How Nefertiti Became a Powerful Symbol in Contemporary Art
Since its discovery in the early 20th century, the bust of Nefertiti, a work of limestone and stucco crafted by the sculptor Thutmose around 1345 B.C.E., has cemented the ancient Egyptian queen’s relevance as a global pop-culture icon. The Nefertiti of the infamous sculpture dons her signature cap crown, an extravagant royal blue headdress with a golden diadem band and elaborate designs, which suggest a power embellished by an elegant aesthetic. Beneath it, her face—symmetrical, poised, and objective in its beauty—is a reminder of the allure that has made the bust of Nefertiti one of the world’s most enduring artworks.
A testament to her staying power in popular culture, Nefertiti’s likeness continues to be reimagined by contemporary artists around the world. Through their adaptations and homages, these artists’ works bridge the gap between antiquity and modernity. Yet the sculpture is also the subject of heated debates; the significance of Nefertiti’s gender and questions surrounding her racial identity have forged schisms in her modern cultural appeal. Over the past few decades, German, Egyptian, and American artists, in particular, have pushed matters of race and gender to the forefront of the discourse surrounding Nefertiti, calling on us to consider what it means to co-opt, distort, and reimagine the image of an African queen to whom many feel entitled.
The German Oriental Company uncovered the bust of Nefertiti on an expedition in Amarna in 1912. A sponsor of the excavation lent the sculpture to the Neues Museum in Berlin in 1913, where it has been housed ever since. Germany’s claim to the ancient artwork has been contested by Egyptian authorities and activists alike. Within this geopolitical landscape, a number of German artists have explicitly engaged with Nefertiti in their artwork as a means of exploring ideas about identity and ownership.
In an untitled 2012 work by
In his 2017 bronze work Quantum Nefertiti, German sculptor
Pushing back against Western claims on Nefertiti, African artists have been making their own arguments for the queen’s ethnic and national belonging. In his 2018 solo exhibition “Nefertiti” at the Zamalek Art Gallery in Cairo, Egyptian artist
In America, artists of African descent have enlisted Nefertiti to examine their racial identity and heritage. Bronx-born artist 1993 project Grey Area (Brown version) offers five iterations of Nefertiti’s bust in a spectrum of skin tones. By delivering variations of Nefertiti that appeal to our modern color-coding of blackness, brownness, and whiteness, Wilson asks that we determine what is at stake in dispelling or confirming Nefertiti’s racial identity.
In Jamaican-American artist and critic Cibachrome photography collection “Miscegenated Family Album” (1980/1994), sculpture reliefs of Nefertiti and her daughters are juxtaposed with photographs of O’Grady’s own sister and nieces. Here, Nefertiti serves as mother, daughter, sister, and self. By drawing on the diasporic and the matrilineal, O’Grady imbues Nefertiti with black feminist significance.
In her 2018 work Composition of Doorknocker Earrings with Pharaoh Heads and Nefertiti Recesses, the Detroit-born, New York–based artist
In his numerous works featuring Nefertiti, Ethiopian-American artist
For all the lore that surrounds Nefertiti’s image, very little is known about the life of the “beautiful one,” as she is called. In fact, Nefertiti largely disappeared from the historical record by the 12th year of her husband Akhenaten’s reign, when she was around 30 years old. Yet as an ancient muse, her cultural potency is only enhanced by this mystique. Without it, she would not be fit for the artistic and political projection that remains foundational to her posthumous reception. By inciting our engagement with the politics of race, gender, and colonial entitlement, Nefertiti has effectively surpassed the royal reach that once marked her dynasty. In exchange for this influence, she must remain a figurehead, her 21st-century fame marked by the disembodied power of a bust.
WATCH: Breaking Glass
Empowering women to shape the future.
Sponsored by UBS