Egyptian authorities banned The National Museum of Antiquities (RMO) in Leiden from carrying out excavations on the Egyptian burial ground in Sakkara after their exhibition “Kemet: Egypt in hip-hop, jazz, soul & funk,” which Egyptian authorities considered offensive and appropriating Egyptian culture.
About Kemet: Egypt in hip-hop, jazz, soul & funk
The exhibition, which opened it’s doors on April 2023, till September, focuses on the “representations of Egypt in the music of artists with African roots.” It featured portrayals of black American artists, such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Nas, as ancient Egyptian icons like Queen Nefertiti and Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Through the use of music, video, interviews, and colorful artifacts, the exhibition draws comparisons between ancient Egyptian pieces and the works of influential Black artists such as Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and John Singleton.
These contemporary artists have found inspiration in the rich heritage of ancient Egypt, which is showcased alongside the museum’s own collection. One of the most controversial exhibits is a golden statue titled “I Am Hip Hop” by David Cortes, based on a Nas album cover. This statue, borrowed from the artist, has sparked criticism from some Egyptian antiquities experts who argue that it portrays Tutankhamun as Black, a claim the museum vehemently denies.
It’s worth noting that there aren’t any actual Egyptian musicians included in the exhibition.
However, the exhibition received disapproval from the Egyptian authorities, who accused the museum of falsifying history and having an Afrocentric view of Egyptian history. The head of Foreign Missions of the Egyptian Antiquities Service sent a direct email to the museum expressing their disapproval.
Antiquities Service Response and RMO Angered by The Decision
RMO has been conducting excavations on Egyptian grounds in cooperation with international partners and Egyptian authorities since 1975. This is now set to come to an end after a direct email from the Egyptian authorities to the director of RMO.
According to NRC, the head of Foreign Missions of the Egyptian Antiquities Service wrote to the museum, stating their disapproval of the exhibition’s Afrocentric view of Egyptian history. In the email, they accused the museum of falsifying history with the exhibition’s approach.
Dr. Daniel Soliman, the curator of the Egyptian and Nubian collection at the National Museum of Antiquities, acknowledges the sensitivity of the topic but emphasizes the importance of giving the exhibition a fair chance.
He highlights the exhibition’s intention to showcase neglected viewpoints within the museum world. Dr. Soliman, who himself has Egyptian heritage, explains that the exhibition aims to explore the imagination of ancient Egypt through various musical genres like jazz, soul, funk, and hip-hop. He believes that these artistic expressions, predominantly from the African diaspora, provide unique insights into ancient African culture and its impact on contemporary artists.
“Egypt can handle that excavation as they please because it is their country. But the reason why they do this is wrong. No one has come to look at the exhibition and no one from the Antiquities Service has yet contacted us about its contents. All the fuss comes from images that have been released from their context.”Half-Egyptian Curator Daniel Soliman, who took part in the exhibition, told NRC in response to the Egyptian Antiquities’ decision.
Moreover, the Director of RMO, Wim Weijland was furious with the decision. He requested for the qualification to be taken back and wrote the Egyptian Antiquities, providing information about the content of the exhibition, but received no response.
Weijland said that although they would like to continue their excavations in Sakarra, the museum will make no changes to the exhibition. According to him, the exhibition was made with care, and the backlash is “indecent”.
“We are not going to make excuses and we will not adjust the exhibition. I am willing to add a sign with Egyptian commentary, but then someone has to come and have a look first.”Weijland told NRC.
A Met Museum Instillation Falsifies Egyptian History
Egypt’s approach to combating cultural appropriation is evident in its response to the RMO situation, but there remain other significant and pressing issues that have yet to be acknowledged.
In early May, Lauren Halsey unveiled an installation intended for the rooftop garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The installation purportedly sought to reinterpret ancient Egyptian architecture and sculpture in a contemporary context.
However, this claim does not accurately reflect Halsey’s intentions. Her objective was to create an installation highlighting “Black LA,” with a focus on promoting inclusivity and representing historically black communities facing erasure. Regrettably, the final outcome combined pharaonic motifs and depictions of ancient Egyptian culture with African-American features.
While Halsey’s installation aimed to commemorate the presence of the black community and its cultural contributions in the United States, it included the faces of her relatives and friends on pharaohs and sphinxes.
Given Egypt’s commitment to confronting Afrocentrism and safeguarding the authenticity of its history, it is crucial to address the Metropolitan Museum’s installation as an offense deserving attention.
Cultural Appropriation and Awareness
The Kemet exhibition opened amidst a heated international debate surrounding the portrayal of Cleopatra as a Black woman in a recent Netflix show. Consequently, the Dutch museum faced an influx of one-star Google reviews and backlash on its social media platforms. Critics claimed that the exhibition was promoting cultural misappropriation and representing a Black man as an ancient Egyptian. These accusations prompted a member of Egypt’s House of Representatives to raise questions to the government, further intensifying the controversy.
It is fair to mention that after the controversy surrounding Netflix’s Cleopatra ‘Documentary’, RMO’s exhibition’s approach and the Met instillation should be expected to be problematic. Egyptians have been more aware of the dangers of Afrocentrism and appropriation of their culture.
When Cleopatra came out, not only did it receive backlash on social media and terrible ratings, those in charge including Zahy Hawas took the initiative to produce his own historically-accurate documentary on Cleopatra. However, if we are going to keep arguing against having our culture stolen, we need to address it on all levels and contexts.