One of the most popular exhibits at the Chicago Field Museum in the US is an Egyptian carving that many visitors believe looks like Michael Jackson.  The bust, which is actually of a woman, dates from sometime between 1550-1050 BC, a period that also encompasses the brief reign of 18th dynasty pharaoh King Tutankhamun (r. 1332-1323 BC).  But we’ll get to him later.

The interest in the Field Museum statue seems to have been sparked by a photo posted on Flickr in 2007.  Following Jackson’s death in June 2009, it became a focal point for grieving fans.  The statue is now in a glass case to protect it from the many visitors who want to kiss it. [1]

What would the King of Pop think of this case of mistaken identity?  Considering photographer Christophe Boulmé created an image of Jackson in profile resembling an obsidian statue of King Khafre (4th dynasty pharaoh) which was featured in the “HIStory” album booklet, [2] and another based on the gold funeral mask of Tutankhamun, I can’t imagine him being upset with being associated with another Egyptian artefact, albeit of the wrong gender.  (My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that he’d probably be amused.)

Egypt was one of the world’s first nation states.  Though usually thought of in its modern context as part of the Middle East, Michael Jackson quite accurately perceived of it as part of the continent of Africa and viewed its rich past as part of pan-African history. “King Tut, all those great civilizations – that is right there in Africa,” he said in his interview with the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 2005. “Egypt is in Africa!!! And they always try to separate the two, but Egypt is Africa!!!” [3]

Modern Egypt is, in fact, a nation that, geographically, is in both Africa and the Middle East (the latter being the portion located on the Sinai Peninsula, where it borders Israel).  But predating these political borders was the Nile, and the great civilisation that sprang up along its banks following the uniting of Upper and Lower Egypt under one monarch – the first of 30 dynasties of pharaohs – around 3100 BC.

“Egypt was ancient even to the ancients,” writes Professor Lionel Casson.  “It was viewed by Greeks and Romans of 2,000 years ago in somewhat the same way as ruins of Greece and Rome are viewed by modern man.” [4]

Modern man has long been enamoured of the vision of a glorious past when god-kings were buried in pyramids (Old Kingdom) and were sent into the afterlife surrounded by mountains of treasure such as was discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun (New Kingdom) – by which time the so-called “boy king” had been all but lost to history (Tutankhamun, although only 9 when he ascended to the throne, was 19 when he died – certainly a man by the standards of the time).

Artists, writers, decorators and filmmakers have all been inspired by the Egypt of antiquity.  This also seems to have been true of Michael Jackson, with the theme of ancient Egypt being used in his “Remember the Time” short film (1992).  In it, Jackson plays a mysterious magician who turns up at the pharaoh’s palace to relieve the queen of her boredom, and raises the ire of her husband.

This playful and evocative piece is nothing less than a classic Hollywood musical in miniature, as relevant to the historical ancient Egypt as the musical “Kismet” is to the historical Middle East.  One extra (whose role of a snake charmer was cut before being filmed) called it “a kind of Ebony magazine version of ancient Egypt”. [5]

“Remember the Time’s” imagery – including the pyramids of Giza, sphinx and busts of Ramesses II (a.k.a. Ramesses the Great c. 1303-1213 BC) and Queen Nefertiti (c. 1370-1330 BC) and its costume styles, allude to a variety of pharaonic periods which have been brought together in the short film.  It’s a “mash-up” in pop music parlance.

Iman, in the role of Nefertiti (as she is identified by director John Singleton in the behind the scenes footage) [6], does indeed look strikingly similar to the famous bust of Nefertiti (18th dynasty) now on display in the Neues Museum, Berlin. [7]  Eddie Murphy’s pharaoh is called Ramesses (19th dynasty), even though Ramesses and Nefertiti were not contemporaries, much less husband and wife.

Nefertiti was principal wife to the so-called heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, father of Tutankhamun.  Ramesses II’s most important royal wife was Nefertari (who died ca. 1255 BC), so the names of the queens are similar, but they lived at different times and were married to different pharaohs belonging to different dynasties.

