Since April 2005, we, at the Research Institute for Languages and Culture of Asia and Africa, have worked on the “Research and Education Project for Middle East and Islamic Studies” project for five years with the Ministry of Education’s Special Account Budget for Education and Research. For this project, we promote, organically connect, and concurrently operate highly advanced research programs, educational programs, and social service programs that concern political, social, and cultural issues of the Islamic world, focusing on the Middle East. One of our aims of this project is to make the history and culture of these regions widely available to the public.
The exhibition entitled “Fertile Nile Valley: Prisse d'Avennes's Lithographs of the Characters, the Costumes, and the Modes of Life” is our second exhibition, after “Splendid Afghanistan 1848: James Rattray's Lithographs of the Costumes and the Scenery” held three years ago, and shall serve as a closing event for our work of the past five years. When one thinks of Egypt, one tends to be distracted by the heritage of the ancient civilization, represented by various colossal structures such as the pyramids. However, in the early 19th century, Egypt was a country that embraced modernization and westernization, i.e., a half century earlier than Japan's Meiji Restoration. At the same time, Egypt had also retained rich traditional manners and customs. This exhibition features 30 chromolithographs based on the sketches of French Egyptologist Émille Prisse d'Avennes when he visited the Nile valley during this period, including Ethiopia. In Japan, our research institute is the only body that possesses these lithographs. The original lithographs were published in 1848, together with the long commentaries. These pieces are globally valued, and shall be exhibited in Japan for the first time. The exhibited printings are high-precision reproductions, but the results of the fine and careful digital restoration are beautifully crafted and appear closer to the original lithographs published 160 years ago.
It is well-known that Egypt has instigated the curiosity of Europeans for a long time, to say nothing of Napoleon Bonaparte who occupied Egypt in 1798. After studying architecture at the French Royal School of Arts and Crafts, Prisse d'Avennes, the artist of this exhibition's lithographs, traveled to Egypt when he was just 20 years old. He was not only proficient in the Arabian language and able to communicate directly with the local people but had also completely adopted the living style of the local community by dressing like a Muslim and naming himself as Idrīs Efendī. Being an architect, he could accurately sketch ruins' reliefs and hieroglyphs; owing to his strong interest in Egypt's manners and customs and his architectural skills, he was able to create such exemplary sketches.
Naturally, it cannot be denied that his artwork was influenced by the orientalism of Europeans in those days. Even so, his portraits of the people residing in the Nile valley reveal the existence of a rich cultural tradition in Egypt and Ethiopia, beyond the heritage of the ancient civilizations.
This exhibition was held to make the research results of the Research Institute for Language and Cultures of Asia and Africa widely available to public, and to acquire people’s understanding and support. We sincerely expect your honest opinions and comments.
Hirohide Kurihara, Director of the Research Institute for Language and Cultures of Asia and Africa
Yoichi Takamatsu & Masato Iizuka, exhibition managers
24 March 2010