A Cultural Icon Tells Her Own Story

DOHA, QATAR — 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 Courbé,” 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 pièce de résistance 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. No artwork illustrates this as well as the bust of Nefertiti, which since 2005 resides alone in a palatial room at the Neues Museum in Berlin.

The exhibitions supporting archival documents suggest that many of the filters through which one interprets art are rooted in several 19th-century historical trends. The concurrence of European colonial power and the modernization of archaeological practice, for instance, benefited Western museums, which were amassing collections with objects found and expatriated by European archaeologists. As the museums developed, a canon of art history emerged that classified art from the colonies according to ethnicity and geography. This led to the notion of the Middle East as exotic, an association that continues to influence “Western” perceptions of art from the region.

Ultimately, the exhibition puts forth the idea that, when inserted into a carefully constructed display, art becomes a useful tool for appropriating the past and controlling the present, or even the future. Such an intellectually weighty premise raises the bar for exhibitions that focus on Arab art, which tend to revolve around clichéd motifs that reinforce stereotypes even while intending to dispel them. “Tea With Nefertiti” potentially adds nuance to the discourse.

To the delight of many who lent pieces for the exhibition, it also constitutes an unprecedented opportunity for works originating in or inspired by Arab lands to return to the Middle East.

“I am happy that for the first time we are lending pieces from our collection back to the region,” said Regine Schulz, director of the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, home to one of the largest collections of Egyptian art. “It is so important that this show opened here, rather than in Paris or New York. Doha is not Egypt, but it nonetheless presents an opportunity to view the art from another perspective.”

Debuting the exhibition in Qatar did present certain challenges, however. Initially, the curators feared the Qatar Museums Authority might shy away from possibly controversial aspects of the exhibition: Emily Jacir’s video depicting Egyptian Museum personnel carelessly cleaning treasured hieroglyphics (“A Sketch in the Egyptian Museum,” 2003), for instance, implies that cultural treasures might be better off where they are until museums in Egypt can properly care for their collections.

Yet this fear proved unfounded. Mathaf embraced the exhibition in accordance with its mission to promote Arab art while sending a message that it is engaging with the international art world.

More broadly, “Tea With Nefertiti” exemplifies the Qatar Museums Authority’s drive to not only hold world-class exhibitions but to present the country as a hub of cultural production and knowledge creation.

Other exhibitions on view in Doha include a selection of Arab modern art from Mathaf’s permanent collection; an exhibition celebrating Arab contributions to Renaissance-era Western discoveries at the Museum of Islamic Art, whose park features Richard Serra’s monumental steel sculpture “7”; Yan Pei-Ming at the Katara Art Center; and an exhibition at the Orientalist Museum documenting a 16th-century European’s travels through the Ottoman Empire.

Collectively, these shows can be seen as an attempt to position Qatar as a prominent cultural hub that values tradition while looking outward — an ambitious goal and one that has yet to be fully realized.

“Tea With Nefertiti,” constitutes a step in that direction. It is due to become the first museum exhibition conceived and curated in an Arab country and exported internationally, with an opening scheduled at the Paris Institut du Monde Arab in April, and plans to travel later to Brussels, New York and South Korea.

 A version of this article appeared on The New York Times website on December 5, 2012 and in the print edition of the International Herald Tribune on December 6, 2012. 


Cairo’s Two Nights on the Town


While thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square last month to demand that the government release the blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah from prison, Cairo’s fashion-forward crowd ventured onto the streets for a different reason: to shop.

Across the bridge from Tahrir Square, the well-heeled meandered around the quiet, affluent neighborhood of Zamalek, partaking in the first edition of Cairo’s Fashion Nights, held on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.

Modeled after Fashion’s Night Out, the annual block party-shopping spree initiated in New York in 2009 by Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, the event aims to spur retail spending by luring customers into stores on a dedicated evening. In essence, the shopping experience becomes a big public fashion party.

