Living With Gods

Rachel Wood shares thoughts on the opening of ‘Living with gods: people, places, and worlds beyond‘ at The British Museum.

Last night I was delighted to attend the opening night of ‘Living with gods’, the bold new exhibition at The British Museum. The curators have collected a staggering ethnographic array of material from a wide range of cultures and religious traditions, and every object is presented clearly, accessibly, while intriguing and informing the viewer. I would challenge anyone not to learn something new from, or not to be moved by, this fascinating collection of artefacts.

Highlights are many. Delicate but designed for travel, an intricately carved pocket-sized 16th-century ivory and gold compass and sundial from Ottoman Constantinople provides the informed user with the qibla, pointing them in the direction of Mecca. Prayer beads used in Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim practice, whether a plain medieval wooden string, or emeralds from Tiffany’s. A Chinese ‘wonder toad’. Coming from working on Imagining the Divine, I was struck by a familiar notion that always bears repeating – the predominance of elements in the presentation of ritual that often don’t survive from the material record of the first millennium: cloth, straw, wood, wax. In celebration of a Late Antique event – the Emperor Constantine’s mother, St Helena, discovering the True Cross in the 4th century – Ethiopian bronze processional crosses are ‘dressed’, draped in soft white cloth, for the festival of Meskel.

qibla
Qibla indicator – compass and sundial in ivory and gold, Constantinople, 1582-3. BM 1921,0625.1. Image © Trustees of The British Museum

Diaphanous partitions of white cotton separate shared themes of humans’ attempts to connect with something beyond themselves, something transcendental; whether manifested in prayer, sacrifice, festival, the elements, or reacting to persecution. Highly personal objects from the fuss and mess of life are presented in an immaculate, polished presentation. As much as the exhibition narrates the story of communities’ need for religion throughout the ages, the ephemeral nature of human struggle is acute. Poignantly ending with Francesco Tuccio’s Lampedusa Cross (2015) and Issam Kourbaj’s Dark Water, Burning World and Lost – two Syrian children’s shirts dipped in plaster, hanging as if from a washing line but never to be worn again, reading in Arabic and Greek: ‘Unknown Girl, 3 months’ and ‘Unknown Boy, 6 months’. As you leave, the projected silhouette of the 40,000-year-old Lion Man, who marks the beginning of the exhibition, is a haunting reminder of the longevity of this story.

dark water
Detail of Dark Water, Burning World, Issam Kourbaj 2017 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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