So, what’s the point if you live in London and can’t do something cultural every once in a while. I don’t know what really prompted me to go exploring on a cold Friday evening, instead of curling up on my couch with a cup of tea. Maybe, the fact that the British museum is just 20 minutes from home and I’d never set foot was reason enough. Within 5 minutes of entering the museum, I was already inspired to sign up for the annual membership. It just felt like buying a cheap air ticket. Free trip to different continents and civilizations, even though its all inside a museum.
Walking around, the first thing that strikes you is the vast central hall. Can’t really put it in words but it felt absolutely theatrical or dramatic. Like a story would unfold in front of your eyes any second.
As much as I wanted to go and see the Rosetta Stone, I decided to save it for another day when I had tons of time. For those of you who are wondering why the language training software is named Rosetta stone, it’s not named after a fat lady who speaks all the languages of the world. The Rosetta Stone is one of the most important historical finds that has been housed at the British Museum since 1802. The stone bore decrees inscribed in 3 scripts (hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek) and has been key to decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics. For any linguist or aspiring linguist, this is the Mecca.
With just about 2 hours in hand (guess what! the museum stays open until 20:30 Fridays), I decided to go and check out the two exhibitions Time out was raving about all these days.The first one was on the Hajj, the journey to the heart of Islam.
Year before last, one of my colleagues had undertaken the Hajj and I remember the preparation he went through and the life changing experience it was for him. Well, I took his word for it. But, I could feel it just through the way he spoke about it. That made me very very curious about the Hajj. I guess many people look at it just from the religious perspective – something every one of the 1.6 billion muslims around the world dream of going to. A once in a lifetime journey.
The exhibition showcased the work of contemporary artists who have attempted to bring to life this amazing journey to a non-Muslim audience. What was stunning was the journey that people took from different continents to reach Mecca and Medina and the simple principles that they try to live by during this time. It’s like going back to the basics.
One of the Islamic rituals of the pilgrimage is called the Tawaf. During the Hajj, Muslims walk around the Kaaba seven times, in a counterclockwise direction. The circling is believed to demonstrate the unity of the believers in the worship of the One God, as they move in harmony together around the Kaaba, while supplicating to Allah. The Kaaba is a huge black cube shaped structure and is the most sacred Islamic site. All Muslims around the world face the Kaaba during, no matter where they are. This circulation of the Kaaba is something that visually looks stunning in any video or photograph, like the one below. Can you imagine the energy there?
This has inspired many artists to create their tribute and that’s what stood out for me in the entire exhibition. One work of art by Ahmed Mater is 1000 little magnets bending towards a cube, symbolifying the attraction or the pull this divine structure has. Pilgrims who wait their whole life to reach this place feel this unexplainable pull I guess.
Funnily, the second exhibit at the British Museum was by Grayson Perry, a famous British artist known for his ceramic vases and cross dressing. He had spent two years almost creating this exhibition which was inspired by various works within the museum and contemporary life. He admits that he has traveled the world mostly through the British Museum. Grayson’s funny modern sculptures and ceramic vases would have charmed a history buff as much as it would have amused the average passerby.
I remember one vase talk about religion and how it may be difficult for a new God to establish himself without a Facebook profile. Another vase was dedicated to his really old childhood teddy bear Alan Measles. He relates it to Egyptian civilization and states that Alan, had he existed then, would have been a good friend of Bes, the Egyptian deity who was considered the protector of everything good and the enemy of everything bad. Just grayson’s imaginatiin makes you chuckle. (Check out his bike with Alan’s seat below)
Another one was a curious odd Japanese hand towel, which had two hello kitty characters (modern cartoons) dressed as pilgrims from the ninth century (ancient ritual), an image found these days in women’s handbags. To Grayson, this embodied the spirit of the exhibition. The past and the present and the future all together. I noted down what he had to say about the exhibit and here it is –
Do not look too hard for meaning here. I am not a historian. I am an artist. That is all you need to know. When I was young I had an imaginary civilization. I became an artist and my civilization traded with the world and all its history. Now I am not sure where my imagination stops and where the works world starts. Deep in the mountains of my mind there is a sacred place where there is a monument to skill. The tomb of the unknown craftsman Is just as real as everything in this museum. The ideas and beliefs behind it are real. You are the pilgrims. Reality can be new as well as old, poetic as well as factual and funny as well as grim. The tomb could be another name for the british museum itself.
I guess you are wondering why I put the Hajj and the Grayson Perry exhibit both together in this one post. Interesting enough, the Hajj is a pilgrimage undertaken once in a lifetime and Grayson perry’s exhibition is one where you see that you are pilgrim of everyday life.