“Remember the Time” is faux-history being employed to tell a story in a colourful and appealing way.  It is a piece of art intended to entertain and should not be viewed as an accurate reflection of history despite having some historical elements.  (See my earlier article “Precursors to Michael Jackson’s Egyptian Magician and other historical references in the ‘Remember the Time’ short film”.) [8]

In his book “King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson” Michael Bush recalls his employer showing him a museum-quality art book on Egyptian culture and remarking on the beauty of the jewellery, in particular the use of gold.  This was a month before Michael revealed he was working on a new short film with an Egyptian theme. [9]

Jackson’s “Remember the Time” costume, a combined modern and period-inspired outfit, owes its most striking feature, the 18-karat gold-plated gorgerine, to one worn by Yul Brynner in the role of Ramesses II in “The Ten Commandments”.  Michael sent a tape of the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille classic to his costumers, Michael Bush and his partner Dennis Tompkins, so they could see for themselves what he had in mind.  This may seem like art imitating art, but both are, in fact, based on actual jewellery specific to ancient Egypt.  A gorgerine is an assembly of metal discs worn on the chest, either over bare skin (as per Brynner) or over a shirt (as per Jackson), and attached at the back. [10]

But, according to French writer Gonzague Saint Bris, whose book “Au Paradis avec Michael Jackson” details his travels with Jackson in Africa in 1992, and much else, “Remember the Time” gives just a superficial indication of Michael’s deep curiosity for ancient Egypt, particularly for the period of the “Black Pharaohs” that preceded Assyrian domination of Egypt. [11]

Egypt and its southern neighbour Nubia had forged links of commerce through the exploitation of gold mines and the exchange of products since the time of the Egyptian Old Kingdom.  At times they fought each other, and when Egyptian rule became fractured, the Nubian Kingdom of Kush assumed control.  With the rule of the Kushite (Nubian) pharaohs [25th dynasty – r. 760-565 BC], Egyptian policy was profoundly affected for more than a century, allowing the rise in Sudan of a powerful kingdom.   It was this kingdom that fascinated Jackson.

Saint Bris had heard Jackson explain about the lost Kushite state of Kerma (Saint Bris admits never having heard of it at the time), an autonomous and powerful state on the borders of Egypt.  Jackson explained that it was a civilisation in its own right, influenced by its proximity to Egypt, but with its own identity “and the archaeologists consider it to be the first great kingdom of Africa, which was dominated by the five black pharaohs, who would even seize the land of the kings of Egypt…”

Saint Bris continues: “In January 2003, Michael Jackson’s intuition of a vanished realm found its materialization.  A Swiss archaeologist, Charles Bonnet, exhumed seven statues of pharaohs at the Kerma site in Sudan. These monumental works were sleeping three meters underground for two and a half millennia …”

Jackson’s mastery of the history of ancient Egypt impressed Saint Bris, who explains how the Nubian pharaonic dynasty finally succumbed to the Assyrians and kings of the Delta, who endeavoured to erase all traces of the black pharaohs, in particular by mutilation of their statues. But smashing statues is not enough to erase life, he concludes, and “the enigmatic Michael still has the last word: ‘All birth is the rebirth of an ancestor.’”

In addition to being well read on Egyptian history, Michael Jackson’s interest in the subject was reflected in his art collection.  One of his dearest friends was actress Elizabeth Taylor, who famously played the last of the Macedonian Greek rulers of Egypt, Cleopatra VII Philopator [51-30 BC], in the big screen epic “Cleopatra” 1963.  Whether or not this prompted Michael to buy the 6ft wide portrait of the dying queen by D. Pauvert, titled “Cleopatra’s Last Moments” (1892), we can probably only guess. [12]

Jackson’s artistic sensibilities may have also had a lot to do with his purchase of this work.  “I can look at a painting and lose myself,” he said in his autobiography “Moonwalk”.  “It pulls you in, all the pathos and drama. It communicates with you.” [13]

The Pauvert painting was part of a large collection of Jackson’s belongings that was intended for auction by Julien’s in April 2009.  Among the fine art and collectables, encompassing many periods and styles, was a replica Egyptian harp made of gold-painted fiberglass with the bust of a pharaoh at the front. [14]  Its design is based on some harps depicted in Egyptian art.

