While my work with the Royal Commission has been going on, I have been working on a small set of paintings called ‘Daniel in Exile’ for a group exhibition at the School of Art.
This exhibition is about celebrating different holdings from the School of Art collections, which is made up of prints, photographs, paintings, drawings, ceramics, and many more items of interest, including the one that took my attention, Babylonian cuneiform tablets.
Babylonian cuneiform tablets – c 2,000 BC
As an artist working with archaeology, the presence of two ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets in the School of Art collections was too enticing to ignore. The complex, alien, yet familiar nature of the world they point to, and the acknowledgement that Babylonian culture for all its triumphs is no more, led me to consider what that culture meant for those subjected to it. Babylon has always been a name to conjure with. Yet beneath the splendour, the pomp and the unimaginable wealth of empire a different kind of narrative exists, the story of the individual. To me, the Old Testament prophet Daniel is that individual.
In 597BC, King Nebuchadnezzar II sacked Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and much of the cultural heritage of the Israelites. He also captured the people and took all but the very poorest away to Babylon. Amongst the captives was the young man Daniel.
Along with other young noblemen from the King of Judah’s court, Daniel underwent three years of re-education. All he had learnt of his own culture and spiritual heritage were discarded and forcibly replaced by a foreign culture. Yet Daniel refused to be divorced from his heritage, and in particular, from the God of his fathers. King Nebuchadnezzar took away his Hebrew name and replaced it with a Babylonian one, Belteshazzar, a humiliating indignity. Yet none but the King ever called him that, and decades later, at the end of a long and successful life in the government of the kingdom, it is by the Hebrew name Daniel, ‘God is my judge’, that this man was known.
These paintings seek to explore both the strength and fragility of Daniel’s story, and to celebrate the unswerving dedication of one man to his true identity in defiance of a violent and oppressive regime.
‘Daniel in Exile’ – 263cms x 263cms, oil on canvas – Carmen Mills
The cuneiform which forms the background to the painting is that which makes up the name Daniel, and the Babylonian name he was given to replace it, Belteshazzar.
His Hebrew name Daniel takes precedence in a second painting.
‘Daniel in Exile II’ – 90cms x 90cms, oil, collage and charcoal on canvas – Carmen Mills
The three small paintings on the right have cuneiform letters picked out with steel pins. For me this evokes the painful nature of the events that Daniel experienced.
It is striking how relevant and contemporary this subject is today, nearly four thousand years on. How little the world really changes.