Purdah – The Sacred Cloth by Arpita Shah @ Autograph ABP

‘I wear my headscarf as cultural signifier for who I am and what I believe.’

Arpita Shah was born in Ahmedabad, India in 1983. She is a photographic artist and educator based in Scotland. She spent the earlier part of her life living between India, Ireland and the Middle East before settling in the UK in 1992.

This migratory experience is reflected in her practice, which often focuses on the notion of home, belonging and shifting cultural identities.

This exhibition in the upstairs room at Autograph ABP in Shoreditch, contains thirteen large, crystal clear, digital portraits of women of Asian extraction wearing various forms of traditional headwear.

The exhibition is an exploration of the meaning of ‘purdah’. In Shah’s own words:

‘From the Persian word ‘پرده‎’ meaning ‘to curtain’, the term Purdah varies in use and meanings amongst particular South Asian cultures. It can refer literally to a piece of cloth, but is also used traditionally to signify the veiling, seclusion and privacy of women.

‘The women in these portraits represent a variety of cloths, which they wear day to day, during worship, or at particular religious occasions. Ranging from Sikh women in dastar and dupatta, to Hindu women in their sarees, Purdah also includes Muslim women wearing the niqab, abaya, and personal variations of the hijab.

‘These portraits attempt to shift the focus of the Purdah from the physical to the spiritual act of drawing open and closing the sacred cloths that each sitter chooses to embody. The work seeks to enrich our understanding of the practice of Purdah, and redress common misconceptions around the tradition of head covering and veiling, through representations of contemporary women who choose to practice its tradition.

‘Purdah slowly unfolds the complex and intimate relationships that these women have with their sacred cloths, offering us a glimpse into its varied uses and interpretations across diverse cultural and spiritual worlds.’

 

In the exhibition, each of the photos is accompanied by a quote giving the thoughts and feelings of the sitter about the type of headgear they are wearing. Oddly, neither on the ABP website nor on Shah’s own website a) are the photos given names or titles b) or the quotes matched to any of the women photographed. On her own website they float free of any source:

The photographs are stunningly precise and clear, but I didn’t get a clear sense of the traditions of each different type of headgear – Hindi, Muslim, Sikh etc – because they were mentioned in just a sentence or two, next to a quote from each sitter which are generally not very factual so that there wasn’t really enough  information to get a grip on, and process.

For example, a woman is quoted as saying:

‘My chunni is a way of protecting my grace, integrity and being more respectful to my faith and God.’

Which I read and assimilated, but I still don’t know what a chunni is. In the same way that neither the ABP website or Shah’s own website name the women or indicate which one said what, there is also no information about the different types of headwear in the photos. I am as ignorant as I was beforehand about the precise nature of, and physical and religious differences between, the head-scarf, hijab, dastar, niqab, sari, chunni, dupatta, tuding, abaya, and so on. They remain as mysterious to me after seeing the exhibition, as they did before.

Instead I got just one ‘take-home message’ which is about the sheer variety of types of headwear which are available to Asian women and which, apparently, all come under the heading of purdah. Alongside the even simpler one which is – that Shah is a stunning portrait photographer.

The exhibition didn’t change my perception or understanding of Asian female headwear because there wasn’t enough information to understand and, as to perception, all the women quoted said they chose to wear the headwear that they are wearing, and wore it with pride – which I sort of expected them to say.

If I had an opinion on the subject of Asian women’s headwear before the exhibition, it remained unchanged by the exhibition itself, and is – Women can wear whatever they want, obvz. Don’t need my approval, your approval, anyone’s approval. That is meant to be part of what it is to live in a free society.

