Cleopatra in an Age of Racial Profiling
SINCE CLEOPATRA ALWAYS HAS APPEARED at the nexus of chang- ing identity, it was fitting that I went to see the Chicago Field Museum’s “Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth” exhibit in early October 2001. It was a few weeks after September 11, at a time when the “we” of the United States was under a heavy bur- den of self-fashioning. Ambiguous threats of violence still loomed on the horizon. I figured that, because of these fears of targeted public buildings and because it was also a Wednesday, the museum would be empty. But it was packed with nervous parents, children, couples and retirees. I had underestimated the fact that, in the same way that shopping became a Bush-sanctioned strategy for the everyday U.S. citizen to combat terrorism, visiting museums, national monuments and other public places under threatened at- tack gained a patriotic caché in those first weeks after the attacks. When I reached the entrance to the exhibit, I saw a snaking line that went out of the breezeway, past an exhibit of Julie Tamor’s costume designs and into the main hall. Beautiful tapestries of black and gold hung from the front, and several security guards
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wearing the kind of headphones that Madonna might use in con- cert were admitting small clusters of people into the packed ex- hibit hall.
Already weary of surveillance, having been “randomly” frisked and had our bags searched before entering the museum, my girl- friend and I decided to purchase a little privacy by renting the taped tour from a young white male guard. The audio tour fea- tured the voice of a female narrator, who described the back- ground history and some of the controversies of the exhibit in a calming, familiar, Middle American cadence. I was struck by the way that the audiotape finessed the rather sticky issues of Cleopa- tra’s race and brother-sister marriage by using the language of na- tional pride and family values: “Although the Ptolemies valued their Macedonian heritage, they won support in Egypt by adopt- ing Egyptian customs. They portrayed themselves as the Egypt- ian gods Osiris and Isis and practiced the royal habit of brother-sister marriages.” These observations were at times punc- tuated by a male British voice—and though we were not told his credentials, the tone of his commentary suggested a reassuring academic authority. The exhibit’s strategy to familiarize Cleopa- tra’s image by diffusing and deflecting racial and cultural differ- ence from an assumed white western norm had an (unintended) resonance in this particularly foreigner-phobic historical moment.
One key way that the exhibit deflected this complexity is in its handling of the question of Cleopatra’s race. Reflecting the white/black bias that is a part of much racial discourse in the United States, the only explicit address of race in the exhibit is the section entitled “Was Cleopatra Black?” Hidden in the darkest corner of the exhibit, a placard explains that by ancient Greek standards, “this would not have been much of an issue. . . . If someone from outside of Egypt became assimilated into Egyptian culture, his or her skin color probably mattered very little.” But if it did not matter in Egyptian culture, it certainly matters now. During my visit, a crowd of onlookers buzzed around this sec- tion—one of the few places in the exhibit where conversations be-
tween visitors seemed to be taking place. The exhibit as a whole erases the scholarly or popular engagement with these very issues that has taken place over the course of the twentieth century—and even earlier—in African American culture and elsewhere. Gone too are nuanced notions of nationalism, ethnicity and how we might historicize these terms. We are told, for example, that Alexandria was the “New York of its day,” but the language of col- onization, invasion or occupation is absent. Instead, the coexis- tence of Egyptian and Greek cultural signs is discussed in terms of style and in terms of the individualized political strategy and savvy of the Ptolemaic rulers. In contrast with the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibit of the 1970s, which presented Egyptian art as universal and intrinsically fascinating, the Cleopatra exhibit represents Egypt and Egyptian style as significant only insofar as it is utilized by others.1 We are told that the geographer Strabo called Alexandria “the Greatest Emporium of the inhabited world” and that, because of its location, it could acquire luxury goods from Europe, Africa and Asia. Any further analysis of Egypt’s relations to these other areas is absent.
