Two hidden ancient cultures revealed

As political barriers soften and technology unites the world in one big conversation, it's not surprising to see national cultural treasures becoming today's language of exchange.

Two exhibits full of works never before seen outside their native countries, and currently showing in the greater Los Angeles area, are good examples: Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) through June 4, and Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendors from China's Imperial Palace, at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, Calif., until Sept. 3.

"These truly spectacular objects have never been exhibited before," says Nancy Thomas, LACMA deputy director of curatorial affairs and curator of Ancient and Islamic Art. She adds that they bring together the entire story of this pivotal period in Egyptian history (1353 BC to 1336 BC), when Akhenaten ascended to the throne at the height of Egypt's political power.

Before his reign, artistic representations of people were highly stylized, stiff, and unlifelike. During his 17-year rule, a determined naturalism and lifelike fluidity began to show up in everything from sculpture to the canopic jar lids associated with mummification.

"He completely revamped religion and government," says Dr. Thomas, relocating the seat of government to a previously uninhabited desert plain, where he built the city of Amarna. After his reign, says Thomas, Egyptian art was permanently changed. This exhibit represents the largest reassembly of objects from this period since the city was abandoned some 3,500 years ago.

Assembling these exhibits is a story unto itself, whether about ancient Egypt or ancient China. "What would've taken, in a previous generation, a lifetime to make happen, because of the ease of communication and travel, it can be done in a much, much shorter time," says Bowers president, Peter Keller, of the "Forbidden City" exhibit. Increased cultural exchange is a natural result of a desire and ability to communicate more openly.

This show has a role to play in Los Angeles, he says, which has a large Asian community. "Today, we can get a greater understanding of these cultures.... One of the things I've found is how Eurocentric many people can be," Dr. Keller says. "They don't realize how sophisticated the Chinese are."

Exhibit objects range from the complete contents of the Imperial Throne room, including court robes and ceremonial armor, to the fragile cricket cage, musical box, and bicycle that were prized possessions of the last emperor, Pu Yi (1906-67) - a man made famous in Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-winning film, "The Last Emperor."

"We haven't known that much about China or Asia in general," Keller says. "With the world becoming a much smaller place and transportation becoming so much easier, people are quickly gaining a tremendous interest in China, and they're certainly appreciating how important this art is and where it fits into the greater scheme."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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