'Tea with Nefertiti': Letting a Cultural Icon Tell Her Own Story ; Exhibition Returns Works to the Middle East and Questions Art's Essence

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An exhibition in Doha brings treasures back to the Middle East and promotes the notion that art is a tool for appropriating the past and controlling the present, or even the future.

You can't take tea with Nefertiti: but if you could, the queen of ancient Egypt might seize on the opportunity to lament that she has come to represent a narrative of "cultural otherness," or so surmise the curators of "Tea With Nefertiti," at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.

With the iconic limestone and stucco bust of Nefertiti created by Thutmose in 1345 B.C. as their starting point, Till Fellrath and Sam Bardaouil have put together an exhibition that examines artworks spanning thousands of years and various continents through three lenses: that of the artist, the museum, and the public.

While the bust of Nefertiti is not included in the show (it is in Berlin), it serves to inspire critical reflection on visual culture. "Tea With Nefertiti" is, in the words of Mr. Bardaouil, "an invitation to let Nefertiti tell her own story."

That story unfolds through a juxtaposition of works by 26 contemporary artists with pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic archival documents, and modernist paintings and sculptures by Egyptian and European masters, including Georges Sabbagh, Mahmoud Moukhtar, Alberto Giacometti and Amedeo Modigliani.

Contemporary highlights include Vik Muniz's life-size mummy made in Tupperware ("Tupperware Sarcophagus," 2010); a video by William Kentridge tracing the history of the Egyptian collection at the Louvre ("Carnets d'Egypte," 2010); and Ghada Amer's re-creation of a refined Egyptian living room ("Le Salon Courbe," 2007). In that living room, seemingly abstract embroidered patterns covering the elegant furniture spell out the word "terror" in blood-red Arabic letters, while the English definition of the same word is revealed through a close inspection of the wallpaper.

The piece de resistance is perhaps "The Body of Nefertiti," a video by the collective Little Warsaw, which featured in the Hungarian Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale. For that project Little Warsaw, comprising Andras Galik and Balint Havas, did the unthinkable: They sculpted a bronze body and placed it under the original bust of Nefertiti, rendering the statue complete. Hailed by art critics as remarkable and decried by many Egyptians as offensive, this controversial piece ties the exhibition together.

Arranged as they are according to the perspective of the artist, the museum and the public, the seemingly disparate artworks begin to relate to one another.

Questions emerge. Why, for instance, does an unsigned 10th- century Fatimid bowl constitute a decorative object, while a Neolithic vase is elevated to the domain of contemporary art when Ai Weiwei adorns it with the Coca-Cola label? Why did the Parisian gallery Bernheim-Jeune always call Mahmoud Moukhtar an "Egyptian artist" in its publications, while Picasso, whom it also represented, was simply described as "artist"? What does it mean that Egyptian publications initially called Georges Sabbagh "monsieur" because they saw him as an outsider living in Europe, but later switched to "effendi," claiming him as one of their own after his sculpture "Egypt Awakening" rendered him a national hero?

By delving into these often overlooked curiosities, the curators seek to deconstruct the mechanisms of visual display that shape how one perceives artwork. "No curation is neutral," said Mr. Bardaouil as he led members of the press through the exhibition. By that he meant that any artwork derives ideological narratives from the context in which it is displayed. Placing an object on a pedestal in a museum creates a system of hierarchies. The object no longer represents its maker's creative process, but the curator's vision and the host institution's mission. …