The auction was subsequently cancelled after Michael filed a lawsuit demanding return of certain items.  Following an exhibition of the collection that ran for two weeks, everything was returned to the singer and put back in storage.  In that case, the Pauvert painting (and the prop harp) should be among the countless objects (enough to fill five warehouses) held by the Michael Jackson Estate in trust for his children. [15]

Jackson was also reputedly keen to play Tutankhamen in a musical movie adaptation about the young pharaoh.  According to one anonymous blogger who claimed to work at Columbia in 1999, “Columbia is part of the Sony group, as you know, and Michael Jackson is signed to Sony Music. Michael Jackson agreed to do another album for Sony Music on the condition an agreement was made to allow him a pathway into the movie industry. Some kind of agreement was signed by Sony Music (Epic) and Columbia, for this to happen. Again I cannot confirm this. However, I am sure Michael Jackson is set to take the lead role.” [16]

While this was another project that didn’t eventuate, it seems to have remained close to Michael’s heart.  Following his passing in June 2009, a note was found in his rented Holmby Hills mansion that stated there should be “no AEG [deal] unless films are involved.”  As noted by author and academic Joseph Vogel, Jackson wrote about a plan to “develop…a movie a year for [the] next 5 years.”  He specifically emphasized a musical based on the life of King Tut. [17]

Given Jackson’s age at the time, it’s unlikely he would have expected to play the young king himself.  His ambitions for this project may have involved being behind the camera – e.g. writing, producing or possibly directing.  It remains one of the many tantalizing “what if’s” of Michael Jackson’s life that went unfulfilled.

It also tells us that, even at 50 years of age and after his career had been cruelly disrupted, Jackson’s passion for Tutankhamun remained undimmed.  Ancient Egypt had continued to inspire his creativity, as it has done many other artists for hundreds of years.

Kerry Hennigan
January 2018

Illustrations: “Dreaming of Egypt” photo montage compiled by Kerry Hennigan 2018.  No infringement of photographic copyright is intended in this not-for-profit educational exercise.

Sources:

[1] “Michael Jackson = Ancient Egyptian?” The Chicagoist, 2009 http://chicagoist.com/2009/08/05/michael_jackson_egyptian_mummy_vers.php

[2] “Christophe Boulmé” http://cartasparamichael.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/christophe-boulme.html accessed 9 Jan 2018

[3] “Jesse Jackson Interview (March 2005)” Full transcript: http://www.allmichaeljackson.com/interviews/jessejackson.html

[4] Lionel Casson and the Editors of Time-Life Books Ancient Egypt, Time Life Books 1966

[5] Peter Sagal “Thriller.  Me and Michael Jackson” New Republic https://newrepublic.com/article/118381/thriller accessed 11 Jan 2018

[6] Making of “Remember the Time” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfW8L-N6gGg

[7] “Nefertiti” Society for the Promotion of the Egyptian Museum Berlin http://www.egyptian-museum-berlin.com/c53.php accessed 9 Jan 2018

[8] Kerry Hennigan “Precursors to Michael Jackson’s Egyptian Magician and other historical references in the ‘Remember the Time’ short film” 2017 https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2017/07/07/precursors-to-michael-jacksons-egyptian-magician-and-other-historic-references-in-the-remember-the-time-short-film/

[9] Michael Bush The King of Style.  Dressing Michael Jackson, Insight Editions 2012

[10] “Clothing in ancient Egypt” on https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Clothing%20in%20ancient%20Egypt accessed 18 Jan 2018

[11] Gonzague Saint Bris “Au Paradis avec Michael Jackson” Presses de la Cite, 2010 pp 108-111 [my translation, thanks to Google Translate]

[12] “Michael Jackson Exhibition” Catalogue #3  http://www.juliensauctions.com/auctions/2009/michael-jackson/icatalog3.html  accessed 12 Jan 2018

[13] Michael Jackson, Moonwalk, 1988, Arrow paperback edition 2010 p 220

[14] “Michael Jackson Exhibition” Catalogue #2 http://www.juliensauctions.com/auctions/2009/michael-jackson/icatalog2.html accessed 12 Jan 2018.

[15] USA Today “Michael Jackson’s Secret Warehouse” https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2013/05/20/tv-on-the-web-michael-jacksons-secret-warehouse/2325885/ accessed 8 Jan 2018

[16] Anonymous “Michael Jackson to play King Tut” Ain’t It Cool News http://www.aintitcool.com/node/4511 accessed 8 Jan 2018

[17] Joseph Vogel, “A Dream Deferred: Michael Jackson and Hollywood” in Michael Jackson and the Reinvention of Pop, BlakeVision Books 2017

Additional Reading:

Dr Aidan Dodson “Egypt: The End of a Civilisation” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/egypt_end_01.shtml accessed 20 Jan 2018

France24 “Sudan temples shed light on ‘secrets of Africa’” http://www.france24.com/en/20170210-sudan-archaeology-temples-discovered-kerma-dogi-ancient-bonnet-history accessed 20 Jun 2018