By Susanne Leeb
“To correct the unintentional error committed in 1913, the Berlin Museum declares itself ready and willing to return the head of the queen, the object of disagreement, to the Cairo Museum.” 1
This memorandum was written by Egyptologist Pierre Lacau in 1931; commissioned by the French government, Lacau served as director of the Department of Antiquities in Cairo from 1914 to 1936. Due to Adolf Hitler’s veto in 1933, the agreed upon return never took place. Since then, Nefertiti has been in Berlin. With their “other Nefertitis,” the artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles intervene in this field, still very controversial today: that of colonial excavations around the year 1900, and thus questions of ownership, the production of “cultural goods,” and the value of collector’s items.
The Source of the Conflict
Evidentia is a figure of accumulation in rhetoric. A main thought is divided into parts that explain the main idea in variations to make it seem obvious. Evidence is created from a chain of arguments, or from a variation of the main idea. In the case of the question of where the Nefertiti bust belongs, still controversial today, there are two conflicting main thoughts: for Western museums, it is evident that they have the right to possess the cultural heritage of other countries. For critics of this argument, it is evident that they have no such right. At issue is not the renationalization of culture or the question of an authentic context, but the conditions of injustice during colonialism under which the objects first came to Europe or to other Western collections where they are now considered invaluable treasures.
Museums create their evidence in various ways: juridically, aesthetically, academically, architecturally. The staging of Nefertiti within a museum temple in a glass case, standing on its own, the only piece in a dark hall, makes it into an absolute “highlight” of the collection. This framing is a “partial thought” that serves to make the main thought seem evident. “Nefertiti is the most beautiful woman in Berlin,” as has been said ever since the 1920s, and she belongs here. But this includes an entire apparatus of scholarship and narratives according to which these objects would no longer exist without Western archaeological research or that they would have been destroyed in the countries where they were found. 2
In the case of Nefertiti, in turn, it is also argued that there has been no official demand for restitution on the part of the Egyptian government. The demands of various antiquities authorities have always been dismissed by saying that they were issued by the “wrong” authority. For example, although Zahi Hawas, the former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs and previously the Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, had been trying to regain the statue since 2002, he was at this point in his career not part of the government itself, even if he later became part of it briefly.
In the case of archaeological artifacts, museums refer primarily to the legality of the division of archaeological finds. In certain regions, the division of finds only took place in the mid-1920s or later, so that a great many artifacts had already left the country before such agreements. In addition, the division of finds under colonialism did not necessary involve sharing the finds with the colonized region, but first and foremost with the respective colonial power. In the case of Egypt, the situation was even more complicated: the colony was under British rule, but the French were those responsible for archaeological sites and finds. German archaeologists and the French agreed on dividing up the finds, but the conditions under which Nefertiti could be removed from the country without expert evaluation on site give cause for speculation about the possible illegality of the transport. 3
For Bénédicte Savoy, who recently reconstructed this history, the sharing of the finds that took place on January 20, 1913 was “the result of an administrative, diplomatic, and personal constellation in which French-British rivalries played as great a role as the policy practiced for decades by the French antiquities administration policy of laissez faire regarding foreign excavators.” 4
Symptomatically, Egypt has no place in this conflict of rivalries: it was not a sovereign state, but a British colony. The legality of the possession thus seems evident, since an argument to keep the bust where it is remains in the framework of the narration that made the objects what they are: finds from the colonial period, objects of scholarly research, and ancient “treasures” and legally valid because the laws either of the colonial powers or the nation-state that insists on protecting the property of their own holdings.
But this very evidence is controversial, for not a single partial thought takes the Egyptian perspective. For others, it is much more evident that Nefertiti belongs in Egypt. And this applies not just to the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities. If you ask people in Egypt about the statue, few are aware that it is not located in an Egyptian museum. As a copy, the image of Nefertiti is omnipresent in Egypt. If you say that it is located in a German museum, the most common, usually indignant answer is that it’s not right, that she belongs to Egypt. Beside this subjective sense of injustice or the discussion of cultural identity, relations of power and inequality relations are inscribed in the “acquisition” or the “collection” of these cultural goods. With the frequent recourse to legality as a form of justification, no mention is made of the context of colonial politics, although archeology has for some time now engaged in self-critique about its involvement in colonialism. 5
Although the division of finds was legal according to the understanding at the time, the ethical framework and archeology’s own self-conception have changed dramatically.