The inclusion of such a discussion, whether cast in popular or in academic terms, would have changed the face of this exhibit, which is primarily from the point of view of western classical history. The layout of the exhibit emphasizes the romanticization—and Ro- manization—of Cleopatra’s history, structuring the meeting be- tween Cleopatra and Julius Caesar as its true beginning and the death of Antony and Cleopatra as its climax. The parts of the ex- hibit that discuss Egyptian culture before Caesar and Cleopatra meet are cramped and spotty, only to open up into expansive dis- plays of artifacts dominated by images of Julius Caesar, Anthony and Octavius. In the sections that discuss Cleopatra’s relationships with the Roman leaders, complications like Cleopatra’s wedding to her brother and the amount of time (two years and two sons) that Antony spent with Octavia are ignored. The sections before, dur- ing and after Cleopatra’s life are shaped instead by the myth of the fallen woman—the woman who almost destroyed Rome.
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While the question of whether Cleopatra is black is asked and then dismissed by the exhibit, Cleopatra’s race—and specifically, the race of her face—is still the hidden center of the Field Mu- seum’s exhibit and its distinctions between history and myth. The contradictory message of the exhibit is that Cleopatra has multi- ple faces and yet that she really has only one face. This dichotomy surfaces in this review of the exhibit, which appeared in Museum Chicago:
[T]he great queen’s legend has grown to such a degree that it’s be- come all but impossible to separate fact from fiction. Cleopatra’s famous affairs, and her alleged power over Caesar and Antony, un- doubtedly bolstered her reputation as a woman of irresistible beauty and charm. But what she actually looked like may never be known. The exhibition’s set of bronze coins from Alexandria might be the most realistic portraits we have. A marble head on loan from the Vatican Museum may also bear a close resemblance, despite the absence of a nose. But regardless of Cleopatra’s appearance, the exhibition conjures up a ruler of keen intelligence and charisma, who spoke seven languages fluently. There’s even a sample of what’s believed to be her handwriting: the phrase “Make it so,” scrawled in Greek at the bottom of a tax document—an example of the mundane administrative tasks that most likely occupied much of the queen’s time.2
This refrain—“we don’t know what she looked like, but”—is re- peated throughout the exhibit’s placards, audio tour and much of the publicity surrounding it. But despite this warning, the white marble Roman bust of Cleopatra, “Head of a woman resembling Cleopatra VII, c. 50–40 B.C.” (from the British Museum’s collection), is what dominates the publicity, posters and banners (not the less glamorous images on the coins or the numerous Egyptian images).
As this book has shown, the ways that we represent, read and in- terpret the face have a powerful bearing on our public and private lives. The politics of portraiture is simultaneously about the politics of identity and the politics of interpretation. Current examples of the power of reading the face include the targeting of Arab and
Arab-looking people for hate crimes and violation of their civil rights after September 11 and the repeated history of racial profil- ing of African Americans, Latinos and other people of color by the police—illustrated poignantly by the cases of Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima and Rodney King. Racial profiling has had deadly consequences. Specific facial features—brown skin, beards, the shape of the nose, haircuts or accessories like turbans—are read as clues for one’s capacity for violence. As these cases illustrate, the reading of the face is central—and at times detrimental to our civil liberties, including our right to privacy, our rights to enter and leave national borders (or our own homes), our right to fair trial and sometimes our right to live. If we think specifically about cases of racial profiling of women—the forced strip-searches of African American women suspected of carrying drugs at airports, for ex- ample, or use of the image of the veiled Muslim woman to justify the current war on terrorism, we see how sexuality and cultural no- tions of beauty have bearing on civic freedoms and rights. These politics should be considered in our analysis of art. As art historian Richard Brilliant has written: “Portraits reflect social realities. Their imagery combines the conventions of behavior and appear- ance appropriate to the members of a society at a particular time, as defined by categories of age, gender, race, physical beauty, occu- pation, social and civic status, and class. The synthetic study of por- traiture requires some sensitivity to the social implications of its representative modes, to the documentary value of art works as as- pects of social history, and to the subtle interaction between social and artistic conventions.”3
