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What is the Nefertiti Theorem?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 03 - 09 - 2013

The Nefertiti Theorem, this summer's major exhibition at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, is an intriguing, often challenging, show that at the very least keeps visitors on their toes. First shown at the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar and put together by co-curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, it looks at the ways in which artworks, once released from their makers' studios, can be roped into contexts, and given meanings, that are far from what their original makers may have intended.
However, this is a rather modest way of putting what the curators say in an altogether more elaborate language, their preferring to speak of the “resemantisation” of artworks, when they mean the acquisition of new meanings, and “the series of visual confrontations that sheds light on the capacity of the work of art, and the presentation that is made of it, to give rise to conflicting narratives,” by which they appear to mean that context is important when trying to make sense of a work of art.
Yet, once past these linguistic barriers – there is no English-language catalogue, meaning that one has to translate the curators' sometimes tortured French – this is an exhibition that is full of interesting material and sharp observations about the ways in which the work of ancient and modern Egyptian artists has been recycled for different purposes and understood by different audiences. While it is never clear if the exhibition adds up to more than the sum of its parts, it sometimes seeming to want to take in everything but the kitchen sink, and possibly even that as well, it is very much worth visiting, even if visitors are unlikely ever to understand the meaning of the eponymous Nefertiti Theorem.
The exhibition is divided into three parts, artist, museum and public, each containing what the curators describe as a series of “juxtapositions” in which works by different artists from different periods are presented side by side, sometimes creating dialogue but perhaps more often creating confusion. In an exhibition designed to examine the ways in which artists, institutions and audiences manufacture meaning, it may be that visitors should not worry too much about what may have been intended by the exhibition's juxtapositions or the reasoning behind the ordering of the exhibits. Instead, their best strategy may be simply to take each object on its merits, treating each as part of a temporary treasure-house of more or less Egyptian art and open to whatever meanings they may care to project upon it.
Following this strategy turns up some fascinating pieces. Among the case studies included across the exhibition, for example, are those of the Franco-Egyptian painter Georges Sabbagh (1877-1951), the pioneering Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Moukhtar (1891-1934), and the Art and Liberty Group that led the artistic avant-garde in Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s. For reasons that are never clear, Sabbagh's work, like that of Moukhtar and members of the Art and Liberty Group, is spread out across the three parts of the exhibition and is presented more than once in different contexts. However, in the second part of the exhibition it is explained that the importance of Sabbagh for the exhibition's curators lies in the way in which his career developed in different ways in France and Egypt, the work being understood differently in these different contexts.
An essay in the catalogue brings the works together, explaining that while Sabbagh was seen as a French painter in his native Egypt, in France he was seen as an oriental or Egyptian one. The essay points out that while attempts were made in Egypt to insert Sabbagh into the developing narrative of modern Egyptian art, Al-Ahram in 1929 describing the painter as a “national treasure” and a veritable representative of the nation, in Paris he was seen as an “Egyptian Van Gogh”, in other words as a kind of prize pupil of European modernism.
As the essay says, while Sabbagh thought of himself as a French painter rather than an Egyptian one, despite the attempts at recuperation back home, “the question of nationality often introduced into discussions of his work… [distracts attention from] his first priority, that of any genuine artist, which is the formal character of his work.”
The sculptor Moukhtar is a promising test case for the curators' approach, particularly since Moukhtar, far more than Sabbagh, was intimately associated with the development of modern art in Egypt. Once again, works by Moukhtar are spread out across the three parts of the exhibition, and the visitor comes across them in varying contexts. However, a catalogue essay brings the works together, focussing on the “invention” of Moukhtar as the “first Egyptian sculptor since the time of the Pharoahs” and a major figure in Egyptian artistic nationalism.
Moukhtar's work was understood differently in France, where he studied at the Ecole nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, from the way it was received in Egypt. In his native country, Moukhtar was seen as having achieved a kind of fusion of European technique, learned in Paris, and Egyptian subject matter, while at the same time listening out for what a writer in Al-Ahram described in 1934 as “the call of Pharaonic art”. When Moukhtar's sculpture Egypt's Renaissance, now standing in front of Cairo University, was unveiled in 1928, Al-Ahram declared that the work, which shows an Egyptian woman removing her veil while standing beside a sphinx, “makes reference to the exclusively Egyptian traditions preserved at the historic sites of Saqqara, Karnak, Deir Al-Bahari, Edfu, Dendera, the Nubian lands and in many other places.”
