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Donkey Frieze from Egypt

Donkey Frieze from Egypt


A couple pending matters before getting along to new business; thus, before too much more time goes by, my adventures in Hull, England, in which it turned out that donkeys were very important. Incredibly before last fall, I had never been to England, let alone Yorkshire…*

When I first became aware of Botschaften an den Prinzen Jussuf, the story around which I originally intended to discuss at the University of Hull’s Visions of Egypt: History and Culture from the 19th Century to the Present conference, my immediate reactions was, “Wow…So Sylvester!” I’m sure you are aware of who Sylvester is but, as a reminder, before Boy George, before Lady Gaga, there was Sylvester.

In addition to being an amazing soul and HiNRG dance music recording artist, Sylvester was known for hanging out in San Francisco dressed in amazing costumes, including his trademark pharaoh outfit. One of the only two times I snuck underagedly into a nightclub with a fake ID (the other time was to see the Thompson Twins) was to see Sylvester at El Goya.

So. Visions of Egypt was a conference mostly attended by actual Egyptologists, not art historians, and thus there was a lot of humor and pop-culture-referencing in many of the presentations so I think Sylvester would have been well-received. However owing to the great enthusiasm for donkeys expressed by insurgent quadruped fans, I did not get to work in any sort of reference to Sylvester in my presentation.

The talks were mostly interesting – I only say mostly since I could not hear them all, as there were concurrent sessions each day – and some were amazing, both in the creativity of deriving the subject and the supporting research, and in the delivery of complex histories in short (20 minutes) formats (please click through to the program to see how the conference subject was developed). My favorites were probably The Phoenix and the Patriarch: A Story in the Making by Sahar El Mougy from Cairo University, who brought the freshly experienced danger and delight of participating in protests; and Sam Bowker‘s talk, Tentmakers and Tourists: The Re-Orientation of Khayamiya.

Bowker’s research is about (among other things) the traditional and contemporary themes that show up in fabric crafts marketed as “airport art” which are in fact often quite skilful and original weavings. I was particularly surprised, but I think everyone was enchanted to discover, that laterally-figured donkeys are the frequent characters in these tapestries. In fact the audience of about 30 people were as thrilled by pictures of animals as I’ve ever seen people get.

This should have clued me for my own talk the following day. However I had actually only intended to use Franz Marc’s Eselfries (1911) and the frieze belonging to Reinhard Piper upon which Marc had based the painting and a few sketches as a sort of entry into Marc’s fondness for Egyptian animal motifs. What happened was, though, the second I showed the slides you see here of the donkeys, was that about a little more than half my audience (not like a thousand people but still) immediately whipped out cameras – iPhones and Nokias but also digital SLRs and one video camera – and began taking photos and making videos of the projected images, and me. I was astounded but continued speaking for the equivalent of a few more paragraphs, but when I advanced the slides, someone immediately asked, “Can you go back to the donkeys?” I freestyled for about 30 seconds about Eselfries, but quickly realized that people who were previously unfamiliar with the painting were oohing and aahhing over it, which is actually a very fine reaction, so I just stood aside for a minute. Then the moderator, who I had asked to remind me of the time so I could allow for questions, held up the yellow light. I could see that like in Perfume: The Story of Murderer people were too overcome by l’eau d’âne to countenance any meaningful discussion of Else Lasker-Schüler so, even though I had not spoken that much, I asked, “Um, are there any questions?”
Hands shot up. “Can you send me a file containing all of your donkey research images?” “Why are they donkeys purple?” and “Do you have any more pictures of donkeys?” Um, I do, have a photo of someone, actually the artist, riding a donkey, but on my iPhone…” Immediately people clambered down from the amphitheatre seats and crowded around to see a tiny image of Franz Marc on Athos in 1906 (I did not have the heart to bring up that I also have a photo of August Macke on a donkey during a trip to Tunisia in 1914). “That person is too tall for that donkey!” “I don’t think it was his normal mode of transportation…” “That’s why they call it the Blue Rider!” – You see why I was thinking of Perfume..!  Meanwhile, the person with the video camera, who I learned was Jean-Marcel Humbert from the Sorbonne, was standing on a chair to continue to document the carnage.
Finally, after acquiring a fistful of email addresses written on crumpled scraps of conference programs and cocktail napkins from the open wine bar the night before, the crowd dissipated slightly, enough for M. Humbert to call out, “Vous devez venir à Paris. Je suis sûr que les gens à la Sorbonne étudient ce type de l’histoire de l’art!”
At this point the tattered film strip came loose from the sprockets of my mind. What if I didn’t speak French? Hadn’t I just said in the 11 seconds of actual academic data I managed to spew that someone at the Sorbonne, like, really knew a lot about this subject? Was I confused about where/what the Sorbonne was? Somehow I managed to answer that I was pretty sure this scholar at the Sorbonne actually had the situation under control.
“Vraiment? Qui est-ce? Je ne sais pas ce que c’est!”
I again demurred, saying that I was sure it was such a huge place (the Sorbonne and Paris I mean) that perhaps…I don’t know. I managed to give the vaguely Gaullic shrug I have been giving all my life under these circumstances. Meanwhile I was becoming fairly convinced that I had hallucinated the entire scholar in question, where she was from, everything (actually not but, still). Somewhere a video of all this exists.
Finally, I was alone, or so I thought, and went to grab my flash drive from the University of Hull’s computer. Remaining in the auditorium was a person originating from a German university (hint: program) whom I have found to be, um, somewhat taciturn. I was nonetheless glad h/she had remained. I couldn’t bring myself to ask, “Well, what did you think?” which wouldn’t have been a very Teutonacademic thing to do anyway, and I didn’t have to, because said individual offered as a non sequitur, “Du hast einen südlichen Akzent.”
The next session had already begun by the time I finally packed up my stuff, so I just sat in the lobby of the University of Hull history building and drank some orange juice left over from breakfast. Not right that moment, and not because of the unexpected outcome, but I decided to take a break from the relentless conference presenting I had been doing. I realized that the reason for the campaign – that I was not getting any sort of encouragement or affirmation for my research and thus had to take my message afield – no longer existed. I was actually OK, and even had people “at home” to talk with about Franz Marc. I thought about some different avenues to bring attention to Marc’s life and work. I do not actually enjoy public speaking and wanted to go back to just listening to people talk about their research at conferences without speaking anxiety in part of my mind. Never say never, though.

Eselfries, 1911, Franz Marc

Eselfries, 1911, Franz Marc