Images for eternity

Icons of kemet

How can I write a typical artist's biography? I was born in such-and-such a place. I went to this school, then that school...studied drawing, painting under so-and-so. I am inspired by this artist, that artist, and my style is thus and such...and so on and so forth. How typical, how abysmally typical. I would rather tell you that instead of being born in a certain time and place I was born to art in a time before time. My earliest memories are of a great oil canvas that hung in a massive wooden frame above the mustard yellow couch in our living room. This was a haunting and melodramatic painting my father had accomplished before I was born. A sombre crowd of fabric-draped mourners gathered around a woman whose grief the portrait never explained. Something about this canvas worked its way beneath my skin, stabbing and provoking me to demand painting lessons from the man who had painted it.

I began painting at the age of six, beginning with studies depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ. My first sources of artistic inspiration were traditional Christian icons, and the works of Old World masters who had used the pathos of Christ's martyrdom as the vehicle for producing their masterpieces. I was compelled by the force resident in these icons, principally because icons use symbols that possess intrinsic layers of meaning to the viewer. They have the power to awaken dark emotions and inspire faith simultaneously. Death and resurrection. Darkness and light. Awesome pain succeeded by profound ecstasy. To my child's mind (a mind just beginning to think like a working artist), only an icon could encapsulate such conflicting qualities harmoniously. The iconography surrounding Christ's bloody death became an inexhaustible obsession as my father taught me anatomy, proportion, scale, color mixing, foreshortening, shadow, and the sometimes painful process of transforming a blank canvas into a story, using line and color instead of words.

At this same age I discovered a deep obsession with another source of potent religious iconography, the civilization of ancient Egypt. My first brush with the captivating magic of this antique culture was a photograph of the innermost solid gold coffin of Tutankhamun, an object that by itself sums up the ever-pervasive goal of ancient Egyptian society: to live forever. My quest at the age of six became an unusual obsession for one so young; to understand why the Egyptians seemed to be utterly preoccupied with death and its process. What was mummification? What was life after death...the Afterlife, the Underworld? How did the Egyptians believe they would get there? More importantly, how could we get there today? Death, mummification and the Afterlife became subjects of increasing importance to me, so much so that my parents expressed concern for what they regarded as a morbid fascination for a six (then seven, eight, nine...) year-old. While my grade school playmates were reading Marvel comic books, I was teaching myself to read the Egyptian Book of the Dead in its original hieroglyphic script. This I accomplished before I hit puberty, becoming fluent in the ancient Egyptian language and a budding specialist of Egyptian religious texts, art and funerary culture.

The supreme quality of ancient Egyptian art is its timelessness. When we see an Egyptian statue, a mummy, the colossal wreck of a temple, we are gazing at survivors of death and history. We are experiencing the phenomenon of transcending time and mortality. Immortality? If it exists, then the Egyptians discovered it and achieved their fondest ambition. For how much will remain of our bodies, our culture...our identity three millennia from now? What we are seeing when we stand in front of an Egyptian antiquity is a piece from another world that has withstood the test of time. The ancient Egyptians are still here with us, and it is through the vehicle of their art that we are permitted to make contact with them and gain some amount of access into their very minds. It is in order to achieve this type of access that I have spent almost my entire life, every single day, single-pointedly obsessed with the writings, sacred texts, art and monuments bequeathed by the ancient Egyptians to posterity.

My goal is and always has been to make contact with the very roots of what made the ancient Egyptian soul tick. In order to do that, it occurred to me (as a child of seven) that I should make inquiries to the horse's mouth itself. I should call upon the gods of ancient Egypt and ask them the essential meaning of death, the Afterlife, and how the Egyptian soul was transported to eternal life. Though I had been raised as a Christian, it was the religion of ancient Egypt that embraced me when I was old enough to begin forming my own opinions on matters of the Spirit.

Communion with Spirit is the underlying theme of all my artistic endeavors, regardless of medium. There is also the archaic (and some would say shopworn) conflict between light and darkness, life and death, pleasure and pain, chaos and order. In the religion of the ancient Egyptians, the essential balance of these often conflicting principles is called Ma'at, “the Truth”. However, to the Egyptian mind there cannot exist one without the other. Theirs was a world where duality and polarity held sway, where the harsh realities of life were clearly defined through the pairing of qualities manifesting in opposites. Each was regarded as vital. Each had its proper place in the established Order, or Ma'at of cosmic life and creation. Within each of my works I explore the duality framing the experience of life, giving equal space to day and night, heaven and earth, air and water, solar and lunar...Spirit and flesh. My work is a mingling and marriage of opposites, where neither principle cancels out the other, but each is given its own unique place in the hierarchy of sacred creation.

