Hip-hop music is playing next to sarcophagi and statues in a Dutch museum, as curators strive to demonstrate the influence of ancient Egypt on black musicians.
A portrait of Beyoncé costumed as Queen Nefertiti is displayed among ancient busts, while a video of Rihanna mimics Egyptian aesthetics.
What appears to be a pharaoh’s golden mask is actually a modern sculpture based on the cover of a Nas record.
But the “Kemet” exhibition at Leiden’s Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (National Museum of Antiquities) has enraged Egypt, which has reportedly banned the museum’s archaeologists from a dig at a key site.
According to Dutch media, Egypt’s antiquities office said the museum is “falsifying history” with its “Afrocentric” approach, which attempts to hijack Egyptian culture.
After the issue erupted in Egypt, the museum stated it was bombarded with “racist or offensive in nature” remarks on social media.
As a result, what was supposed to be a powerful celebration of “Egypt in hip-hop, jazz, soul, and funk” has devolved into a culture war.
Assistant Professor University of Amsterdam, specialist in political geography with a regional focus on the Middle East and North Africa analyzes the reactions: ” From what I can see it has been sort of viewed in a very particular light by the government back in Egypt.”
“I think it’s, it’s important for us to, as you say to kind of move away from this more Eurocentric perspective through which Egypt’s history has been viewed,” Dr Ali Hamdan added.
The show examines black artists’ music through record album covers, pictures, and modern artworks.
There are record cover walls depicting the impact of ancient Egypt on artists such as Tina Turner, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Miles Davis, as well as a special interactive multimedia display.
Egyptian officials condemn the intention to blend their historical heritage with black culture in the United States.
“It’s not only about kind of African Americans taking Egyptian culture, it’s about a very wealthy commercial project that is to say Hollywood and other kind of related industries doing that,” the Dr. says.
“So the perception is that there are these wealthy Hollywood elites who are kind of taking advantage of Egyptian culture and kind of rewriting how they view their own identity right. So there are a lot of layers to this I think that are worth keeping in mind.”
The museums has insisted it aims to “show what scientific, Egyptological research can tell about ancient Egypt and Nubia.” As it also aims to works are presented “to show and understand the depiction of ancient Egypt and the messages in music by black artists.”
The curator of the exhibition, Daniel Soliman, is an egyptologist.
Much has been written about the controversy.
Museum director Wim Weijland was quoted by the Dutch newspaper NRC as saying that Egypt’s reaction was “unseemly”.
Daniel Voshart who works in art/film, visited the exhibition. He praised its “informative overview” and said the reaction to the exhibition was overblown.
“This doesn’t make any sense to me and they’re just sort of being too sensitive or trying to score political points maybe… Nothing to me was shocking,” said the 37,-year-old from Canada.
“There were music videos that were already made and it’s not like the Dutch government paid Beyoncé to become you know, Egyptian.”
“There are paintings of Egyptians with dark, dark skin, curly hair, I mean it’s if, if they’re trying sort of to distinguish themselves from other parts of Africa, maybe a bit too much, but it was a blending of cultures, a blending of people. I don’t think you know it’s theft anyway.”
The Kemet exhibition is named after an ancient name of Egypt meaning “the black land”.
It appeared to stroll into an already-brewing controversy in Egypt over a Netflix docudrama about Cleopatra when it premiered in late April.
Egyptian pundits and authorities were outraged in April when Netflix aired a film depicting the ancient monarch as black, despite the fact that she had lighter skin.
Similar allegations of changing history were leveled against the Rijksmuseum’s musical display.
According to NRC, Egyptian officials then barred the museum’s archaeologists from visiting the necropolis in Saqqara, south of Cairo.
Staff at the museum were astonished because they have been working at the enormous burial site, a UNESCO World Heritage site, for nearly five decades and are currently directing an excavation there.
“It’s not just a story about whether the museum is getting the Egyptian identity right or wrong,” Ali Hamdan, an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam specialising in political geography, told AFP.
“This is a story about two different projects to make sense of Ancient Egypt. One is a… cultural project by this museum, and another is a political project by the Egyptian state.”
Hamdan added that “your average Egyptian would describe themselves as Arab first maybe Egyptian second”, while their relationship with Africa was “complicated”.
Egyptian Tourism and Antquities authorities could not be reached for comment.