There is little known about the bird lady from the archeological point of view, nor would one infer much conclusions from a tried observation. When Henri de Morgan in the winter of 1906-1907 found the Terra-cotta statue from a tomb at El Ma’mariya, he did not record much about the excavation procedure, nor the tomb specifics. So There is even no consensus on what we should call her. Bird lady is possibly a pure invention our of one’s imagination, but the name fits her well, or should we say in another way that the name does not matter here?
So far, I have heard three different versons of the possible meaning/purpose of the figurine.
Ann Russmann, the curator, linked her with a pottery vessel from Naqada II period, which also bears a female figure whose arms sweep up like a bird. Because of her prominent proportion compared to the male figure next to her, Ann concluded she must be a goddess although the function is unclear. But the larger-than usual head of the female painted on the vessel is a clear statement that she has blossoming hairs. The bead head of the statue, on the contrary, with some rezin painted in black in a suggestive manner, looks more like from a bird.
Yekaterina Barbash, another curator of Egyptian Art compared her gesture with the funeral mourning convention. It is natural to think a mourner figurine would find her niche in a tomb. But from the available paintings, mourning women ususally pull their hands close in front of the faces or above the heads. In neither position will one see the arms wide open like a bird ready to fly.
The third version is from the book “The Egyptians” by Cyril Aldred published by Thames & Hudson (ISBN 0-500-28036-3). Cyril takes the note that she is wearing a long white skirt as the evidence of dancing. He even suggested the dance may be inspired by the bird-mating since the arms have an unusual upward mometum. With this assumption, he suggested that the fingurine may have magic fertility functions.
I have found none of the inferences totally convincing, nevertheless the figurine is and deserves to be the highlight among all wonderful Egyptian collections in the Brooklyn Museum.
Unlike the later dynastic Egyptian period when statues are as strict as canonical paintings, the early artworks is from minds of great freedom. In my mind, her slim waist, wide buttock, bead head and peg-like legs connect directly to the spirit of Henry Moore where the rhythms of curves are as expressive and informative as the objects themselves. The arms that intrigues and ponders so many scholars and visitors break the abstract austerity with an unusual curve: bold, dynamic yet still elegant. Could she be just carrying some burden for the deceased? Or maybe the upward arms is a symbol of resurrection? I wondered.
Such artworks may seem too primitive for some visitors who praise the French academy or Roman statues. But the great art always bears some sort of unsolvable mystery as charming as Mona Lisa’s smile. It brings unexpected rewards to those who frequent observe them with fresh eyes. And those who have done that enjoy the same degree of happiness as the kids treasure in a magic land. For example, although breasts are made crude and possibly modeled after the body part was completed, the highest point of the figurine — the fingers — are beautifully indicated with carefully aligned straight lines. Then as one looks at them and may even try to imitate the movement, here comes the surprise: The thumbs, which are supposed to be in the back in reality when arms reach high in the air, are curiously modeled in the front. Could it a result of ignorance or bluntness of the artist? Or maybe he meant to show us the thumbs in the front view? I don’t know.
More than 5000 years have passed, standing quiet in a glass case, its unconventionality still challenges what we see and push us back to re-examine the seemingly gap between avant guard and antiquity.