The “right” face is context specific, perhaps, a performative, but it would be foolhardy to dismiss the reading of the face as merely aesthetic or merely theatrical. As philosopher Emmanuel Chuk- wudi Eze as recently shown, the very ordering of knowledge that we associate with the Enlightenment and humanism depends on the racial profiling of faces and bodies, from Carl Von Linne’s “System of Nature” to G. L. Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, David Hume and Immanuel Kant.4 Later eugenicists took up their
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works in more publicized racist campaigns. The history of the in- vention of race as a term depends heavily on the face and the read- ing of features to determine morality and citizenship. In western letters and art, the reading of the nonwhite face has been un- abashedly about reading one’s moral constitution. See, for exam- ple, Columbus’s reading of the faces of the San Salvador Indians’ “handsome faces” and open smiles in his search for the perfect Catholic converts,5 or seventeenth-century writer Aphra Behn’s gushingly admiring description of Oroonoko and the exceptional handsomeness that marks him as a “royal slave”:
His face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that na- tion are, but a perfect ebony, or polished jet. His eyes were the most awful that could be seen, and very piercing; the white of them being like snow, as were his teeth. His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth, the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turned lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble, and exactly formed, that bating his colour, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome.6
If, then, aesthetics and racial profiling are so closely united, it makes sense that the museum would be a particularly important social space as it shapes what it means to be an educated, well- informed citizen.
The Cleopatra exhibit maneuvers the question of Cleopatra’s multiple faces and races very carefully. It spends considerable time documenting Cleopatra’s use of Egyptian-style portraiture to create political and religious sympathy. We are told on a plac- ard that “During her reign, Cleopatra commissioned a number of self-portraits that served a variety of political purposes. Most sur- viving sculptures portray her as a powerful and divine Egyptian Queen. These are executed in the Egyptian styles and incorpo- rate symbols associated with earlier queens and the goddess Isis. Other portraits—such as the ones on her coinage—portray her as a strong Greek ruler. These are done in a naturalistic style and in-
clude the royal imagery of the Greek kingdom.” The distinctions between “Egyptian” as stylized and “Greek” and “Roman” as nat- ural, which follow conventions set in classical art history, presents Grecian artistic forms as inherently more transparent and, ulti- mately, encourages the impression that there is a singular face that we can ultimately find.
For example, a placard describing a frieze that combines Egyptian and Greek styles identifies the typically Greek aspects as including the use of Greek royal headbands, corkscrew braids and a single cornucopia—a symbol of Greek royalty in Egypt. These details are not described as “stylized.” The exhibit sets up a di- chotomy that makes all of its Egyptian examples “stylized” and the Greek and Roman examples either “naturalistic” or unmarked.
The exhibit even includes a chart, entitled “How can you tell it’s Cleopatra,” to help the viewer recognize Cleopatra’s face within the Egyptian portraits, which we are told are “highly styl- ized and don’t necessarily bear a likeness to their subjects. Instead they use symbols to communicate their status and identity.” Sig- nificantly, even though there are repeated warnings that we do not know what Cleopatra looked like, it is assumed that the Egyptian art is coded while the Greek portraiture somehow captures the “truth” of her visage.
The Caesar and Cleopatra section is the largest section and the one where the rhetoric of Cleopatra’s “true” images is the strongest, perhaps revealing the ways that the Roman perspective of history dominates the overall ethos of the exhibit. One bust, we are told, “strongly resembles Cleopatra, but it lacks the royal head- band. This confusing absence leads some to believe the subject is Cleopatra wishing to portray herself as a typical Roman woman. Others see it as a woman who closely modeled herself after the Egyptian Queen.” In the same display case is another “Marble Head of Woman Resembling Cleopatra” from first century B.C.E. We are told that “Although the subject’s eyes and nose resemble that of Cleopatra, she is probably a woman who imitated the queen’s style.” Apparently, we now know what Cleopatra’s eyes
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and nose look like, as well as her style. Although these portraits are no more stable than the Egyptian ones, the language of re- semblance is used confidently. Moreover, the rationale behind this confidence is never explained but remains mystified.
By the time we get to the marble portrait of Cleopatra VII from Berlin’s Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, which is placed at the door leading to the Antony and Cleopatra section, the rhetoric of re- semblance is more confident than ever. The placard proclaims: “This remarkably complete portrait embodies all of the features that scholars associate with Classical images of Cleopatra VII: the ‘melon hairstyle’: broad royal headband; small coiled curls around the face”—all stylized aspects, I might add—as well as “large downturned eyes; prominent nose with curving nostrils; and full lower lip.”
The tension between the Greek versions of Cleopatra’s portrait and the Egyptian versions and the exhibit’s inherent bias toward the former has a history that is reflected in culture and politics of museums, including the British Museum, the source of several of the artifacts included in the exhibit. According to art historian Inderpal Grewal, in the nineteenth century, when the British Mu- seum was actively acquiring and building its collection of antiqui- ties, Greek art functioned as a signifier of purity and transcendent value, while Egyptian art signified materiality. The 1926 museum guide confirms this distinction, suggesting that Greek art has an “intrinsic merit” that “speak[s] for itself.”7 The same guidebook suggests that figures of Egyptian sculpture represents “a phantasm and a dream,” not a reality, and were similar to those “which haunt us in that nervous affection called the nightmare.”8 According to the 1826 guidebook, “We do not feel the least degree of human sympathy with the face [of an Egyptian statue]. Because there is nothing individualized about it”; instead of uplifting the viewer toward the sublime, such art supposedly “exercises an almost painful and oppressive effect on the imagination.”9 The guidebook suggests that Egyptian art’s value is determined by the collector, and the decision whether to display it.
These nineteenth century patrons of the British Museum, some newly initiated into the culture of museum-going, should find a special appeal in Greek art because of its supposed resem- blance and therefore accessibility to the people of England:
While Egyptian culture was believed to have nothing that could be called “natural,” statues of Jupiter and Apollo supposedly were “ac- tual likenesses of men and women that most of us have seen in the course of our own lives” (1826, 13). For the growing popular audi- ence of the British Museum in the 19th Century, exhibits of Gre- cian and Egyptian art, aided by accessible resources like easy to read guidebooks, were important tools for the formation of the proper national subject—a way to “absorb alien histories and cul- tures within the historical context of his own history.”10
The Field Museum Store, located at the end of the Cleopatra exhibit, becomes the perfect place for twenty-first-century Chicago museum patrons to “absorb” the alien history of Cleopatra’s life into their own, by owning a piece of her. Images from either white Hol- lywood and Roman and Greek statues dominate the products. One can consume the catalog from the exhibit or exhibit posters, which both feature the “Marble Head of a Woman Resembling Cleopatra VII.” Other products include a Vivien Leigh–as–Cleopatra mug and a video on Cleopatra starring Angelica Houston. Michelle Lovric’s book, Cleopatra’s Face: Fatal Beauty, is perhaps the only ex- tended treatment of the issue of Cleopatra’s multiple identities (al- though it does not include her African American identities). This book nonetheless features the single face of Vivien Leigh on the cover—the same shot as the mug. The Museum store even offers an inexpensive white Cleopatra mask that invites us to perpetuate and become this image of her. While some busts of Egyptian mummies, replicas of sarcophagi and Egyptian jewelry are for sale, the prod- ucts associated with Cleopatra herself predominantly feature white western images.
How might the United States figure itself in relation to this older British model of Greek classical “purity” and Egyptian “difference”?
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Does it reach beyond the desire to buy and own beautiful things, capitalized on by the museum’s store? Within the exhibit, Egypt is distanced from the onlooker, figured in the charts and placards as an “aesthetic” or style rather than as a culture or people. Egypt as a na- tion is visible only as it is filtered through Cleopatra’s face. In turn, Cleopatra’s face depends on what is happening on the Roman front. As I have suggested, the museum space is not isolated from national tensions and crises. We might consider the power of the Cleopatra exhibit’s distancing itself from all things Egyptian in light of the atmosphere of suspicion brewing against Arabs and Arab-looking people outside of the museum’s doors.
These suspicions have bearing on the controversies surround- ing African American claims to the Cleopatra icon—controver- sies that this exhibit virtually ignores. The exclusion of African American voices in this exhibit reflects U.S. domestic tensions around the question of racial difference and is a symptom of a larger lack that may be traced to older distinctions between civi- lization and barbarity, style and substance and the supremacy of whiteness typified by the treatment of Egyptian and Greek art in the British Museum. While I do not want to collapse the distinc- tions between Egyptian and African American culture, I would like to note the ways that, especially in the current political envi- ronment, we have shared stakes in terms of the demonization of our faces, culture and images.11 This affinity has its own history, that is reflected in the interest in political, cultural and religious life of Egypt and the Middle East of African American activists and intellectuals like Muhammad Ali and James Baldwin and, in turn, in the interest in the state of blacks in America reflected in the anticolonialist discourse of Egyptian leaders and thinkers.12 Perhaps this affinity is one reason why both Cleopatra (an Egypt- ian) and Othello (a “Moor”) have been so enthusiastically appro- priated in African American arts as symbols of the pressures of objectification and assimilation in the United States.
What has been touted in the press as particularly American about the Chicago version of the “Cleopatra of Egypt: From His-
tory to Myth” was its engagement with popular images of Cleopa- tra. The exhibit, curated by Susan Walker and Peter Higgs, was launched at the Palazzo Ruspoli museum in Rome in spring 2001. It traveled to the British Museum and on to the United States, to the Field Museum in Chicago. Mimicking the multiplicity of the Cleopatra icon discussed in this book, at each stop the exhibit shifted to suit different—and sometimes clashing—national takes on the Cleopatra legend. The version presented at the Palazzo Ruspoli featured a final room dedicated to Cleopatra’s time as Caesar’s lover and consort and emphasized the influence of Egyptian divinities on Roman culture. The London exhibit em- phasized Cleopatra’s place in Victorian arts and letters. The final stop in Chicago added a segment on Cleopatra’s afterlife in Hol- lywood films and other forms of popular culture.13 Even though the Field Museum’s version distinguished itself from others by in- cluding images of Cleopatra from American popular culture, it did not include any of the discussions of Cleopatra in African American popular culture mentioned in this book—this is despite the fact that the museum is located on the cusp of a historically black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.14
What the museum interprets as the American “popular” re- sponse to Cleopatra is a very limited one, distinguished by classi- cism as well as racism. In the popular Cleopatra section, we see photos of Victorian ladies dressed as Cleopatra in leopard skins and jewels, accompanied by black servants, also dressed in “orien- talist” wear, like the 1897 photo of Lady de Grey with an un- named black attendant. There are also a few photographs of productions featuring African American opera divas (Leontyne Price in a 1996 Met Opera production of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra and Kathleen Battle in a 1988 production of Guilio Caesar). A nod to the middlebrow, the original gowns worn by Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh in the Hollywood film Cleopatras are displayed prominently in elevated glass cases, worn by clear Lucite mannequins. Each of these representations has its own politics of race that stands without comment in the exhibit.
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Cleopatra has been an important way within black culture to discuss a range of political issues regarding identity, including racial and sexual politics, crime and especially, the pressures of as- similation. The embrace and performance of Cleopatra in popular African American culture has had a profound effect on American popular cultural images of her at large. For example, in a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine, film director Barry Sonnenfeld was asked to recast (in his head) a classic Hollywood film with his favorite star. Sonnenfeld, who directed rapper Will Smith in Men in Black I and II, chose Queen Latifah to replace Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Justifying his choice, he writes: “I don’t think there was ever a queen with more style than Cleopatra—and, of course, substance. Queen Latifah has both. I’m a big fan and I want to suck up to her so she’ll be in one of my movies.”15 We see in this example both how hip-hop has become central in popular culture and how African American Cleopatras have shaped her popular American vision. As many culture analysts have now observed, hip-hop is a form of mainstream culture—it is impossible for major corporate players to ignore its influence on youth markets.16 This influence goes both ways. Within hip-hop culture, Cleopa- tra has become a sign of a celebrity’s crossover power as well as her Afrocentric sensibility. Not for nothing have Janet Jackson, Missy Eliot and Lil’ Kim all chosen Cleopatra-inspired outfits for major televised music awards like the Grammies and the MTV Awards, a form of publicity that connects hip-hop performers to even wider audiences.
To me the most intriguing recent manifestation of the Cleopa- tra icon has been in the form of Miss Cleo, the psychic and star of numerous late-night infomercials, Internet sites and phone-in psychic services. Miss Cleo’s past success reflects the economic vi- ability of her own combination of Cleopatra’s reinvention, Afro- centric spirituality and Oprah-style self-help, flavored with her biting “Jamaican” humor. It has been revealed, however, that Miss Cleo may not be Jamaican after all and, perhaps less difficult to prove, may not be psychic. She is, in fact, the face behind the Psy-
chic Readers Network, a system of psychic hotlines that pulled in more than $400 million in 2001 for Access Resource Services, a corporation run by Florida businessman Steven Feder. Both Miss Cleo and Access Resources Services have been named in a series of lawsuits in Florida for alleged overly aggressive billing practices and deceptive advertising and the ads and shows have been re- moved from the air.17 In Florida, these charges have since been dropped in a $44 million settlement.18 The cases that targeted Miss Cleo specifically argued that she has made false claims to her reputation as a psychic—that her claim to being “nationally renowned” in her ads mislead her viewers, forming a false rela- tionship of trust. Yet in an interview with Matthew Bean in Savoy Magazine, Miss Cleo contends that, while the name “Miss Cleo” and the image are owned by the Access Resource Services corpo- ration, she is the “real thing.” According to Miss Cleo, whose real name is Youree D. Harris, her gift is much bigger than the Psy- chic Readers Network, and cannot be owned by a corporation. She tells Bean: “Just call me Cleo, not ‘Miss Cleo.’ . . . That’s who I was, that’s who I came to them with. And I’m gonna keep on going.”19 Is Miss Cleo the real thing? What does her case reveal about the continued relationship between Afrocentricity and the ways that the Cleopatra icon moves in popular culture at large? Do Miss Cleo’s viewers use the network to seek the “real thing” or a performance? How do we distinguish between the two? Jokes and imitations about Miss Cleo have popped up on Saturday Night Live and Boondocks,20 and in my own classroom, where stu- dents put on a production of Othello that featured Miss Cleo giv- ing Othello (bad) romantic advice. Clearly, like the other Cleos before her, Miss Cleo’s contested authenticity has not stopped her from leaving her mark on U.S. popular culture at large.
While dismissed by many as the stuff of jokes, Miss Cleo and her claims to psychic authority have some relevance to the larger issues of authenticity that haunt the Field Museum’s Cleopatra exhibit (and the Cleopatra icon as a whole). Both betray an anxi- ety around what constitutes “culture” and whose face is reflected
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in that culture. Both also reveal uneasiness with the theatrical as- pects of identity. If, as the exhibit points out, the historical Cleopatra spoke like an Egyptian and practiced religion like an Egyptian, what makes her Greek, after all? How might the boundaries between insider and outsider be protected? Does Miss Cleo’s Los Angeles birth certificate make her any less psychic than if she were born in Jamaica? Is it really true that she was an extra on Miami Vice? Finally, Miss Cleo, as both psychic and corporate entity, has the capacity to infiltrate and perhaps also expose the in- nermost fears and anxieties of the nation. Might Miss Cleo’s Psy- chic Readers Network be storing vital consumer information gleaned from our romantic woes for future marketing schemes? Likewise, as we track the Cleopatra icon, we see that she resur- faces in moments of change and therefore great cultural vulnera- bility. I for one will keep on watching.