of the importance of ancient processes, and their relevance to this day. Cochineal is considered a natural dye, and is used in lipstick, yoghurts, juice and even, most bizarrely, some cheap meats like frozen crab.

If it weren't for the indigenous civilisations who first discovered the cochineal bug and figured out it could be used to make dye, Europe may never have produced the rich red pigments we have today. Stuff like this motivates me to keep exploring, but to approach such creative possibilities from a point of collaboration, not exploitation.  



Appreciation vs. Appropriation

The two main threads that run through my work, my thoughts and my life in general are arts and travel.

In my opinion there are hundreds of reasons that make travel one of the best ways to spend your time and money, but for me the main draw is the possibility of understanding another culture. I want to learn about ancient cultures and the people who inhabit them. I’m fascinated by the development of art and art objects in remote cultures, including their functions and symbolic meanings.

I cast a wide net in terms of the work I choose to research and explore. I’m interested in the universal human impulse to create, which is why I feel the need to explore art practices outside of my own narrow, European heritage. However, there’s a palpable sense that no one quite knows how to approach the topic of Indigenous/Tribal/Ethnographic/Native art - illustrated by the constant flitting between nomenclature, and a reluctance to clarify the genre in any strict terms.

Up until very recently, the set term for such art was ‘Primitive’, and encompassed an array of art objects from non-Western cultures ranging from African masks to Oceanic sculptures. Western artists capitalized on the ‘otherness’ of this art, appropriating its tendency to feature simplified and abstract motifs. Heavy hitters like Matisse and Picasso weaved this symbolism into their own work, and profited off the results. Of course the cultures and communities that pioneered these techniques did not get a cut of the profits, allowing them to sink deeper into what Brigid Delaney of The Guardian calls “a cycle of poverty and appropriation”.

When I think about this issue the one painting that always springs to mind without fail is Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’ (1907). Created during the artist’s troublingly-named ‘periode nègre’ (black, African or ‘Negro’ period) that lasted from 1907 to 1909, the piece combines traditional Cubism with the elongated faces, geometric noses and boat-shaped eyes frequently used in African mask-making.

Extrapolated out of the context in which they were traditionally used (African masks are regularly commissioned to honour relatives, used to connect with the spirit realm and included in burial ceremonies), it’s probably fair to assume that the representations were used purely for visual effect.

Laurence Madeline, curator at Musée Picasso, says that “Picasso never copied African art”, but I completely disagree.

What Picasso - and other artists like Matisse and Modigliani - did was essentially pick out the attractive parts of African art and plop them into their own work which was deeply rooted in European history and culture. Aside from a few vague references to Picasso’s interest in the spiritual and supernatural aspects of African art, I’ve struggled to locate any evidence to suggest that he took a deep and respectful interest in the work.

This is also a perfect example of ‘Primitive’ art being viewed as ‘other’, a sort-of novelty rather than a part of artistic discourse. It’s as if indigenous techniques and motifs were paraded on a conveyor belt for Western artists to choose from and use as they wished, with no intention of establishing a rapport with the people who made them or discussing techniques on an artist-to-artist basis.

'Lola de Valence' Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, Livorno 1884–1920 Paris), Lola de Valence, 1915, Oil on Paper, Mounted on Wood | © The Met Museum Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

African Moon Mask, ca. 1880, Wood  | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

Indigenous art has always captivated me, and I imagine it will continue to do so for as long as I’m a part of the art world, yet I cringe at the thought of being viewed as having a colonial mindset - interested in the art of these cultures for its strangeness, rather than artistic merit.

As I research the topic further I hope to establish a way of discussing Indigenous arts in a way that’s not overtly Western in its perspective (i.e evaluating work based on aesthetic appearance without taking into account functionality). I also hope to look at indigenous artists working today, to consider how their work fits into the current global art market.


Sources / Further Reading:

Stout, D.B. (1971). Aesthetics in “Primitive Societies” in C.F Jopling (ed.) Art and Aesthetics in Primitive Societies, New York: E.P Dutton & Co., Inc. 30-35

Muensterberger, W. (1971). Some Elements of Artistic Creativity Among Primitive Peoples in C.F Jopling (ed.) Art and Aesthetics in Primitive Societies, New York: E.P Dutton & Co., Inc. 3-11

Mattos, C. (2014). WHITHER ART HISTORY?: Geography, Art Theory and New Perspectives for An Inclusive Art History, The Art Bulletin, 96, 259-264

Clarke, C. (2006). The Art of Africa: A Resource for Educators, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.