Since a political decision is not in sight at the moment—and in light of the fact that Western collections make up a large part of Africa’s cultural heritage, the question cannot be clarified just in terms of Nefertiti—artists and cultural workers have the opportunity to intervene in the discourses, forms of value production, public opinion formation, a discussion on the ethics of collecting and in the power relations of knowledge production. The Other Nefertiti is accordingly more than a true-to-original 3 D print of the bust. It also includes a video that acts out an excavation find, a video that shows the scanning process in the museum, the open source publication of the print data and finally discursive formats—a podium discussion in Cairo on the question of the relationship between contemporary art and heritage, hosted by the artists in Cairo together with the Goethe-Institut.6 In the age of the post-factual, the art of falsification needs to be defended, because in art artifice is not used to conceal a truth or to spread an untruth but to address a problem. This problem becomes visible in disclaimers or in the transparency of the construction. In this sense, Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles have created an excavation video filmed on the Egyptian coast where a second Nefertiti bust is found. In the age of the digital, the reference no longer guarantees the authenticity of what is presented, but conventionalized framing conditions serve as a warranty: the form of recording—shaky, grainy, poor quality—the time code in the shot, the plausibility of the situation in which a film was recorded, and not least the site of circulation, that is, the platforms in which a video is made public. Secret, illicit excavations take place on a nightly basis in Egypt. The find is usually documented by videos made using bad cameras shot by flashlight. These find-videos are then uploaded onto certain platforms to sell the pieces on the black market. Such framing conditions are easily imitated, and in this way the “fact” is created that a second Nefertiti was found. By raising the question of where the original Nefertiti is, the focus is placed not only on the current place of custody and the question of possession, but also on the black market, where all forms of collecting antiquities are ultimately involved. If the objects at the time were purchased for a ridiculously low price or simply distributed in the framework of dividing up the finds, now the objects are worth millions. But this contributes to the emergence of the black market that Al Badri/Nelles bring attention to in their video. One of the participants in the Cairo podium discussion Monica Hanna, a member of the Egyptian archaeological NGO the Egypt Heritage Task Force, also reported of the “underside” of archaeological knowledge. On Facebook, the EHTF documents illicit excavations, illegal sales or neglect of cultural heritage sites by the Egyptian government.
A secondary effect of ownership is the copyright on replicas or images of the original that “belongs” to an institution. The release of 3-D print data as open-source makes it possible for many people to create an exact replica of the Nefertiti statue. Since Nelles and Al-Badri’s public release of the data in December 2015, the artists have received numerous requests from universities (some from Egypt itself) whether the data could be used for academic purposes or they were asked if the data was available for commercial use. Since then, thousands of 3D prints and digital remixes have been made all over the world and posted online. The digital replication of the bust has opened a new digital space, independent of the institutions. This form of participation was a central idea behind the artists’ action. Even if the print out in its original size in good quality is relatively expensive—a high quality 3D print costs currently 6000 euros—it can also be made in poorer quality for 100 euros—the data allows for the possibility of reproduction without permission of the museum and the fees related to this. In the wake of the data’s release, the museums have declined to take any legal action.
But the original is impossible to separate from its reproductions. The ubiquitous presence of the copies will not solve the problem linked to the ownership of the original. The Berlin Nefertiti continues to provide the gold standard for all reproductions. Even if Al-Badri and Nelles concretely intervene in one of the secondary effects of possession, their work poses the greater question of who owns what works and why in what value systems the notion of original and copy circulate. The artists simply demand what the museums claim to be: world heritage that all have access to. With The Other Nefertiti, they also show to what extent museums have distanced themselves from their own declared self-understanding.
- Cairo, July 1, 1931, memorandum written by Pierre Lacau on the bust of Nefertiti. ↵
- There is now an entire sub-branch of archaeology involved in critiques of these narratives in the form of an intellectual history of the discipline. See for example Lynn Meskell, ed., Archaeology Under Fire: Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East (London: Routledge 1998); Colin Renfrew, Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (London: Duckworth, 2000); Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik, and Edhem Eldem, eds., Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire 1753-1914 (Istanbul: SALT, 2011). ↵
- For a reconstruction of the early history of the Nefertiti find with references to other literature, see Bénédicte Savoy, ed., Nofretete. Eine deutsch-französische Affäre 1912-1931 (Cologne: Böhlau, 2012). ↵
- Ibid., 12. ↵
- Oscar Moro-Abadía, “The History of Archaeology as ‘Colonial Dicourse,’” in: Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 16 (2), 8 (last accessed on Feb, 4, 2017). Oscar Moro-Abadia sums up the most important aspects: archaeologists contributed to a colonial discourse in the form of knowledge of power over the past. They created a romantic image of archaeological practice that in the 19th century was linked to a focus on spectacular discoveries of “lost civilizations.” They omitted the link between colonial expansion and a field of scholarship and justified the appropriation of material cultures from the colonized regions. ↵
- See The Actuality of the Ancient: Contemporary Art, Icons and Identity November 30, 2015 (last accessed on March 1, 2017). ↵