The Art That Is Permitted for You to See, Share or Use
The statue of Nefertiti is an outstanding work of art dated from at least 1340 b.C., located, nowadays, in the Neue Museum, part of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The statue refers to one of the most enigmatic figures of Ancient Egypt. Nefertiti was the wife of Amenophis IV, that later in life changed his name for Akhenaten and proclaimed monotheism. That defined the end of an era. It is believed that Nefertiti even ruled Egypt after the death of her husband. When she was approximately 30 years old, though, she mysteriously vanished from history (her mummy has never been found). The art piece is as remarkable as I have imagined when I had the opportunity to see it, for the first time, in mid-October.
Recently, I moved from Sao Paulo to Berlin and, as an art enthusiast, I wanted to see all the museums I could get into. Unfortunately, the money was low and the prices are high, and, as I would learn very quickly, unlike Brazil, art museums may be a good business in Europe. The tickets for the main institutions vary from 15 to 20 euros, and even the daily pass is a bit too expensive to expats trying to make a living. In Sao Paulo, one could go to an excellent museum like the Pinacoteca for approximately 1 euro (50 cents for students).
My wife and I could just cry and pick just one place to go in our first month in the city. We thought, why not see the famous statue of Nefertiti? It is not exaggerated to say that that it may be one of the most important works of Ancient art hosted in Berlin. We went to the Neue Museum, a building located in the “museums island” built on the nineteenth century that has a primary collection of ancient and even pre-historical art and artifacts. After closing its doors in World War II and the hostile political climate Berlin lived during the Cold War, Neue Museum re-opened its doors only in 2009.
When I saw the Nefertiti, I finally understood the huge “hype“ surrounding that small bust of a woman from so long ago. It is stunning. It seems like she is going to talk to you at any moment. “She” is also very beautiful and elegant in our contemporary standards, with a long neck, perfect nose, full lips, and serene, black-lined eyes.
The museum put the statue in a small round room, with green walls, in the center, so one can walk all around the piece. Three or four security guards also stay near, granting visitors will behave. And the sign is clear: you can’t take pictures. You can take photos (without flash) on the entire museum. The flash has the potential to damage the pieces, not the photograph itself. Still, why not Nefertiti? Maybe the museum did want a Monalisa-hype thing when you barely can see the work of art in the sea of heads taking selfies?
I was not sad about that — I was there to see the actual piece, not take photos of it. But of course, that intrigued me. Her image is central in the Neue Musem communication and marketing. There is a huge picture of the piece in the entrance. In Google Arts and Culture app and website one can see the details so perfectly, so flawlessly, while I could not see it when looking at the bust, in person, behind the glass in the green room.
Images of museums are images of power
How Nefertiti got into Berlin? This is a history of the prolific German Egyptology. The bust, which is actually a base intended to make other portraits of the queen, was found in 1912 by the egyptologist Ludwig Berchardt. Egyptian laws at the time have set that the results of excavations must be split into two portions. The Egyptian authorities had the first choice — they did not choose the portion which included Nefertiti.
After one period in the house of a wealthy collector (and a patron of German excavations), the bust was gifted to the Royal Prussian Art Collections in 1920. Four years later, Nefertiti was displayed to the public for the first time, on that very Neue Museum.
Ancient works of art, buildings and historical sites found in European excavations — that became very strong in the second half of the nineteenth-century — were material objectification of what we may call “racial anxiety”, for using this perfect term that I heard from Professor Donald Reid, from Georgia State University.
There is historical anxiety in showing that huge, advanced and complex Ancient civilizations were white people, or, to be more direct, were NOT black people (because “brown” or “tan” people were admitted by some scholars in the past). The same anxiety has shown many times concerning the Pre-Columbian civilizations in America, which for a long time was object of debate if they were actually complex societies or simple “savages”. Also, post-colonial African studies had its own anxiety in showing that, yes, Ancient Egypt people were black people.
Today, this is still a debate, although not as racist as it was in the nineteenth-century. What we have today is another complex issue, though: now that the places of excavation are in general independent countries, to whom these works of art belong? Should Ancient Mesopotamian art return to now Iraq? Could Mayan art pieces go back to Mexico and Guatemala? Should Nefertiti return to Egypt?
We have a lot of this debates running out since at least the 1990s. In some cases the original field of the pieces won the case, in others, the work of art remained in Europe or we’re sent to important institutions in the USA. The real belonging of works of art, especially from ancient civilizations that are now considered Third World Countries (like in the Middle East and north of Africa) is not a new discussion. The scene from Black Panther, when the Michael B. Jordan‘s character harshly criticizes the museum curator for stealing various ancient pieces from African societies (before killing her) is a clear indication of that. The colonial roots of that behavior are explicit.
Works of art mean power and money. An incalculable amount of money is spent only on insurance companies. And museums also mean business, since it makes cities interesting, “cultural”, touristic, as I said at the beginning of this story.
If I am not mistaken, that is what Marcel Duchamp states with L.H.O.O.Q., a small postcard of Leonardo da Vinci’s La Gioconda (Monalisa) with a comic drawn mustache and the title. The letters suggest, in French, Elle a chaud au cul, or She is hot in the ass. It as a misogynist, yet kind of funny, way of saying: c‘mon, you do not think that a mere painting is so important because they (institutions, specialists, the press, or whoever) said it was.
One could argue, and that would be very fair, that some pieces were recovered in areas were nowadays there is conflict, and are way more protected in European institutions. Par example, ISIS destroyed pleny of Ancient buildings and statues, including the independent Ancient city of Hatra, which destruction was recorded and then shared with a shocked world, working as part of ISIS' own project of image cleansing with jihad propositions.
But this point of view ignores that Europe had its own share of conflicts in the twentieth century. Ironically, a great share of Ancient art and artifacts from German/Prussian regions are now actually in Russia, due to the Soviet invasion of Berlin during the WW2 and control in the Cold War.
The democratization of images is also a sign of power
But saying that an institution of the First Country inquires the holding of important works of art barely answers my question: why we should not take pictures of Nefertiti if she is already owned by the German museum?
The fact is that not only the work of art has to be controlled, but also the images that are made of it. I hadn’t paid attention to it until I listened to an interview with the Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari in the Hyperallergic's Art Movements weekly podcast. Allahyari calls it “digital colonization”: the fact that not only pieces are controlled by certain groups of power, but also the images taken of ot. There are loads of historical sites that were photographed by Google Arts and Culture, and that the images remain as a property of Google — not of the original country whose it theoretically it belongs to.
Now, we have technology in our favour. Even if you don’t live in, nor travel to Berlin, you can see Nefertiti’s bust from the comfort of your couch while using Google Arts and Culture. In fact, you will see the statue with incredibly more details than I did myself, behind the round glass. You can discover curiosities and the history behind the piece. And all that for free. Is it not the perfect democratization of art, after all?
Allahyari’s critique is that, no, it is not necessarily democratic, because even the technology that is needed (a good computer or phone, a good internet speed, etc.) is not for everyone. In fact, Google Arts and Culture is especially suited for specifics audiences who have access to it.
The issue is truly complex, and that is exactly what I like about intellectual remarks made by artists. Allahyari has a project called Material Speculation: ISIS, in which she re-creates some Hatra pieces destroyed by ISIS with 3D printing. She also made the prototype open to anyone who has the technology to construct them as well. What is the boundary between the true object and the image (digital or not) of it? What can we do to protect them? And do we actually need to? To whom belongs the object and the image, who has the power to conserve it or destroy it?
Nefertiti has left me only questions, and that is precisely what her enigmatic look suggests.