Niklas Wolf

Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles
Mixed media
The artists

Hacking an Icon

The bust of the ancient Egyptian queen stands pars pro toto for recent discourses on the lawful or unlawful relocation of cultural heritage, important for the history of mankind. It shows the handling of foreign artefacts, their itineraries in and through various networks, as well as their display in museums' collections and the debates that can be traced on a particular object. What potential is auratic and identity-creating attributed to such expressions of material culture, what kind of memorial function and participation in a globalized visual memory do they have? What significance do concepts of original and copy have for these objects and questions of restitution of them, how do digital and geographical spaces in which they appear function in these contexts, how could artistic discourses contribute to answering these questions?

Niklas Wolf
Niklas Wolf

The Nefertiti-Hack. Hacking an Icon

In ancient Egypt there was an elaborate reproductive system around representative works of art. Gypsum impressions of royal statues ensured the nationwide comparability and consistency of the images of rulers. The formal type of a portrait bust, however, is as special as the material of Nefertitis representation. Stone figures, combined with a publicly effective installation, corresponded to the ideas of permanence and longevity of the rulers. The surface of the stone bust is coated with gypsum, which enabled a particularly fine design and brightly colored paint; the latter is preserved in its original condition (Tyldesley 2018).


Technology, material, surface and design of the object play an outstanding role for the project The other Nefertiti by Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles (Pinther 2018). On the basis of this project, several questions can be developed that intentionally refer to discourses about provenance, access to foreign and one’s own cultural assets, the relocation of these and a possible generalization of globally significant, mobile artefacts. What happens to a visual object when it is reduced to the essence of its digital data? How can digital processes and media be part and possibly even solution of such discourses? As part of an artistic intervention, the two artists penetrated the space of the museum and took photographs of the bust with scanners hidden on their bodies, from which they were able to generate a multitude of detailed data for a 3D print; at least that’s what the artists’ statement said. Within the framework of a Common Creative License, this data is accessible online to the general public and is immaterial material for future images as well (Nelles 2016). Whoever has access to the Internet and a 3D printer will therefore be able to print a copy, corresponding to the shape of the original. The idea is that a cultural asset, the accessibility of which is strongly regulated, from which not even amateur photographs may be made in a museums context – the Berlin Museum retains sovereignty over the image production and the object – can be generalized. Both the generation of the data and the symbolic return of a Nefertiti copy and its burial in the Egyptian desert were documented on film. The project thus becomes part of a discourse critical of the museums practices in which the Berlin museum itself also participated: in reaction to the publication of the data, they refer to the legality of ownership, the ban on photography and the possibility of various – strictly regulated – accesses to the object and its reproductions. (SPK 2016)


Questions of accessibility and the relocation of cultural assets were also the topic of a seminar held at the LMU 2019. A female student, who gave a lecture on the relocation of Nefertiti, contributed to the discussion by printing a Nefertiti bust using the data of the Nefertiti hack. In contrast to the Berlin original and a printout based on the data of Nelles and al-Badri, this bust was greatly reduced in size and made of fluorescent material.

Within questions of reproducibility, reproduction, aura and figurative trade marks, a greatly expanded concept of art developed. Unlike the officially signed copies of the Berlin Gipsformerei, the prints of the bust are made at a greater distance from the original. No direct contact is necessary, the distribution is globally possible. There are several processes of translation and transformation that create new networks between bust and recipient. First, an immaterial object – the data set – is created, which in a process of appropriation gains new materiality through printing. The latter is freely scalable, a series of enlarged or downsized reproductions would be conceivable, which would nevertheless correspond in scale to the dimensions of their source; materially, a Nefertiti created that way would never (want to) correspond to the bust of Nefertiti. Artists thus become the authors of new truthful objects, the story of the original begins to overlap with the narrative of the reproduction, the exciting story of the outwitting and questioning of the museum becomes an immaterial and performative work of art and exists on an equal footing with the also shapeless dataset and the multitude of printed and altered Nefertiti busts.


What can an object do as a representative? In which discursive spaces does it operate? Which questions can be asked of the original and copy (?) – which terminologies are capable of describing new metamorphic translation processes and aesthetics?


Critical comments on the Nefertiti project point out that transportable, simple scanners would not be able to capture images that would allow such high-resolution data sets. It is possible that Nelles and al-Badri gained access to professional scans commissioned by the Berlin Museum or that they themselves had a replica of the bust scanned (SPK 2016). Both remarks are difficult to verify afterwards and do not affect the intention of the project.


Hardly any facts have been handed down from Nefertiti’s life; she encountered the global visual memory through a singular object, the portrait bust exhibited in Berlin, which stands for timeless glorified beauty and power in its own right. Questions about the accessibility of such images are already inscribed in the contexts in which they were created. In the ancient Egyptian tradition of exhibiting, powerful pictures worked between showing and concealing, they functioned as temporarily enlivened representatives of royal or divine power (Hornung 1971). Closely bound to constantly changing contexts of religion and rule, they had a memorial function constituting society, represented absent power, and were threatened by iconoclastic destruction. With the beginning of the colonization of the African continent by Western powers, Egypt’s cultural heritage was of particular archaeological and political interest – of public and private collections, as well as the art market. (Read more on the history of the Nefertiti bust and the concept of partage...)


In the contemporary terminology of ancient Egypt, terms of similarity (likeness) were summarized in discourses between original and copy: tut means (perfect) similarity; image, role and model coincide in one object and correspond to each other. Tut ankh is a living image (Tyldesley 2018) – (…) conceptual art was designed to represent the exact nature of a thing or person in the simplest way possible (…) (Tyldesley 2018). Perhaps the busts of Nefertiti – the dislocated cultural artefact in Berlin, as well as the multitude of possible reproductions from 3D printers worldwide – fall into very similar transcultural categories of representative likeness.


Delve deeper into the reception history of the bust.



  • Hornung 1971: Hornung, Erik. Der Eine und die Vielen. Altägyptische Götterwelt, Darmstadt 1971
  • Nelles 2016: Nefertiti Hack. Artist homepage: http://nefertitihack.alloversky.com (25.01.2019)
  • Pinther 2018: Pinther, Kerstin; Weigand, Alexandra (Hrsg.). Flow of Forms / Forms of Flow. Design Histories between Africa and Europe, Bielefeld 2018
  • SPK 2019: Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz: „Nefertiti Hack” ein Schwindel?, 09.03.2016. http://www.preussischer-kulturbesitz.de/meldung/article/2016/03/09/nefertiti-hack-ein-schwindel.html (25.01.2016)
  • Tyldesley 2018: Tyldesley, Joyce. Nefertitis Face. The Creation of an icon, London 2018



published February 2020