Jan Nikolai Nelles/ Nora Al-Badri
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Nefertiti for everyone: returning Egypt’s cultural history with the help of a 3D printer

Where do cultural artefacts belong? And what do we really mean by “original”?  

Nefertiti’s 3,300-year-old bust is one of the most famous artefacts of the Ancient Egyptian world. But to join the million-odd tourists who visit the statue of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s wife every year, you must travel not to Cairo, but to Berlin’s Neues Museum.

Nefertiti’s resting place has earned her a place on Time magazine’s “Top 10 Plundered Artefacts” list, and she isn’t alone. The grand museums we enjoy throughout the west are filled with objects collected for “safekeeping” over the past few centuries from countries to whose cultural history they belong.

Even now, we cling on: just ask Greece, whose Elgin marbles nearly landed the British government in front of the International Criminal Court. They’re still on display in the British Museum.

To the history of Nefertiti’s location, however, we can now add a curious footnote. In October 2015, German artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles visited the Neues Museum several times, equipped with a covert 3D scanner hidden under Al-Badri’s jacket. Using the scans of the statue, they 3D printed a polymer resin replica, accurate to individual chips and pockmarks. The files of the scans are available for anyone to download for free. They called the project “Nefertiti for Everyone”.

The Times has described the artists as criminals, who carried out the “very modern crime” of ripping off the intellectual property of the Berlin museum via 3D scanner. This seems far less convincing, however, when you consider the history of the statue itself – and the fact that even an Egyptian visiting Berlin would pay pay €12 (€6 concessions) for the privilege of viewing the statue. Photography – let alone 3D scanning – is banned in the display room. Until now, Nefertiti most certainly was not for everyone. 

Al-Badri and Nelles displayed “The Other Nefertiti” in Cairo in late 2015; the first time the statue has been exhibited in Egypt in any form. According to reports, residents of the city flocked to see the statue, while thousands more people have downloaded the torrent of the scans. Germany is not taking any steps against the artists, though in a statement last week a spokesperson for the Prussian Cultural Heritage foundation said that the scans are of “minor quality” and so there is “no necessity to react”. Experts, meanwhile, have praised the scans' quality. 

The other nefertiti. Image: Jan Nikolai Nelles/ Nora Al-Badri.

The Neues Museum first acquired the bust in 1913, after German archaeologists split the spoils of their dig with the Egyptian government. The museum argues that this transaction was “legally indisputable”, though some claim that the archaeologists provided a misleading photo of the bust, and didn’t show the object itself to Egyptian inspectors. According to records from the German Oriental Company, one of the archaeologists “wanted to save the bust for us”, ie Germany.

The apparent greediness of archaeologists can be partly explained by the desire to preserve: while Egypt is as able as Germany to put a statue in a glass box, it has a more chequered record of preservation. Some historic sites are still manned by volunteers who live on the tips they receive, though reforms to the way antiquities are managed are on the way. (On a visit to the Valley of the Kings I was asked if I wanted to touch Tutenkamun’s tomb for an extra few Egyptian pounds.) The Egyptian Museum, meanwhile, was looted during the 2011 revolution. 

But do we really believe that cultural objects belong to whoever discovers them, then passing to whoever looks after them? A recent article in Berlin’s Zeitung newspaper claimed that Nefertiti was now “more German” than Egyptian: “The bust has been above ground and visible in Berlin for much longer than it ever was in Egypt.”

I spoke to Nora Al-Badri over email about the question of ownership, and she agrees that returning these objects to their original locations or counties is the best solution: “In an ideal world, repatriating (human remains) and restituting (objects) would be the rightful way.”

The artists have buried the original copy in the desert in a secret location, but another, gypsum version will soon be on display at Cairo’s American University. So while museums abroad maintain their grip on historical objects, are copies a satisfactory halfway point? In China, temples are regularly restored and aspects replaced, since there is less emphasis on “original” objects or fixtures. We value Roman plaster copies of Greek statues, since they’re the closest we have to the orginals.

Al-Badri says that copies “can be an inspiring source to rethink the current and past western mindset of worshipping the original”, which, after all, led to the grasping for ancient artefacts in the first place. The original artifacts shoudn’t be dismissed, Al-Badri says, but we should “value copies” too. 

Burying the statue, she says, is a  “poetic counter-act to the excavation”. There’s a tongue-in-cheek implication that perhaps, since we seem capable of little more than an endless tussle over these objects, a kind of Solomon's judgement is the only way forward: we should just return them to the ground where we found them. If Nefertiti isn't for everyone, then she should be for no one. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
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Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist