Oriental Institute exhibition reveals ancient origins of modern-day jobs

Susan Allen
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesUniversity Communications

On an average weekday, Americans spend more time working than doing anything else—sleeping, engaging in leisure activities or enjoying the company of loved ones. But for all the hours devoted to their jobs, Americans rarely have the opportunity to think about their meaning or origin.

On Aug. 20, the Oriental Institute will unveil a new exhibition, “Our Work: Modern Jobs—Ancient Origins,” which allows viewers to contemplate the role of work and demonstrates how much the ancient Middle East influenced modern-day culture.

The show, composed of 24 portraits by Chicago photographer Jason Reblando, pairs each subject with an artifact that documents the origins of that person’s profession. For example, a Chicago police officer is shown with a 3,000-year-old statue of an Egyptian policeman, a real estate broker with an ancient record of land sales, a baker with a bread pan from 2500 B.C., and a ship builder with an image of an Egyptian ship from 3500 B.C. Other professions represented in the show include brewer, banker, mathematician, clock maker, manicurist, poet, harpist and fashion designer.

The often unknown or unacknowledged antiquity of so many modern professions, and their origins in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia, not only serve as a reminder of the connection between past and present but also underscore the dignity of work, said Oriental Institute Director Gil Stein.

"The exhibit shows, in a really innovative way, the deep connections that link us to the roots of our civilization,” Stein said. “By bringing together modern practitioners of a profession with ancient artifacts of the people who did this same kind of work thousands of years ago, we can see that our ancestors weren't all that different from us. We can understand ourselves and our work as part of a tradition that stretches back thousands of years to Mesopotamia, Egypt and other parts of the ancient Near East.”

'people haven't changed'

The portraits represent the diversity of Chicago’s residents, ranging from ordinary workers to local luminaries. A selection of the artifacts shown in the portraits is exhibited alongside the photographs.

Each person photographed also added their own voice to the message and curation of the exhibit through interviews conducted by Chicago videographer Matthew Cunningham. In these conversations, the workers examined their relationship to their work and the workers who came before them.

“A lot of techniques are still the same as they were 4,000 or 5,000 years ago,” said potter Brian Zimerle.

Game designer Jack Saltzman shared Zimerle’s sense of continuity with the past. “It seems to me that people haven’t changed over the years. You know, they were playing board games thousands of years ago; they’re playing board games now.” 

The show also features brief videos produced by Cunningham as he followed an urban farmer, a potter, a cowboy, a stone carver and a pastry chef in their daily work routine.

Reblando is a graduate of Columbia College and is currently on the faculty of the University of Illinois. His work is in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Union League Club of Chicago, and the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

For “Our Work,” Reblando used a process called “tintype,” in which images are captured on negatives made of aluminum. The scanned and enlarged prints made from the tintypes, with their sepia tone and old-fashioned look create a very visual connection between the past and present, according to Stein. “Reblando's use of the 19th-century tintype photographic technique for his portraits gives them an ethereal, other-worldly quality that makes them float in time. It is the perfect way to link the past and present in this exhibit."

Jack Green, chief curator of the Oriental Institute Museum and co-curator of “Our Work,” said: “Our intention was to bring these ancient artifacts to life by connecting them with people and their working lives today. Of course, specialist input from Oriental Institute scholars continues to play an essential role in understanding the past and our collections, but gathering the ideas of the ordinary and extraordinary people in Reblando’s portraits and Cunningham’s interviews often provided fascinating and unexpected new insights on the past.” 

The exhibit will be on view at the Oriental Institute Museum from Aug. 20 through Feb. 23, 2014. An artists’ talk with Reblando and Cunningham is scheduled for Oct. 5 from 2 to 3 p.m. Curator-led tours of the exhibit are offered on Nov. 7 and Feb. 6, 2014, both at 12:15 p.m. For further information on public programs, call 773-702-9507 or email oi-education@uchicago.edu.

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