Besides offering promotions and serving refreshments, stores enticed shoppers with gimmicks. Azza Fahmy, for example, an Egyptian jewelry brand, enabled visitors to live out their supermodel fantasies by hiring a professional fashion photographer to shoot anyone who wanted to model an item from the new collection.

Susan Sabet, the editor of Pashion, a monthly Egyptian fashion magazine printed in Arabic and English, conceived of Cairo’s Fashion Nights as a means of supporting designers and retailers struggling with slow sales and looting in the aftermath of the revolution.

“Everything is fine, let’s go down and shop” is Ms. Sabet’s message to deep-pocketed Egyptians, many of whom have been reluctant to splurge lately. Recognizing that a certain segment of the population nevertheless has plenty of money to spend, Ms. Sabet would rather see them spend it at home rather than on shopping trips abroad.

“Here, it benefits many people,” she said, “designers, manufacturers, material suppliers and retailers.”

Cairo’s Fashion Nights are also intended to restore confidence in Egypt and woo back Western and regional investors. “I want to show them that things are fine in Egypt,” Ms. Sabet said. “We are safe, we can host these events and people are still buying. Not everyone with money ran away.”

Was anyone worried about participating in a fashion extravaganza while political debates heat up before parliamentary elections next month and anxiety about Islamism and crime rates runs high?

“It will be interesting to see how people react” a stylist, Kegham Djeghalian, said before the event.

Still, neither he nor other participants worried much. It is surprisingly easy to block out the chaotic Cairene metropolis in the embassy-lined streets of Zamalek — “The only neighborhood where you can still walk the streets carefree,” said Vivian Abdel Messih, managing partner of Amuse, which she describes as a “lifestyle concept store.”

Her only concern was about her employees making it home safely late at night. “We all have cars,” she said, “but they have to ride public transportation and in these times I am worried.”

Because of these considerations, the event ended at midnight, two hours earlier than planned. No major incidents were reported.

“Let’s be realistic: Less than one percent of the population can afford these clothes,” said Dina Said, a designer featured at Amuse, “and anyone else would not even be aware it is taking place.”

Rather than perceiving Cairo’s Fashion Nights as being out of touch in a country where many people are preoccupied with political activism or simply putting food on the table, its organizers and supporters view it in the context of major fashion events worldwide.

“We don’t have an Avenue Montaigne or a Bond Street, but Zamalek has a high concentration of up-market stores that showcase talented designers,” Ms. Sabet said.

The notion that Cairo has the potential to become a fashion capital thrills Fares Rizk, an Egyptian-born artist who was visiting from New York, where he lives now.

“I’m very happy that people are comparing Zamalek to Manhattan,” he said. But before he could get too carried away, Ms. Said cooly reminded him that they still had a long way to go before anyone could really make such a comparison.

“It’s exciting, but it’s not super exciting, like it is abroad,” she said. “Karl Lagerfeld hung out with visitors at Chanel in New York. Can you imagine that here?”

Mr. Djeghalian noted that other places far off the global fashion radar, like Pakistan, have a fashion week and that Egypt deserves one, too.

While he conceded that Cairo lacked enough designers to produce a whole fashion week, “Cairo has long been fashion-conscious, so it makes sense to have something like Cairo’s Fashion Nights.”

Thanks to the presence of their loyal V.I.P. clientele, the atmosphere at some of the more established boutiques, including Azza Fahmy, resembled that of fashion parties anywhere.

A few stores were so crowded that visitors congregated on the sidewalks to get some air. But much to the dismay of emerging designers selling at retail spaces nearby that crowd failed to stroll around the block to make discoveries.

Trying to mask her disappointment about low traffic to the store where her collection was on sale, the designer Amina Khalila, 24, said: “We are not accustomed to hopping from one place to another yet. Here, people need to perceive a trend in something before they are willing to try it.”

