One speech was heard from him showing a spirit not utterly degraded, when to the insults of a tribune he answered, “Yet I was your Emperor.” Then he fell under a shower of blows, and the mob reviled the dead man with the same heartlessness with which they had flattered him when he was alive.
‒ Tacitus on the overthrowing of Emperor Vitellius
For as yourselves your empires fall, And every kingdom hath a grave.
‒William Habington, from Nox Nocti Indicat Scientiam
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
‒ Percy Bysshe Shelley
On the 11th of April as Britain persists with its tortuous attempts at Brexit, Barakat opens an exhibition that may also serve as a pointed memento mori.
Drawing on the immense Barakat Collection of ancient art, ‘Bygone Empires’ assembles an extraordinary group of twelve objects – some grand, some modest – from vanished empires, sometimes revealing uncanny and unexpected refractions of political power, hubris and the fate of civilisations. Curated by the gallery’s new directors Janis Lejins and Isobel Lister, the show aims to rediscover, re-engage and reactivate Barakat’s diverse collection of ancient art for new audiences, young and old.
The star of the show is an alabaster bust of what is thought to be Gudea, ruler of Lagash. One of the earliest portraits in human history (c. 2144–2124 BCE). Gudea is one of the first rulers in the world to deal with climate change, when his Mesopotamian city state was grappling with the dire socio-economic effects of a protracted drought and over-farming their land in the Fertile Crescent. Other highlights of the show include a portrait bust of the ill-fated Roman emperor Vitellius (first century CE), a monumental head of a Chinese bureaucrat from the Tang Dynasty (619-907 CE), and a Bactrian axe head (1200 – 900 BCE) used by warriors in the region now known as Afghanistan and Pakistan. The most recent object in the show is a stone sculpture from the Taino (c. 1500 CE), an essentially vanished indigenous people of the Caribbean, 619-907 CE encountered by Columbus and decimated by Western colonisation and disease within a generation.
The show officially opens exactly (to the day) 1401 years since the death of Emperor Yang of Sui and the fall of the Sui Dynasty in China. Emperor Yang is generally considered by historians to be one of the worst tyrants in Chinese history and the reason for the Sui Dynasty’s relatively short rule (581-618 CE). The emperor’s hubristic and repeated failed military campaigns, coupled with increased taxation to finance these wars, caused civil unrest and ultimately led to the downfall of the dynasty.
As Barakat Gallery Directors Janis Lejins and Isobel Lister comment:
We are two 27-year-olds who think the new generation of art dealers should be looking at our time and how art of different periods connects to it. On 11 April – the day before the UK is scheduled to leave the EU – we are witnessing what are arguably the death throes of the British Empire, and we see the work in this exhibition as relevant to our present moment. Whether in antiquity or today, art has always been political. We are displaying pieces that portray the end of empire, the first ruler in history to deal with climate change, good and bad government, fallen heroes and utter tyrants. These pieces are able to speak to us across time and are activated by an appreciation of their nuanced contexts.