The past week has seen some active discussion about the bust of Nefertiti, public ownership, and provenance following the art intervention of Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nicolai Nelles as discussed in articles from HyperAllergic and the NY Times.
The two German artists covertly scanned the bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin. This video shows how the scanner was hidden under Al-Badri’s scarf. They then handed the scans to collaborators who created a 3D file.
In the spirit of public domain ownership and restitution of colonial spoils, the file was released and replicas were made using a 3D printer and taken to Egypt.
In the February 26 Hyperallergic piece, Al-Badri is quoted as saying:
Archaeological artifacts as a cultural memory originate for the most part from the Global South; however, a vast number of important objects can be found in Western museums and private collections. We should face the fact that the colonial structures continue to exist today and still produce their inherent symbolic struggles.
Al-Badri and Nelles want us to think about cultural theft, about where an artwork belongs and how it gets to where it is seen.
The Nefertiti bust (1340 BCE) was originally excavated in 1912
It was found in the studio of a sculptor, Thutmose, in Amarna, capital of the pharaoh Akhneten, husband to Nefertiti.
Although the rest of the Amarna collection was shown publicly in 1913-1914, the bust was not displayed until 1924, at which time the first formal description of the find was also made.
The Nefertiti sculpture moved around a lot after the Berlin museum closed in 1939 and was eventually taken west, leading to disputes between East and West Germany.
Despite multiple requests from Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities for the bust to be returned to Egypt, Germany considers its ownership legal.
How many Nefertiti? One Nefertiti
There is the historical Nefertiti. Among other things, she and Akhnaten established the worship of a single deity—pretty revolutionary in pantheistic Egypt of the time—and object of the Philip Glass opera Akhnaten. Nefertiti was originally thought to have died soon after her husband, but recent finds suggest she survived him and ruled Egypt herself.
The Nefertiti bust is the iconic image of this woman.
A 2009 computed tomography scan of the bust shows a detailed limestone sculpture of a woman with a few wrinkles and small bump in her nose. The thin layer of painted stucco covering the limestone has been characterized as ‘photoshopping’ her appearance.
There have been claims that the sculpture is a hoax, crafted in 1912.
The reasoning is based on the style—with traits similar to the Art Deco movement of the time—and the missing left eye, which would have been considered anathema for Egyptian artists.
Although the pigments have been carbon-dated to be 3000 years old, the ‘forgers’ still could have applied them a hundred years ago.
And then there is the recent reconstruction made by Paul Docherty using multiple high-quality cloud-sourced photographs to map, and recreate, the three-dimensional surface.
The Other Other Nefertiti
So Al-Badri and Nelles scanned the bust and released a high-quality 3D file.
For example: the bust is inside a glass box, the scanner requires a power source (which isn’t seen), the low resolution of the scan, and it would be very noticeable if the scanner were raised over the bust given the height of the display case.
The consensus seems to be that the scanning did not lead to the file that has been released, but rather that it is some version of the museum’s 3D scan.
It might have been hacked, stolen, leaked, or something else.
When mentioned, these claims seemed to amuse the artists. Al-Badri simply replied, “Of course a scan of the same thing looks the same.” Hyperallergic 9 March 2016
Does it matter?
Al-Badri insists that they made a scan and they released a file. She implies that the connection between the two is a black-box. Their statement is about ownership and colonialism. It is about originals and about culture.
Even those expressing admiration for the unfolding discussion convey some perplexity at this secrecy, especially given the transparent collegiality of the community of experts exploring public domain objects.
What is an original?
Al-Badri and Nelles propose that a copy should reside in the Neues Museum and that the original should be in Egypt.
Would that matter?
The power of an original comes from knowing that there is only one. In the case of cultural artifacts, there is the thrill of knowing that it is ancient.
Because of my inordinate fondness for medieval manuscripts, it is not rare that I find myself looking at a copy at a museum. Like the Beatus in the Girona Museum.
But paper is particularly fragile and books were not made to be held open for display. Perhaps stone sculptures like Michelangelo’s David or Nefertiti’s bust are less vulnerable.
What is more important, originality or ubiquity?
With the knowledge of the British Museum, Wenman scanned and printed a head of Selene from the Parthenon in 2012.
From a world of multiplication of images, where Malraux’s museum without walls has expanded almost exponentially because of the internet, The Other Nefertiti and works such as those of Wenman, Kahl and Docherty, carry us into a world of multiplication of objects. A tactile expansion made possible by technological breakthroughs that seemed science-fiction to non-experts even five years ago.
Wenman proposes in his piece on The Other Nefertiti:
The world’s back catalog of art should be set free to run wild in our visual and tactile landscape, and whether it turns up lit in pixels on our screens, rematerialized in our living rooms, or embedded in our architecture or clothing, it’s all to the good.
Of printing presses and 3D printers
As a reader, talk of originals makes me think of the restricted access to books in the historical past, where manuscripts and incunabula were relegated to monasteries and libraries. It reminds me of how the printing press turned the written word from magic to commonplace.
The analogy may not hold water, but I do wonder:
Is the experience of an art object lessened by the existence of multiple copies or is the world richer for the increased exposure?