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
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. …