It’s 1998 A.D.
I’m dining inside the Tate Gallery exhibition hall at Royal Holloway College outside London, surrounded by Victorian paintings of every size and shape. These works depict different levels of society, from the outrageously poor treatment of the disenfranchised, to the pompous privilege of upper crust folk. It’s a visual kaleidoscope of the past world, hardly different from today’s world in so many ways.
The work of art that amazes me most is one by Edwin Long (BABYLONIAN MARRIAGE MARKET) depicting slave brides being auctioned at Marriage Market in ancient Babylon. There are thirteen girls being sold to the highest bidder, arranged in order of beauty. The painting is so large it occludes from view everything else in the gallery. Suddenly, I am inside this work of art, smelling the perfumes and sweat of the auction block, staring back at the one girl who is staring at me, wondering at the testosterone gazes of the men who are trying to purchase these women, trying to guess what the most beautiful woman looks like (her back is to the viewer), what the least attractive woman looks like (she covers her face with her hands).
The girls wait barefoot on the tiled floor, resting pensively on animal pelts, awaiting their fate. Some seem hopeful (perhaps being owned by a rich man is a better fate than being battered by an impoverished life), some are frightened, some sad, some dazed.
One man keeps tab of the auction on a red clay cuneiform tablet, a scale nearby, the richest men in the audience try to see through the gauze clothing, each person is dressed and coiffed according to station and wealth. In the hands of the master painter, you can tell much about everyone in this painting. In the hands of the master painter, there is much mystery that draws you in and makes you only guess at what’s really happening, what led up to this moment, what the next moments will bring.
These daughters and granddaughters, nieces and neighbors, are all beyond my assistance, their journeys are individual and lost to all tracking systems, their existence only remains in memory and imagination.
Now, it is 2010 A.D.
I am once again visiting this painting at the Huntsville Museum of Art. This is the work’s first and only visit outside England in its 135 years of existence. My girls are still there, frozen in time. The auctioneers and attendees are still hoping to sell and purchase their dreams.
I am left to wonder whether this kind of thing is happening all over the world in different but identical ways, whether we as a species will ever stop bartering with the souls and bodies and futures of those unable to fend us off
© 2010 A.D. Jim Reed