On March 28 and 29, the Georgia Museum of Art is hosting a symposium entitled “While Silent, They Speak: Art and Diplomacy,” in conjunction with the current exhibition “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy.” I will be giving a talk on the artwork above, Hungarian artistic duo Little Warsaw’s The Body of Nefertiti. András Gálik and Bálint Havas, the two artists of Little Warsaw, were some of the first people I interviewed for my Fulbright project when I lived in Budapest last year, and it’s been a pleasure to come back to this work of theirs, which is also the subject of a longer essay to be published in the summer. If you’re in the Athens area, it looks like a truly interesting batch of papers beginning at 8:30 am on March 29 (and I’m in the 10:30 session). More about mine, below:
“I agreed with Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher that we establish contact at the highest levels with Germany, and lodge a protest against this unethical and ill-considered insanity.” – Faruq Hosni, Egyptian Minister of Culture
Perhaps surprisingly, the Egyptian Minister of Culture was reacting to a statue. At the Hungarian Pavilion of the 2003 Venice Biennale, artistic collaborators Little Warsaw presented viewers with a lone sculpture of a female body with its arms hanging by its sides and a deep rectangular excision of the space where a head might appear. Little Warsaw were not able to realize their original conception of joining the head of Nefertiti, the iconic ancient Egyptian bust, with their contemporary bronze within the Pavilion. However, their sculpture was temporarily joined to the head of Nefertiti in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Through the statue and documentation of this process, the artists performed a conceptual ‘reunification’ at the Pavilion.
As the quote suggests, the project struck a nerve within Egyptian-German relations on the issue of cultural restitution. If the national pavilions are (ideally) considered a forum of international dialogue and soft diplomacy, then Little Warsaw’s project is a failure. It exposed the historic Western colonialization of an ‘exotic’ Egyptian past and, in an added dynamic, the agents of this exposure were Eastern Europeans from the margins of Europe. This project, through the vehicle of a national pavilion, exposed tensions along geopolitical borders that can also be traced in a broader cultural sense—in which Egyptian (and Hungarian) art historical narratives are subsumed into a dominant Western model. I suggest that in the case of The Body of Nefertiti, with its goal of revealing implicit issues around cultural ownership and lingering cultural imperialism, art becomes not a tool of diplomacy, but a smoking gun.