Installation view of Purdah - The Sacred Cloth by Arpita Shah

Installation view of Purdah – The Sacred Cloth by Arpita Shah


Related links

Reviews of other Autograph shows

Review of photography exhibitions

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean eastwards to the coast of India, where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offering hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established procedures for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and from the pope:

  • to destroy all Muslim bases and ships
  • to establish European forts at all convenient harbours
  • to bully all local rulers into proclaiming complete subservience to the King of Portugal
  • to build churches and convert the heathens to Christianity

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident, which epitomises the behaviour and attitudes of the invaders, was the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

The Portuguese sent their ships to conquer the Indian Ocean in large groups or ‘armadas’.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be the commercial agent representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Portuguese Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, but were themselves shot down by muskets and cannon from the Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

the honour code which, as Crowley emphasises, inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices nearby in the harbour. Cabral claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed by this theft, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the Calicut mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the Portuguese inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress. When it wasn’t forthcoming, Cabral seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, killing many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a slight cultural misunderstanding was liable to blow up, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It helps to understand the Portuguese approach a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings – John I (1481-1595) and Manuel I (1495-1521) – didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were still steeped in the aggressive anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative sets the tone by going back nearly a century before the Portuguese entered the Indian ocean, to describe the ‘crusade’ of an earlier generation when, in 1415, Portuguese crusaders attacked Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa. The Ceuta pirates had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations, and the Portuguese finally had enough, stormed and sacked it.

Having established the sense of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, Cowley leaps forward to the next significant moment, to when the Muslim Ottoman armies took Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims sent shocks waves throughout Christian Europe.

  • It made Christian kings, and their peoples, all over Europe feel threatened
  • It cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

In other words the fall of Constantinople provided a keen commercial incentive to navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with alternative ways of reaching the Spice Islands by sea. While in the 1490s Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund his idea of sailing west, around the world, to reach the Indies, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction – down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise around Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh.

Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times as much on the quaysides of Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut. But that was when they had been transhipped from warehouses in the ports of the Middle East. The conquest of Constantinople reduced the transhipment trade and led to a more aggressive attitude from Muslim traders, which badly hurt the commercial prosperity of Venice, in particular.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim of the explorers was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade. throughout the Middle Ages it had been widely believed that Christianity had been carried by the apostle James and others, deep into Africa, into Arabia, and even as far as India.

So there was a military element to the expeditions. Christian strategists thought that, if the explorers could make contact with the Christian communities which were believed to exist in faraway India, and were able to link up – then together they would be able to surround, the European armies attacking from the west, the newly awakened Indian Christian armies attacking from the East.

In other words, alongside the element of exploration, ran an aggressive continuation of the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of John and Manuel’s medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but their conquering mentality was backed up by the full force of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church.

The whole European apparatus of state power, religious intolerance, and the technology of war – metal armour and huge shipboard cannons – was brought to bear on the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut.

Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese who, if anything displeases them, proceed to hang their hostages from the yardarms, before dismembering them and returning their scattered body parts to their horrified relatives waiting on shore. This happens lots of times.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large Muslim ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had Marakkar stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors, in this telling, seem like the Nazis of their day.

Conquerors

So this is the story which Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts dotted along the west and east coasts of Africa, the west coast of India – before moving on to explore the East Indies – all the while pursuing this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

Conquerors is divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this to happen was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant that they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far south along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast altogether and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west out into big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction back east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. This immensely significant discovery was made in the 1460s.

That’s if things went well. Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful rounding of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Most drowned at sea.

All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa. But the ships went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it, and Crowley makes no further mention of it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the Venetian price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities sent spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about the Portuguese navigators, their new routes and discoveries. They also sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo, putting pressure on him to either take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey of Venetian spices from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Or both.

The sultan refused to do either. Venetian fury.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the eternally bickering nature of Europe – a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political rivals, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends. One such tale concerned a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, named ‘Prester John’.

When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind as he set off to round the Cape, and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, at the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and to locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia, who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded and outnumbered him.

Still, it is important to remember that the whole point of funding these expensive armadas into the Indian Ocean wasn’t primarily to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, in order to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

Crowley’s approach – more adventure than analysis

Crowley’s approach is popular and accessible. He prefers anecdote to analysis.

Thus the book’s prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor in Beijing in the early 1400s. This had been collected by the Chinese admiral Admiral Zheng He, who led one of the epic voyages which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean in the first decades of the 15th century. The flotillas were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim.

