What was meant to be an empowering celebration of "Egypt in hip-hop, jazz, soul and funk" has instead turned into a culture war...
In the Dutch museum Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (National Museum of Antiquities), a hip-hop soundtrack accompanies an exhibition aiming to show the influence of ancient Egypt on Black musicians - including icons of jazz such as Miles Davis and Sun Ra and contemporary artists such as Beyoncé and Rihanna.
Music videos, audio clips, concert recordings, photographs and album covers by artists including Nina Simone, Prince and Erykah Badu accompany visitors throughout the exhibition, as well as what initially appears to be a pharaoh's golden mask which turns out to be a modern sculpture based on the cover of an album by the rapper Nas.
But the journey through musical history that the 'Kemet: Egypt in Hip-Hop, Jazz, Soul & Funk' exhibition offers has enraged Egyptian authorities, which have accused the museum of "falsifying history" with its "Afrocentric" approach, which they believe seeks to appropriate Egyptian culture.
The museum's archaeologists have reportedly been banned from the necropolis at Saqqara, south of Cairo, a key site for digs. Staff at the museum were shocked, as they have been active for nearly five decades at the vast burial site, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are currently leading an excavation there.
Museum director Wim Weijland was quoted by the Dutch newspaper NRC as saying that Egypt's reaction was "unseemly".
Dr. Ali Hamdan, Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam and specialist in political geography with a regional focus on the Middle East and North Africa, states that the exhibition "has been viewed in a very particular light by the government back in Egypt."
"The perception is that there are these wealthy Hollywood elites who are taking advantage of Egyptian culture and rewriting how they view their own identity," says Dr. Hamdan, adding that it's "important for us to move away from this more Eurocentric perspective through which Egypt's history has been viewed."
The museum has insisted that the Kemet exhibition, curated by Egyptologist Daniel Soliman, aims to show "how Ancient Egypt and Nubia have been an undeniable source of inspiration for musicians of African descent for over 70 years, with artists not only embracing and claiming these ancient African cultures, but also employing the associated motifs as symbols of resistance, empowerment and spiritual healing."
This message comes across for Daniel Voshart, who works in art/film. The 37-year-old from Canada visited the exhibition and 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 Voshart. "There were music videos that were already made and it's not like the Dutch government paid Beyoncé to become you know, Egyptian."
As tensions continue, Dr. Hamdan weighs in: "It's not just a story about whether the museum is getting the Egyptian identity right or wrong. 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."
'Egypt in Hip-Hop, Jazz, Soul & Funk' - open until 3 September 2023 at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden, the Netherlands.