In fact, however, as the catalogue notes, things were not that simple, and Moukhtar had at first experimented with a neo-classical, and therefore originally European, style for his sculpture before opting for his trademark neo-Pharaonism. “This was not the first time that an artist had turned to the arts of ancient Egypt in order to gain public recognition,” the catalogue essay says. “The example of [the French sculptor] Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi also comes irresistibly to mind.”
The latter artist, best known for designing the Statue of Liberty in New York, had apparently submitted a design of an Egyptian fellahah, her right arm held above her head and brandishing a torch, to the 1869 competition for a monument to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. When Bartholdi did not win this competition, he recycled his design, suitably modified, for the statue in New York. Moukhtar seems to have borrowed from it when deciding on the pose for his own fellahah, one arm held aloft but minus the torch, in Egypt's Renaissance.
While the curators of the Nefertiti Theorem have dug up much rarely seen material on Sabbagh and Moukhtar, including a fascinating film of the 1928 unveiling of Moukhtar's statue, it is perhaps their treatment of the Art and Liberty Group that is most rewarding. This group, loosely structured and attracted to the ideas of European Surrealism, was determined to break away from nationalist ideas in art, following instead a vaguely leftist programme that sought both to challenge prevailing conceptions of modern art in Egypt and the way in which it was being manufactured and exhibited. In what is the best researched and most substantial essay in the exhibition catalogue, the curators reconstruct the group's original exhibition programme, suggesting that the members of the group sought to undermine, perhaps in almost Dadaist fashion, the ways in which art was discussed and exhibited in Egypt in the 1940s and afterwards.
In a series of what might be best described as anti-exhibitions, the Art and Liberty Group, led by ideologue Kamal Al-Telmissani and including among its founders Anwar Kamel and Ramses Younan along with the Franco-Egyptian surrealist poet Georges Henein, aimed to bring about a “tangible change in the way of looking at, exhibiting and writing about art.” In so doing, it emphasised “the ephemeral, the unstable and the visually frustrating” rather than the commonplaces of the art culture of the time, which valued “immobility, solidity, common sense and visual primacy.”
At the group's second exhibition, held in the still unfinished Immobilia building in Cairo in 1941, the effect was to produce what the Egyptian Gazette's critic described at the time as a “tortuous maze” in which objects that may or may not have been works of art, but were in any case far removed from the aesthetics of either Sabbagh or Moukhtar, were placed at apparently random intervals in a manner designed to recall the 1938 Surrealist exhibition in Paris.
These three case studies, Sabbagh, Moukhtar and the Art and Liberty Group, are threaded through the exhibition, and they are discussed at length in the catalogue essays. However, the Nefertiti Theorem also contains many other incidental pieces, most of them illustrating themes identified in the case studies. Among the more memorable of these are Xenia Nikolskaya's atmospheric photographs of the interiors of apparently abandoned Cairo buildings (taken from the artist's “Dust Series” of 2006-12), including of the Serageldine and Sakakini Palaces, and the video piece A God Passing by David Tretiakoff, which records the shifting of the giant statue of Ramses II from Bab Sl-Hadid Square in Cairo in 2006.
On exiting the Nefertiti Theorem some visitors may feel as if they have just attended some kind of strenuous university seminar, an impression that may be reinforced by going through the catalogue. If the curators are to be believed, the intention of the exercise is precisely to attack the authority of the standard art exhibition with its hierarchies of value and prestige, its canon of established artists, and its connoisseurial art-historical discourse of schools and movements. It seems paradoxical, therefore, that the overall effect may be to alienate visitors who run the risk of being even more confused by the exhibition's language and its mysterious juxtapositions.
On the other hand, this is a serious-minded and often pleasurable exhibition, and though it can bring back ghastly memories of academic seminars it remains well worth seeing. One wonders whether the Institut du monde arabe's decision to cooperate with the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar will herald a change in the institution's own exhibitions policy. Up until now, the Institut has generally sourced its own exhibitions, rather than serving as a staging post for those produced elsewhere.
Is this the beginning of a less ambitious or a more ambitious exhibitions policy? If the Institut now means to serve as a showcase for work produced elsewhere, it runs the risk of losing curatorial talent and it may not be taken seriously as a major player. If, on the other hand, it now intends to thicken its cooperation with art and other museums in the Arab world, it may begin better to fulfil part of its original mandate, which was to serve as a kind of “museum of museums” for the Arab world.
Le Théorème de Néfertiti, itinéraire de l'oeuvre d'art, la création des icônes, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, until 8 September.

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