This Monday, NRC reported that Egypt is so angry about the ‘Kemet, Egypt in hip-hop, jazz, soul & funk’ exhibition at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities (RMO) in Leiden that the museum is banned from carrying out excavations at the archaeological site of Saqqara.
The exhibition shows how black artists were inspired by ancient Egypt. For example, Beyoncé and Rihanna have portrayed themselves as the Egyptian queen Nefertiti in the past and rapper Nas was once featured on an album cover as pharaoh Tutankhamun. These links caused an outrage in Egypt. The exhibition is accused of being Afrocentric and promoting cultural appropriation of Egyptian heritage.
Egyptologists affiliated with Leiden University were shocked by the sudden excavation ban. Saqqara is the only location in Egypt where the museum operates, says professor of Egyptology Olaf Kaper.
‘The project has been running since 1974. It’s a very successful collaboration with a long history. It seems that it is suddenly no longer important how good the relationship with the museum has been all these years.’
The university is only indirectly involved in the Saqqara project. ‘One of our staff members, Miriam Müller, still goes there regularly with a number of students. These visits are off the table for the time being. No date had been set yet for this expedition.’
Other excavations that the university is associated with are not in danger. But even that was uncertain for some time, says Kaper. ‘For a moment, I thought: where is this going?’
There was also concern about whether the commotion would affect the International Congress of Egyptologists that is to take place in Leiden this August. ‘Egypt was so angry over the exhibition that it was clear that measures would follow. In such cases, it is easy to lump all the Dutch together and punish other institutions as well. However, last week, the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities decided that a distinction would be made between the university and the museum. As such, the full Egyptian delegation is still coming to Leiden.’
The uproar over the exhibition is ‘terribly unfortunate’, says Kaper. ‘It’s an interesting and exciting exhibition, but the timing is very poor. Because it coincides with the uproar over the Netflix documentary Queen Cleopatra.’
In that series, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra is portrayed as a black woman. This prompted furious reactions from Egypt.
‘Due to the emotional discussion triggered by the series, Egypt is targeting anything remotely similar. A few images from the exhibition, including the poster, are circulating on Facebook without context. Those images are open to misinterpretation, which then leads to strong reactions. Egypt’s only real criticism is about black Cleopatra. It’s a misconception that the museum claims the ancient Egyptians were black. That’s completely ridiculous and absolutely not the case. It’s a gut reaction.’
‘There were questions in the Egyptian parliament along the lines of: “What is the government doing about this horrible exhibition?” So the ministry had to react. By using this means of power, shutting down the project in Saqqara, they’re showing that they are serious about this matter.’
Kaper and his colleagues are going to figure out what they can do to get Egypt to reverse the decision. ‘That’s why it’s a very good thing that the Egyptian delegation, including senior officials, is coming to Leiden. We’ll have a chance to discuss the matter together. The delegation will probably not want to visit the museum, but at least they’ll be here.’