Magazine article Artforum International

Egyptomania: Nasser Rabbat on "Tea with Nefertiti"

Magazine article Artforum International

Egyptomania: Nasser Rabbat on "Tea with Nefertiti"

Article excerpt

"NEVER DID THE LABOR OF MAN show me the human race in such a splendid point of view. In the ruins of Tentyra the Egyptians appeared to me giants," exclaimed Dominique-Vivant Denon when, in the winter of 1798, he encountered the temple now known as Dendera, located south of the small town by the same name in Upper Egypt, as part of Napoleon's French expedition to Egypt (1798-1801).* Faced with the marvels of Egyptian art, he and the other savants attached to the mission had to question the Greco-Roman paradigm of their own history of art and to admit Egypt as the fountainhead of the tradition they called their own. Henceforth, Egypt became not only a subject of intense scientific scrutiny, exemplified by the monumental multivolume Description de l'Egypte (1809-28), produced by those same savants, but also a European fascination, at times even an obsession, whose history, myths, and material culture have been blatantly claimed and absorbed in various narratives that bypassed the country and its actual people.

The story of Egypt's appropriation by the Western gaze, the myriad artistic responses to this cultural colonization, and its impact on modern Egypt's self-image are the subjects of the teasingly titled exhibition "Tea with Nefertiti: The Making of the Artwork by the Artist, the Museum and the Public," on view at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, until March 31. The show is slated for a European tour, to begin with the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris next summer and perhaps an American sojourn later. Intelligent, beautiful, and judiciously critical, "Tea with Nefertiti," curated by the team of Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath of Art Reoriented, considers Egypt a case study but ultimately aims for a broader examination of the contentious ways in which the meaning of art is mediated through the multifarious agents and institutions engaged in its production, presentation, and evaluation.

The curators attempt to achieve this ambitious goal through an intriguing gambit: They present the works in the show from three concentric perspectives--the artist's, the museum's, and the public's--with each contained in its own section. The first emphasizes the individuality and creativity of the artist. The second examines the institutionalization of art, asking what this process entails in terms of the signification and valuation of artifacts. The third aims to track down the unpredictable transformations of art as it breaks out of its rarefied domains, infuses the public realm, and there risks appropriation to commercial, political, or ideological ends. The exhibition employs more than one hundred works of art, dating from 1800 BCE to the present, in combination with various other documents, ranging from official papers to newspaper clippings, to present Egypt's induction into art history in visually stunning and critically sharp vignettes. Shunning conventional organizational techniques--chronology, style, location, monograph--the curators create discursive loops in which artworks and documents from diverse provenances and times are assembled and arranged to frame questions about the complex relationship between art, knowledge, and politics, though this last element is delicately introduced and tactfully under-played. Thus, the most iconic symbols of Egypt, the pyramids, are the subjects of two arrangements: one focusing on their formal and monumental qualities and located in the "artist" section, the other touching on their pivotal role in the making of modern Egypt and displayed in the "public" section. In the former, works by Van Leo, Mamduh Muhamad Fathallah, and Lee Miller (all twentieth-century artists who lived in Cairo) explore the shape and overwhelming size of the pyramids as inspiration for photographic compositions, with Van Leo emphasizing the relationship of the pyramids to a human scale, Fathallah exploring their triangular profile, and Miller examining the exactness of their shadows. …

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