In the less-established boutiques, the emphasis seemed to be more on reveling than on shopping, as young people dressed to the nines — some trendily and others outlandishly — and ran around drinking Champagne and wine at their friends’ boutiques. Most attendees said they had come to support their friends in business or merely out of curiosity. To Ramzi Ebeid, 33, an interior designer, the evening served as a release.

“I think a lot of people are feeling really suffocated and are fed up with putting all their plans on hold since the revolution,” he said, so now they are just “trying to have fun.”

The surrealistic atmosphere of Cairo’s Fashion Nights was enhanced by the presence of the “fashion police,” played by Mr. Djeghalian, who patrolled the stores on the lookout for fashion faux pas.

Lackluster styles warranted an “X” sticker signaling his disapproval, while creative outfits earned the lucky few a coveted checkmark sticker.

Cairo’s Fashion Nights seems to show promise. Why not harness money being spent on fashion to support the local economy during a difficult time? That idea appeared to resonate with shoppers. More than one said she had participated in the event “for Egypt.”

Designers and retailers welcomed support from the community, even if it proved more symbolic than visible on their bottom lines.

Underwhelming turnout notwithstanding, Ms. Sabet was “very pleased with how it went over all,” adding that it was a learning experience and expressing hope that “it will be bigger and better next year.”

Published on the New York Times website on November 9, 2011 and in the print edition of the International Herald Tribune on November 10, 2011. 


A Place Where Art Happens: BAM’s New Cultural District

Ed Purver’s The Always Season, at Lafayette Ave and Ashland Place. Photo by Hillary Bliss.

The neighborhood surrounding the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) buzzed last Tuesday as moderate-sized crowds mingled on Fulton Street in front of three newly unveiled public art installations. It was precisely the intended effect of BAMart:Public, an initiative to enliven underutilized public spaces with visual art (a fourth project is on view inside BAM’s Peter J. Sharp building). David Harper, the program’s curator, walked me through the installations and explained the project’s genesis along the way.

Forging “The BAM Cultural District”

The project’s impetus stems from the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s broader ongoing initiative to develop the Fort Greene neighborhood as a cultural hub (check out the map here). Progress towards implementing a master plan to create affordable performance and rehearsal space, mixed-income housing, and new public open spaces slowed during the recession. However, other components of the project are moving forward: new institutions such as the Theater for A New Audience are opening, BAM recently erected a new building, and there are plans to spruce up the sidewalks, plant trees, and improve the lighting, all of which will help. “We want people to know immediately upon exiting the subway that they are in a place where art happens,” Harper explains. Meanwhile, BAM, which stands to benefit from marketing the area as a cultural destination, decided to draw attention to all the cultural venues by placing art in unexpected places.

The Artworks

A call for proposals to activate dead public spaces spawned 120 submissions submitted from around the world, although the overwhelming majority came from Brooklyn. Four artworks were chosen by 12 jurors representing the local arts community, members of BAM’s board, local government offices, and arts professionals from New York City institutions.

Crossing Lafayette Avenue on a dismally gray day, a peculiarly blue patch of sky caught my eye. I had fallen for Ed Purver’s trompe-l’oeil The Always Season, a print adorning the otherwise dull, concrete, windowless sidewall of a building on Ashland Place. The artist took pains to match the patterns and texture of the concrete on his sand-textured, aluminum-backed vinyl. As a result, the background of the 25′ x 25′ print blends in almost seamlessly with its backdrop, making the image pop out, even from a great distance.

Less than a block away, Timothy Hall collaborated with Future Expansion Architects (Deirdre and Nicholas McDermott) to fill a nondescript space between two buildings with a structure vaguely reminiscent of culturally indistinct ancient architecture. In line with the rest of his work, Tim knew he wanted to make something that referenced antiquity. “It has something from the ziggurats of Babylon, it has something of the pyramids, the color of the material looks like a wall from Jerusalem or Byzantium,” he says, by way of explaining his inspirations. But unlike those formidable structures that have withstood the test of time, this artwork will disintegrate, collapsing into itself within a year. Belying its sturdy appearance, the “stone” is made from a mycelium mushroom and hemp fiber, a natural styrofoam substitute made by Evocative Design in upstate New York for use as eco-friendly packaging. As Harper explains, “Underneath is an entire structure of aluminum rods that will be revealed as the material biodegrades, so we will witness an amazing transformation over the course of the year.”

