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Living In a World of Symbols

With Adriano Bulla
Part 6

Adriano Bulla
There is a great attention to relief, thus actual three-dimensionality in your icons; does it have a specific meaning/ function?

Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
Of course it has meaning...meaning and function! Everything I do in my icons, every single detail has both magical and symbolic meaning, and is intended to be read on multiple levels simultaneously.

Firstly, three-dimensional quality brings the deity image up and out into our space, the viewer's space. Instead of being a flat image that stays down in its own space, my icons have characteristics that stand out, and because these are covered in real gold, they pick up the light and shine. This makes them more visible to the eye, which will then see them as aspects of the composition that ring with more importance. So, in 'Bast the Light-Bringer' one sees how the sun disk, cobras, Sistrum and ornaments of the Goddess stand out as gilded reliefs. The wings enfolding Her dress are also dominated by raised and gilded feather reliefs. These are some of the most significant elements in the composition, also the elements containing the most gold, which from a Kemetic sense, an iconographic sense, makes them the most magically active. Second, it's important to remember that my icons are not works of art in the contemporary sense of the word. They are sacred objects of magical import, containing the power of living gods. 

They are created for ritualistic purposes, for purposes of cult and temple. Once installed in a shrine, these icons are used as sacred tools to open up a window into the divine world, and they become lenses that place that world into clearer focus for worshipers.

In these regards, my icons are intended to be viewed in the temple setting, as part of an active practice of worship, offering and ritual. This means that 'Bast the Light-Bringer' will be viewed most often by candlelight, and through clouds of incense smoke. For that reason, the materials of real gold and iridescent pigments, and raised relief effects, become ways in which to heighten the experience of the deity's presence for the viewer. One sees this in Russian Orthodox and Byzantine icons, for example, where the heavy use of burnished gold and raised reliefs causes the sacred image to glow intensely, and to stand out as the light of candles passes over them.

Lastly, my icons, though not precisely the same materials and configuration as those created by the ancient Egyptians, are still a continuation of a very ancient tradition of representing the original gods of Egypt. In the temples, the images of the goddesses and gods placed on the walls were often cut into the stone as raised reliefs, bas-reliefs, which would have created subtle moving shadows and effects in the play of light over them. We have examples of bas-reliefs of deities on the outer walls of temples...the places common Egyptians had ready access to...and these images were sometimes inlaid with highly reflective materials in order to make them stand out in the sun, also to highlight their sacredness. That's precisely what I'm attempting to do in my own icons, to create deity images that pay homage to the old traditions these gods have always been a part of, to achieve the same kinds of effects the ancients used in their temple images.

Though I need to make certain changes, and I'm not simply copying historical images verbatim, my intention is always to honor the spirit of the ancient Egyptian expression of the Sacred, and in that way honor the netjeru, the original gods of Egypt.

Detail of "Hwt-Her (Hathor) Mistress of the Sky", an icon in progress, showing the raised relief surfaces

Adriano Bulla

 What would you say about the 'flatness' of Western Visual Arts for almost a millennium, till attention to relief was then re-discovered after the Impressionists?

Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
Well, I think this 'flatness', as you call it, has to do with the values or emphasis being placed on different forms of art by different societies at different times. Social values, in terms of what is artistically viable or in vogue, change from era to era. Just think about what Picasso did to modern art when he created Les Demoiselles d'Avingnon! With this one work Picasso invented Cubism or gave Cubism its first dramatic face. He was signaling a new system of values for art, making a departure from what he and his contemporaries thought of as outdated values. It was a tremendous shift in paradigms. Art would never be the same again. In terms of relief...and I'm assuming you mean raised relief, bas-relief...I can only infer that perhaps it fell out of favor or prominence because the technique is so massively time consuming, which means great expense as well. It requires specialized training and intense skill to execute bas-reliefs correctly, effectively, so artists moved away from the sculptural and focused on the two-dimensional. 

Perhaps there was no longer a need for the monumental, the kind of extravagant display that such reliefs make on public buildings, say.

Concerning my own work, I can say that the creation of the bas-relief components of my icons are the most demanding, time-consuming aspect of the work. I use a liquid gesso to build up reliefs in layers, complete with designs or details, and these are then sealed with shellac and gilded. Each of my icons has multiple areas requiring bas-reliefs and gilding, and this is precisely why my icons take so much time to produce. If not for these aspects, my production each year could be doubled. But then again, my aim as an iconographer is not to crank out works of art as quickly as make quantity my focus. It is quality, not quantity, that governs my work ethic and creative values. Each icon demands a certain number of hours to craft these jewel-like details, gilded reliefs and iridescent effects with delicate brushwork. I'm after the highest degree of refinement possible. In this way, I really consider myself a craftsman, instead of a painter.

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