The Yongle emperor was succeeded in 1424 by the Hongxi emperor who decided the expeditions were a waste of time and so banned further ocean-going trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

One way of looking at it, is that the Hongxi emperor handed over the world to be colonised by European nations.

The point is Crowley gets into this important issue via an anecdote about a giraffe, and doesn’t really unpack it as much as he could.

A few pages later, the main text of the book opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483. It was one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting a chapter with an arresting image and dramatic scene. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career were only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once on Wikipedia, and reading about Henry the Navigator, I quickly discovered that ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’, because of the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

Crowley certainly has some pictures of caravels, and describes them a bit, but doesn’t really give us enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical.

To give another example, Crowley periodically namechecks the various popes who blessed the armadas and gave instructions as to the converting of the heathen and fighting the Unbeliever. He briefly mentions the famous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, whereby Pope Alexander VI brokered the deal deciding which parts of the New World would belong to the rivals Spain and Portugal. But there is nowhere any real analysis of the enormous role the popes and the Catholic Church played in the geopolitics behind all this exploring and conquering.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments: battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy is more seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander than from higher-level geopolitical imperatives.

The personal, not the wider geo-political situation, is what interests Crowley in Europe and Indian and Islamic politics.

Crowley’s style

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a popular thriller – fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, but not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, or the prose style of a modern historical romance.

Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that hos book would be best marketed as popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

He gives us gripping individual scenes, but not so many real insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the bloodthirsty visionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1415.

For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages by the score. By page 330 he had become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it the book was at one stage intended to be a biography of just him.

So the book ends with his death in 1515 but … the Portuguese Empire had only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be titled something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I. Maybe adding Manuel’s dates – 1495-1521 – would make it even clearer.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content.

The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and which is very far indeed from being the truth.


Related links

Living with gods @ the British Museum

There are two major exhibition spaces in the British Museum, the big Sainsbury Gallery at the back of the main court where they hold blockbuster shows like The Vikings or The Celts; and the more intimate semi-circular space up the stairs on the first floor of the central rotunda.

The setting

This latter location is where Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond is currently showing.

The space is divided into ‘rooms’ or sections by translucent white linen curtains, on which the shadows of exhibits and visitors are cast. At floor level hidden lights project shimmering patterns onto the wall. Low-key ambient noises – strange rustlings, breathings, the rattling of unknown instruments – fill the air.

All this sets the scene and creates a mood, because this is an exhibition not of religious beliefs, but of religious objects, designed to tell the story of the relationship between human beings and their gods, or – more abstractly – their sense of the supernatural, through rare and precious religious artefacts from around the world.

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo, 20th century This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy pople from initiation ceremonies for yound men. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo (20th century) This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy people from initiation ceremonies for young men © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Themes

The objects are grouped by ‘theme’, namely:

  • Light, water, fire
  • Sensing other worlds
  • Sacred places and spaces
  • Prayer
  • Festivals
  • The cycle of life
  • Sacrifice
  • Coexistence

There are brief wall labels introducing each theme. Personally, I found these rather weak and obvious but then it’s a tricky task to summarise humanity’s entire history and relationship with, say, Prayer, in just four sentences.

Very often these texts are forced to state pretty empty truisms. One tells us that ‘Water is essential to life, but also brings chaos and death’. OK.

Another that ‘Religions shape the way people perceive the world by engaging all their senses.’ Alright. Fine as far as they go, but not really that illuminating.

Wonder toad China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Wonder toad from China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Individual information

The labels of individual exhibits are more specific and so more interesting. But here again, because artefacts from different cultures, geographical locations, religions and periods are placed next to each other, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get any real sense of context.

It may well be that:

Seeing out the old year in Tibet requires a purifying dance or cham. These lively masked and costumed dances are performed by Buddhist monks to rid the world of evil and bring in compassion.

Or that:

On 31 October every year, Mexicans remember the dead by staying at the graves of loved ones through the night. Theatrical processions symbolise fears and fantasies of the world of the dead. Judas, who denounced Christ to the Roman authorities, is displayed as a devil. Judas figures are also paraded and exploded on Easter Saturday.

