Modern Art Not Fit For A Queen

A projection of the film portraying the moment in which the 3000-year-old Egyptian bust of Nefertiti is fitted on a bronze sculpture by two Hungarian artists known collectively as "Little Warsaw", is seen in the Hungarian pavillon at the vernissage of the 50th International Biennale in Venice, Italy, June 12, 2003. (AP Photo/Luigi Costantini)
They were together only a few hours. But that brief union of a celebrated, 3,000-year-old bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti with a modern bronze nude body touched off a furor.

Some Egyptians are calling the art project at Berlin's Egyptian Museum an insult to their culture and demanding the return of the ancient bust, charging it isn't safe in German hands.

The museum director, Dietrich Wildung, answers that his museum's most famous piece was never at risk and defends the videotaping of Nefertiti's head on a nude torso as a legitimate artistic experiment.

The tape is now part of an installation by two Hungarian artists at the Venice Biennale, one of the world's most prestigious contemporary art festivals.

An Egyptian archaeologist with whom Wildung has clashed in the past is leading the outcry in Egypt. Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, says the Nefertiti bust should be returned to Egypt for its protection.

Hawass, who has been criticized by Wildung and others for starring in TV documentaries that use Hollywood clips and computerized graphics, accuses Wildung of creating a "disgraceful display" and risking damage to Egypt's cultural heritage.

In a phone interview from Berlin, Wildung admitted he was baffled at first when the two sculptors came to him with the idea of videotaping the bust sitting on the shoulders of their nude statue. But he said he decided it would be in line with the museum's explorations of the influence of ancient art on modern artists.

Wildung said the 19-inch-high bust, with its elegantly arched brows and towering blue headdress, sat only briefly on the life-size body created by Hungarian artists Andras Galik and Balint Havas. The transfer on May 26 was done with care, he said.

Wildung said the painted limestone image of pharaoh Akhenaton's queen was up to "this dialogue with contemporary art."

In Venice, "Nefertiti's Body" stands headless, the bust's power symbolized by its absence. Zsolt Petranyi, the curator of the piece, said the goal was "to prove not just that art is universal, without any borders, but also that it is timeless."

Galik and Havas, whose previous works include a 3,240-square-foot test pattern on glass on the roof of a parking garage and giant photographs of plaster models of buildings, could not be reached for comment.

Petranyi feels the criticism in Egypt has less to do with art than ownership. "And this problem is not at all new, beginning from the 1920s, when the Egyptians began asking for the return of not just this object but many others," he said.

The Nefertiti bust has been in the Berlin museum's collection for nearly a century.

Hawass compares "Nefertiti's Body" to the Grateful Dead or Sting performing with his beloved pyramids as backdrops, concerts that Egyptian tourism officials allowed over his strident objections.

The work is "disgusting, it's something ugly," Hawass said. "The nudity also is disgusting."

In Egypt, where nude figure drawing is banned in college art departments, newspapers have been in an uproar. Farouk Hosni, Egypt's minister of culture and an abstract painter, said pairing the Nefertiti with a contemporary bronze was "mad and ill-considered."

Some Egyptian artists, however, saw nothing scandalous.

Huda Lutfi, an Islamic scholar and a respected painter, applauded the work for reaching "across cultures, across time."

Painter and filmmaker Khaled Hafez, who has been accused of belittling Egypt's heritage by juxtaposing pharaonic images like the pointy-eared god Anubis with pop icons like Batman, said the project succeeded because it provokes "thinking outside the box, trying to find alternatives."