Painting has always been my refuge, my own form of meditation and worship. Far from being an escape, the themes I embrace and explore in each work compel me to inhabit the darkness and light contained within my personal journey into the Sacred. Though I am constructing theological themes using the signs and symbols of a most ancient culture, I am, in fact, connecting in the most intimate way with my own struggle to seek the Divine, achieve healing and spiritual restoration, and conquer the interior forces of chaos with which all human souls must eventually come to terms. This process began for me as a young boy seeking solace and deliverance from a criminally abusive father. The more darkness I faced outwardly, the more I struggled to find internal meaning- and illumination- in the world of icon painting. Initially, I found the Passion of Christ the ideal crucible defining the evolution from extreme suffering to ultimate liberation. This was soon replaced by the Egyptian salvation story of the god-king Ausir (or Osiris), the hero of myth who was brutally murdered and dismembered by his own brother, then resurrected from the dead by the magical passion of his wife Auset (or Isis). It was within the sacred myths of the Egyptian religion that I found the language of redemption that spoke immediately to my troubled soul.

My original mediums of choice were watercolor and egg tempera. Egg tempera has a fairly long history within the tradition of icon painting, being a stable and enduring medium that found popularity with the creators of Christian icons until after the advent of oil painting. I began experimenting with opaque gouache and watercolor in high school, opting to layer my paint heavily, creating thick, raised relief-like surfaces which translated Egyptian designs exceedingly well. This is a technique I continued to refine, until I arrived at the technique and style I have used for the works forming my Icons of Kemet series. My father began instructing me in the methods of oil painting when I was nine years-old, teaching me the methods of the Old World masters, and a profound appreciation for the luminosity, realism, and texture that could be achieved with this medium. I spent more than a decade studying the art of creating realistic portraits in oils, and continue to appreciate this medium above other mediums as a vehicle for arriving at convincing likenesses.

When I was still studying watercolor under the stern tutelage of my father, an exhibition of Indian miniatures was presented at the Museum of Art in Balboa Park, San Diego, and I remember my father taking my brother and I to see it.  Most young people wouldn't have given such things a second glance, however, I was entranced as I spent an hour poring over the jewel-like illustrations created by master artisans for a Mughal emperor's autobiography.

The Mughals were ruled by men who understood not only the power of artistic propaganda, but, more importantly, the power of magnificently executed propaganda.  Anyone who has seen a Mughal painting knows what I am talking about.  These little paintings are worlds within worlds of naturalistic details and energy, minute brushwork, gilding, and their own dynamism that leaps off the page.  Battle scenes and religious subjects were treated with unusual tenderness and attention to naturalistic detail, so much so that one sees a painting of Lord Krishna holding aloft Mount Govardhan and it seems quite a natural occurrence.  The beauty of the shading, highlights and coloration, together with the infinitesimal attention to details, convinces the eye that this is a historical event one is witnessing here on earth.  Mughal painters and their wealthy patrons were quite obsessed with nature and movement, and even more obsessed with documenting these things using the smallest scale and most precious materials.

When my eyes saw these dazzling little pictures shining up at me from beneath their protective glass, my heart whispered loudly I want to paint like that.  I want to paint like THAT!  From that time on I strove to improve my skills at drawing and watercolor so that I could arrive at that level of astonishing detail and naturalism...yet, somehow, achieve this through the iconographic traditions of the ancient Egyptian temperament, whose religious ideals I had adopted as my own.

"I always say that art is my religion, that painting is my ritual...that I pray with gold.  Welcome to the life of an iconographer, where a blank panel is a call to pour out devotion, and a palette of colors is a string of prayers held tightly by a heart on fire with the Divine.  Iconography is the ancient art of crafting sacred images, and it is the task of the iconographer to connect the viewer directly to the Divine.  We do this through a panoply of symbols and precious substances.  More profoundly, we send love letters to the Gods".

                            ~Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa

The Artistic life is creation