On the 11th of April as Britain persists with its tortuous attempts at Brexit, Barakat will open 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.
Barakat is owned by Fayez Barakat. Born in 1949 into an old farming family, Barakat was exposed to ancient art at a very young age. The family owned vineyards in the Hebron Hills in Palestine and villagers ploughing the fields would often unearth tombs. Rather than discarding the artefacts, as was often the case at the time, his grandfather preserved pieces and intermittently took some to the marketplace, along with the family’s produce, selling them to foreign tourists. Barakat, meanwhile, spent his formative years working alongside British archeologist Kathleen Kenyon, developing skills in the basic principles of field archeology, and he would later apply his passion to studying under renowned Middle Eastern scholars and archaeologists Nelson Glueck and William Dever.
His interest, in particular, was in ancient coinage, though he would become a fervent student of whatever new period of art took his interest. “For me to be able to connect to Emperor Constantine at the age of seven, after being told a coin I found was about 1,700 years old, simply blew my mind,” he says in a 2010 interview of finding his first coin, by accident, on the way to school. “I became 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.