But by the time you’re reading the tenth or fifteenth such snippet of information, it’s gotten quite hard to contain or process all this information. The whole world of religious artefacts for all known human religions is, well… a big subject.

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

So the weaknesses of the exhibition are its lack:

  • of intellectual depth – none of the room labels tell you anything you didn’t already know about the importance of light or water in religious belief
  • and of conceptual coherence – just giving each section a ‘theme’ and a few explanatory sentences isn’t, in the end, enough

Best objects

On the plus side, Living with gods is a rich collection of fascinating, evocative and sometimes very beautiful objects from all round the world. Because they’re so varied – from prayer mats to medieval reliquaries, from the tunics which Muslim pilgrims to Mecca wear to Inuit figures made of fur, from a statue of Buddha to a wooden model of a Hindu chariot – there’s something for every taste.

I had two favourite moments. One was the display case of African masks. I love African tribal art, it has a finish, a completeness, and a tremendous pagan primitive power, combined with high skill at metal working, which I find thrilling.

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right)

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right) In the background is a painted model of a Hindu temple vehicle.

The other was a modern piece by Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj, called Dark Water, Burning World, a set of model boats made out of refashioned bicycle mudguards, filled with burnt-out matches, representing the refugee crisis. How simple. How elegant. How poignant. How effective.

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

I don’t quite understand how this latter is a religious artefact. It strikes me as being probably more a work of art than a religious object.

The show as a whole goes heavy on artefacts from the obvious world religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Daoism, Shintoism – as well as the ancient beliefs of the Persians, Assyrians and so on, plus sacred objects produced by non-literate tribal peoples such as the Yupik of Alaska or Siberian tribes. It is nothing if not global and all-encompassing.

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Static

Although the exhibition claims to ‘explore the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of individuals and communities around the world and through time’, it doesn’t.

Most religions are expressed by actions and rituals, dances, prayers, blessings, festivals, processions and so on. A moment’s reflection would suggest that the best way to convey this – in fact the only way to really convey these events and activities – would be through a series of films or videos.

Downstairs in the African galleries of the British Museum there are, for example, videos of tribal masks being worn by witch doctors and shamen performing dances, exorcisms and so on, which give a vivid (and terrifying) sense of how the head dresses, masks and implements are meant to be used in religious rituals, how they’re still being used to this day.

There is none of that here. Nothing moves. No words are spoken, in blessing or benediction. It is a gallimaufrey of static artefacts – all interesting, some very beautiful – but all hermetically sealed in their display cases. I found the lack of movement of any kind a little… antiseptic. Dry.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine, 1600–1700 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine (1600–1700) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

BBC radio series

The exhibition was planned to coincide with a series of 30 15-minute radio programmes made by BBC Radio 4 and presented by the former Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor scored a massive hit with his wonderful radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, broadcast in 2010. The 30 programmes in the Living with the gods series were broadcast in the autumn of 2017. Quite probably the best thing to do would have been to listen to the series and then come to look at the objects he mentioned. Or to have downloaded the programmes to a phone or Ipod and listened to them as you studied each object.

You can still listen to them free on the BBC website.

MacGregor is a star because he is so intelligent. Without any tricks or gimmicks he gets straight down to business, describing and explaining each of the objects and confidently placing them in the context of their times and places, within their systems of belief, and in the wider context of the development of the human mind and imagination. Just by listening to him you can feel yourself getting smarter.

I recommend episode 4, Here comes the sun, as one of the most awe-inspiring.

The radio programmes score over the actual exhibition because, at fifteen minutes per theme, there are many more words available in which to contextualise, explain and ponder meanings and implications, than the two or three sentences which is all the space the exhibition labels can provide.

The individual fire-related items are fairly interesting to look at in the exhibition. But MacGregor can weave an entire narrative together which links the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the worship of Ahura-Mazda in Sassanian Persia, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and the Flame of the Nation which burns beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

His words bring to life exhibits which I found remained stubbornly lifeless in this hushed and sterile environment.

Religious belief as tame anthropology, drained of threat

Above all I bridled a little at the touchy-feely, high mindedness of the show, with its tone of hushed reverence and for its equation of all religious into the same category of cute Antiques Roadshow curiosities.

