Nefertiti's Bust Gets a Body, Offending Egyptians

A Problematic Juxtaposition

June 21, 2003
By HUGH EAKIN, NYTimes


BERLIN, June 20 - To its creators, "The Body of Nefertiti" is simply an attempt to pay homage to a famous Pharaonic bust at the Egyptian Museum here. But to Egyptian cultural officials, the artwork debases one of the great symbols of their country's history.

The project, which is the Hungarian contribution to this summer's Venice Biennale, consists of a bronze sculpture of a female body intended to unite briefly with the 3,300-year-old limestone head of Queen Nefertiti at the Berlin museum.

Egyptian government officials say they were not consulted about the project and now question the Berlin museum's ability to care for its renowned collection of ancient Egyptian art. Some even suggest that the Nefertiti head be returned to Egypt. To make matters worse, the Hungarians' bronze is clad only in a close-fitting transparent dress, depicting Nerfertiti as essentially a nude. "The moral and scientific responsibility of the Egyptian Museum is at stake here," said Mohamed al-Orabi, the Egyptian ambassador to Berlin. "We don't accept that such an important statue of Queen Nefertiti has been put in jeopardy for this silly project."

Conceived by the Hungarian artists Andras Galik and Balint Havas, known together as Little Warsaw, the project took place behind closed doors at the museum. The artists brought the bronze body from Budapest to Berlin and, on May 26, under museum supervision, arranged to have the ancient Nefertiti head placed briefly on it. The event was taped, and the video and the headless bronze are now on view in adjacent rooms of the Hungarian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The ancient head was returned to its glass case in Berlin and did not travel.

The artists, reached by e-mail, declined to comment.

Curators and Berlin museum officials involved in the project said "The Body of Nerfertiti" should be understood within the well-established tradition of dialogue between contemporary art and familiar works from the past. The bust, dug up in Egypt in 1912 and taken back to Berlin by German archaeologists, has long been one of the city's most important cultural attractions.

Dietrich Wildung, the director of the Egyptian Museum, said he had given permission for the project and helped arrange its execution because it shows the continued relevance of the ancient world to today's art. "The idea was to create a headless statue that alludes to the Nefertiti but is a distinct and separate work of art," Mr. Wildung said. "The headless sculpture in Venice holds the memory of the earlier encounter with the Egyptian head in Berlin."

Istvan Barkoczi, deputy director of the Kunsthalle Budapest and a curator of "The Body of Nefertiti," said in a telephone interview that placing the ancient head on a modern body "is not meant as a parody" - not, he added, like "Duchamp's mustache on the Mona Lisa."

"One thing the artists are trying to stress by drawing on this emblematic ancient work is the continuity of culture," Mr. Barkoczi said.

But Egyptian officials, who first learned of the project from German newspaper articles this month, have interpretedthe work as a cultural insult. Although the government has not made any motion to block the showing of the work in Venice, it has aired its grievanceshere. One Egyptian newspaper ran the headline, "Queen Nefertiti Naked in the Berlin Museum!" Mr. al-Orabi, the ambassador, explained:
"It contradicts Egyptian manners and traditions. The body is almost naked, and Egyptian civilization never displays a woman naked." Mr. Faruq, the Egyptian culture minister, called the artwork mad and ill considered. He said the Berlin museum's acquiescence to the project indicates that the famous Nefertiti sculpture is "no longer safe in German hands."

Both Mr. Wildung and Mr. Barkoczi expressed surprise at the Egyptian reaction. "It is strange that the Egyptians are so appalled," Mr. Barkoczi said, noting that the bronze sculpture is relatively abstract. "For us it doesn't mean anything. We have the tradition since the Greeks of seeing nude figures."

 

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