Next door, a glorious orange sunset shines through all three stories of windows from within the BAM Harvey building. Sunset by Glen Baldridge consists of a continuous image, sourced by the artist, which measures 48 by 25 feet and has the effect of transporting viewers to far off dream-lands. Harper likes to point out that the building once housed the Majestic Theater, and fittingly the world “majestic” runs conspicuously across the building, as if describing the scene. Printed on perforated vinyl, the work appears opaque from outside, but is transparent from within, allowing natural light to penetrate.

For Harper, the thread connecting these pieces is that “they are all natural, organic things.” Indeed the patch of blue sky naturally compliments the sunset, which, placed next to the ruins, reinforces the popular mind’s eye image of a hot desert sun creating setting spectacularly over the pyramids.

The final installation, on view in the lobby of the Peter J. Sharp building, brings together ten street art-affiliated artists to redesign traditional newspaper distribution boxes.

Showpaper, a free print publication listing off-the-beaten-path cultural events around New York, commissioned (with funding from BAMart: Public) Adam Void & Gaia, Cassius Fouler & Faust, Leon Reid IV & Noah Sparks, and Ryan C. Doyle & Swoon to work in pairs on the newspaper boxes, which will eventually serve as distribution points for 60 local, national, and international publications on the streets. According to Harper, it serves a really important function by disseminating “more media, more culture, more idea, more artists, more writing, more, more, more.”


ACE: How is the public reacting?

DH: Everyone has an opinion and everyone becomes an art critic when you put art in the street. During installations people came up to us all the time to ask what we were doing. For the most part, reactions have been extremely positive. It makes people smile when they turn a familiar corner and see something unexpected. It makes you think about who put it there and why. The art is there to spur conversation, to pose questions, to challenge how we think about the best use of urban public spaces and to push the boundaries of what a cultural district should be. Any conversation that stems from this project is welcome. And when you see someone eating their lunch in the park on a gray day and they look up at Ed’s patch of blue sky and enjoy it, that’s enough. You don’t have to engage in critical discourse about everything.

ACE: Since when is the Brooklyn Academy of Music so involved in visual arts?

DH: As BAM has grown, it has taken an interest in the surrounding artistic community as a whole. There are so many artists of all kinds – visual, film, performance – living and working in Brooklyn that we feel almost an obligation to service them since they are our audience, they are friends of our performers, they design our sets, and they generally hang out here and BAM wants to ensure that all artists have a voice within the institution. Besides, visual arts are hardly new to BAM. Andy Warhol designed sets for Merce Cunningham’s performances in the 1960s while Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were always hanging around here as the institution was being reborn under Harvey Liechtenstein. So really, BAMart, which encompasses rotating exhibitions in addition to the public art initiative, is simply a measure of incorporating the visual arts more formally into the programming.

ACE: Any parting thoughts?

DH: In ten years from now we probably won’t recognize the neighborhood, as new cultural spaces, condominiums, and other buildings go up. These obscure spaces won’t exist forever so we should make something of them while we can. If anything, it will remind people that this is the heart of Brooklyn culture. The brain might be in Williamsburg or Bushwick, the arms might be out in wherever, the legs down in Coney Island, but the heart is right here in the cultural district… This is the place where you can make things happen, whether you are a dancer, a filmmaker, a visual artist, or whatever. No matter what you do, this is the Brooklyn neighborhood where it all comes together.

A version of this article appeared on Art Fag City, June 27,  2012