The commentary goes long on human beings’ capacity for ‘symbolising our thoughts in stories and images’, on our capacity for ‘love and sorrow’, on how ‘powerful, mystical ideas govern personal lives as well as defining cultural identities and social bonds’, and so on.

The commentary wistfully wonders whether human beings, rather than being labelled Homo sapiens shouldn’t be recategorised as Homo religiosus. Here as at numerous points in the commentary, I think you are meant to heave a sensitive sigh. It all felt a bit like a creative writing workshop where everyone is respecting everyone else’s sensibilities.

None of this is exactly untrue but I felt it overlooks the way that, insofar as religious beliefs have been intrinsic to specific cultures and societies over the millennia, they have also been inextricably linked with power and conquest.

To put it simply:

  • human history has included a shocking number of religious wars and crusades
  • religious belief and practice in most places have reinforced hierarchies of control and power

Rather than Homo religiosus, an unillusioned knowledge of human history suggests that, if man is anything, he is Homo interfector.

There is ample evidence that religion provides a way for believers to control and manage their fear and anxiety of powers completely beyond their control, the primal events of birth and death, natural disasters, the rotation of the seasons, the vital necessity of animals to hunt and kill and crops to grow and eat.

Central to any psychological study of religion is the way it provides comfort against the terror of death, with its various promises of a happy afterlife; and also the role it plays in defining and policing our sexual drives. Finding answers to the imponderable problems of sex and death have been time-honoured functions of religious belief.

On a social level, religion hasn’t only been a way to control our fears and emotions – it also has a long track record as a means to channel internal emotions into externalised aggression. You can’t have a history of Christianity without taking into account the early internecine violence between sects and heretics, which broke out anew with the 150 years of Religious War following the Reformation; without taking into account its violent conquests of pagan Europe which only ground to a halt in the 13th century or recognising the crusades to the Holy Land, or admitting to the anti-Semitism which is built deep into Christianity’s DNA. For every Saint Francis who wrote songs to the birds there is a man like Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amalric who told his troops to massacre the entire population of Béziers in 1209, claiming that God would sort out the good from the bad. ‘Kill them all. God will know his own.’

The history of Islam  may well be a history of religious sages and philosophers, but it is also a history of military conquest. The Aztecs and the Incas practiced really horrifying human sacrifices. As did the Celts And bloodily so on.

My point is summarised by the great English poet, Geoffrey Hill, who wrote back in 1953:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

(Genesis by Geoffrey Hill)

‘There is no bloodless myth will hold’.

Christianity is represented here by processional crosses and rosary beads and a beautiful golden prayer book. The other religions are represented by similarly well-crafted and beautiful objects.

But my point is that Christianity is based on the story of a man who was tortured to death to please an angry God. Blood drips from his pierced hands and feet. The early theologian Tertullian wrote, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ Shiah Muslims flagellate themselves every Muḥarram (I watched them doing it in the mountains of Pakistan. The hotel owner told me to stay indoors in case one of the inflamed believers attacked me.) As I write some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes by Buddhist populations.

My point is that religion isn’t all uplifting sentiments and beautiful works of art.

Religion does not show us what we all share in common: that is a pious liberal wish. Much more often it is used to define and police difference, between genders, castes and races.

Religion is just as much about conquest and massacre. And I’m not particularly knocking religion; I’m saying that human beings are as much about massacre and murder as they are about poetry and painting. And that poetry, painting and exhibitions like this which lose sight of the intrinsic violence, the state sponsored pogroms and the religious massacres which are a key part of human history give a misleading – a deceptively gentle and reassuring – view of the world.

Tibetan New Year dance mask Tibet © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Tibetan New Year dance mask © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

I’m one of the few people I know who has read the entire Bible. Certain themes recur but not the kind of highbrow sentiments you might hope for. I was struck by the number of time it is written in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that:

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

There are many very beautiful and very interesting objects in this exhibition but I felt that they were presented in an atmosphere of bloodless, New Age, multicultural spirituality. Put bluntly: there wasn’t enough fear and blood.

Some videos

Promotional video

Exhibition tour


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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