The panel discussion was a part of the exhibition „The Other Nefertiti“ and was initiated by the artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles and supported by the Goethe Institute Cairo.
– Dr. Monica Hanna, Archaeologist American University Cairo
– Alexander Koch, KOW Galerie Berlin and Noveaux Commanditaires e.V.
– Prof. Susanne Leeb, Leuphana University Lüneburg
– Simon Njami, art critic, curator, author
You can watch the full recorded discussion on youtube here.
Panel tackles contemporary art, icons and identity
CAIRO, Angela Boskovitch
A provocative panel discussion “The Actuality of the Ancient: Contemporary Art, Icons and Identity” was held November 20 at the Goethe-Institut Cairo in the context of Something Else, Off Biennale that brought together more than 110 artists from around the world in a month-long cultural event. German artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles initiated the panel as part of their Cairo exhibit, The Other Nefertiti, in which they presented an exact replica of the 3,300-year-old bust of Nefertiti.
“There’s almost a nonexistent discourse between the objects that were looted in the 19th century from Egypt and their representation in German museums,” explained panelist Monica Hanna, an archaeologist and co-founder of the Egypt’s Heritage Task Force Facebook site. “Without proper interpretation, people do not really identify with the object or look at ancient Egypt as if it were a living, breathing culture, but rather as a completely dead culture,” she said.
The case of the famous bust of Nefertiti served as a symbolic point for the panelists, representative of artifacts acquired under dubious circumstances. Nefertiti has been in Germany since 1913 and remains on exhibit at the Neues Museum in Berlin despite the Egyptian government’s repeated requests for her return.
But art critic, author and Something Else head curator Simon Njami, another of the four panelists, argued that the placement of an object transforms its very essence. “The head of Nefertiti that is in the German museum in Berlin is not the head of Nefertiti anymore,” he said. “It is just the appearance of the head of Nefertiti.” Njami further argued that museums serve an ideological role by separating artifacts from their origins and depriving people of their historical memory. “These museums are places where people are trying to address history of which they have no knowledge and where objects are frozen in time and space and torn from their very meaning,” he said.
Whether in so-called “world art” museums or exhibitions of ancient Egypt, a critical discourse around the usage of artifacts is urgently needed according to panelist Susanne Leeb, a contemporary art professor at the University of Lüneburg. “The discussion on contemporary art and archaeology just starts now,” she explained. “Many people are not aware of how far archaeology came out of imperial history, where European nations built up their own identity though looting the cultural heritage of other countries.” Ethnographic museums have their roots in 19th century European nationalism, a point Njami explained: “This notion of ‘world art’ is replacing more or less what was called ‘universal art’ when the Louvre and all those museums were constructed, which weren’t so much to give education to people, but to show the power of the country, whereby possessing things from all over the world, was like possessing the world.”
The panelists also discussed innovative artistic practices that could reverse the art world’s hegemonies and hierarchies. Working with museum collections in a critical way by giving objects an alternative biography, for example, was mentioned, as well as the possibility of museums touring their collections so that original countries could view their artifacts. Other ways of symbolically sharing cultural property were also suggested, like that of an artist who made posters of how objects were exhibited in a German museum that were then distributed throughout West Africa.
But is this focus on ancient artifacts relevant to contemporary socio-cultural needs? Alexander Koch, gallerist, author and chairman of the Germany branch of the New Patrons program for citizen-commissioned art projects, reflected on this question. “We need to ask what would people like as their story to be told and if they are actually even interested in creating a national narrative or if there are other societal self-descriptions they want to be told,” he said.
Antiquities looting and private possession of cultural heritage is a contemporary challenge. UNESCO estimates that the third largest illegal trade in the world is that of antiquities and culture. According to Hanna, winner of the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award for her efforts to preserve Egypt’s cultural heritage, some 200-250 objects leave Egypt every day to markets in Europe, North America and the Gulf where they reach private collectors and even museums secretly buying off the antiquities market. “People should see buying antiquities like buying blood diamonds,” she said, noting that twenty children die yearly digging for antiquities in just one small Egyptian village.
At its close the panel took a positive tone, discussing how bridges could be built between artists, archaeologists, cultural activists and the public. “We need to rethink how we exhibit ancient Egypt as well as how ancient Egypt is exhibited within Egypt, in Egyptian museums, and in the way we deal with archaeological sites,” Hanna said. Support for the production of contemporary culture is often missing, however, Koch concluded at the panel’s end. “Many Western countries spend something like 95 percent of their budgets on the preservation of their heritage and less and less money into the production of our culture today and tomorrow. We also have to have a conversation if this is the right balance about how we collectively invest in our artifacts.”
Text by Angela Boskovitch, a Cairo-based writer, researcher and cultural producer and was the panel’s moderator.