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- The majestic "Ark of India" exhibit, which opens Friday (Oct. 17) at the History Museum of Mobile, has more than 100 artifacts and images collected and created by artist Roderick D. MacKenzie, who grew up in Mobile in the 1870s and gained international acclaim for his work in the early 20th century.
The exhibit, subtitled "An Alabama Artist Explores Southern Asia," focuses on MacKenzie's years in India from 1893 to 1906, chronicling life from the wealthiest princes to the poorest laborers. He rode along on tiger hunts, climbed mountains on the country's northern border, and swam in the Ganges River.
All artifacts in the exhibit are owned by the History Museum, with the exception of four photography slides that are on loan.
The idea for the exhibit came in 2009, said senior curator Jacob Laurence, when staffers going through the History Museum's inventory became aware of the significance of the 525 photography slides taken by the artist to document his journey.
MacKenzie took the images using a small, glass-plate camera that produced 4-inch slides. To create an image from a slide, the photographer would place the slide on a piece of photographic paper and expose it to light, a process called "contact printing."
These images have not been available to the public since MacKenzie brought them back to Mobile, right before the outbreak of World War I.
Museum staffers believe the slides were donated to the museum by Kathryn De Celle, wife of Mobile artist and designer Edmund De Celle, and that the De Celles salvaged them from MacKenzie's Mobile studio after his death in 1941.
"Ark of India" contains a stunning array of MacKenzie's photos and the landscapes and paintings that were inspired by them, and the exhibit is also a rare look at life in India at the turn of the century.
"In its 50 years, the History Museum of Mobile has never produced an exhibit of this magnitude internally," Laurence said. The artifacts were primarily taken from the museum's collection, and the exhibits were nearly all created in-house, or with local contractors, he said.
The focal point of the exhibit is a full-size replica of the artist's monumental 11-by-18-foot painting, "Durbar, the State Entry into Delhi." The massive work, which commemorated the proclamation of Edward VII as Emperor of India, was commissioned by the English Viceroy George Curzon in 1902; the original is in the Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta.
A Durbar was a rare event -- the British monarchy held only three such ceremonies during its empire -- and more than 1 million people attended the elaborate ceremony that MacKenzie recorded in his mural. The success of the work brought him international acclaim.
"This is the first time anyone in this city will see his masterpiece," Laurence said. Museum staffers worked with local printers to enlarge the image and have it reproduced on canvas for the display.
Other images in "Ark of India" include glimpses of life in Mobile through MacKenzie's eyes, including pastels showing the construction of the Bankhead Tunnel. The exhibit also includes what staffers believe is his last, unfinished painting -- a depiction of the Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Co. on Pinto Island.
"Ark of India" also commemorates the artist's pastel series of the Alabama steel industry, which he created on site and mainly at night at the Tennessee Coal Iron Railroad plant in Ensley in 1921 and 1922.
"Focusing on MacKenzie's India sojourn allows our institution to reach new audiences in Mobile's diverse population," Laurence noted.
History Museum staffers are particularly excited to promote "Ark of India" as the museum's first traveling exhibit, he said. It will be ready for a statewide tour after it closes in September 2015.
Scotty Kirkland, the museum's curator of history, has written a book to accompany the exhibit, the first publication of the History Museum's Southern Market Press. It is available for purchase in the gift shop.
The museum will present a Learning Lunch, "City of Light: Roderick D. MacKenzie in Benares, India's Most Holy City," on Wednesday, Oct. 29.
The History Museum of Mobile is at 11 S. Royal St. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. There is no charge for admission.
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