Twenty bucks is a lot to shell out to see an art show, but The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt is worth every penny. The touring mega-exhibition, now at Portland Art Museum, offers a portal into a civilization breathtakingly alien to contemporary eyes. The show kicked off in early November with perhaps the best opening shindig PAM has ever thrown: candle-bedecked palm trees in the Kridel Ballroom, bellydancers and fog machines and bartenders siphoning cocktails through ice sculptures shaped like the Sphinx of Giza. The show itself opens with the colossal head of the pharaoh Ramesses II, who reigned in the 13th century B.C. Close by is the sarcophagus lid of Nitocris, the first known regnant queen in world history. The queen is depicted lying in state, arms crossed, each hand bearing an ankh. Many of the sculptures here are carved in granodiorite and red granite, imparting a stony stoicism that befits the figures' stylized postures. There's plenty of bling to be found, too: the funerary mask of Wenudjebauendjed, gleaming in solid gold and bejeweled inlay; a gold-and-lapis necklace for Princess Khnumet; the golden fan used to cool Queen Ahhotep; and elaborate funerary attire set with precious stones from Libya, Nubia and far-away Afghanistan.
One of the show's highlights is a life-size recreation of the tomb of Thutmose III, a hushed space filled with sphinxes, leopards and hieroglyphics. Throughout the show, you're confronted by bizarre talismans: human-lion hybrids, falcon-headed crocodiles, gods and goddesses in the form of baboons, cats and scarabs. But there are also images enduringly human: a child's chair made from gilded wood; a pair of golden sandals; sheaths for mummies' brittle toes and fingers; and a sculptural portrait of Sennefer, mayor of Thebes under Amenhotep II, and his wife, Sentnay. The couple have their arms around one another and are flanked by their two daughters, who are smelling lotus flowers. These were rulers who became gods who became objets d'art, which became artifacts. It's refreshing to be reminded that they started out as flesh and blood. Rare is the art that conveys humanity while commanding absolute respect. The treasures in The Quest for Immortality manage this feat and much more.
NOTE: This story was originally published on 12/1/2006
1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. Closes March 4. $9 children, $10 members, $20 non-members.