Niklas Wolf

Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles: Nefertiti Hack, 2018. Mixed media, © Screenshots Niklas Wolf, https://www.nora-al-badri.de/, last accessed on 10th Feb. '20

Hacking an Icon

The bust of the ancient Egyptian queen stands pars pro toto for recent discourses on the lawful and unlawful relocation of important cultural heritage for the history of mankind. It not only illuminates the handling of foreign artefacts and their itineraries in and through various networks, but also their display in museum collections and the ways in which debates can be traced to a particular object. What auratic and identity-creating potential is attributed to such expressions of material culture? What kind of memorial function do they possess and how do they participate in a globalized visual memory? What significance do concepts of original and copy have for these objects, as well as questions realted to their restitution? How do the digital and geographical spaces in which they appear function in these contexts, and how might artistic discourses contribute to answering these questions?

  • Niklas Wolf
    Niklas Wolf

    In ancient Egypt there was an elaborate system of reproduction around representative works of art. Gypsum casts of royal statues ensured that images of rulers were comparable and consistent nationwide. The formal type of a portrait bust, however, is as special as the material of Nefertiti’s representation. Stone figures, combined with a publicly effective installation, corresponded to ideas of permanence and a ruler’s longevity. The stone bust’s surface is coated with gypsum, which enabled a particularly fine design, and brightly coloured paint. The latter is preserved in its original condition (Tyldesley 2018).


    Technology, material, surface and the design of the object play an important role in Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles’ project The Other Nefertiti (Pinther 2018). This project intentionally raises a number of questions that refer to discourses about provenance and access to both one’s own and foreign cultural assets, as well as their relocation. Moreover, it points towards a possible democratization 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 of such discourses, and even possibly their solution?  As part of an artistic intervention, the two artists penetrated the space of the museum and photographed the bust with concealed scanners, from which they were able to generate a multitude of detailed data to create a 3D print. Within the framework of a Common Creative License, this data is accessible online to the general public and provides “immaterial material” for future images as well (Nelles 2016). Anyone with access to the Internet and a 3D printer will therefore be able to print a copy that corresponds to the shape of the original, thereby democratizing the cultural asset. This gesture directly counteracts how strongly the accessibility of such assets are typically regulated – not even amateur photographs are permitted in a museum context, as the Berlin State Museums (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) retain sovereignty over the object and its image. 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 museal practices such as those of the Berlin State Museums: in reaction to the publication of the data, they referred 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 Ludwig Maximilian University in 2019. A female student, who gave a lecture on the relocation of Nefertiti, contributed to the discussion by printing a Nefertiti bust using data from the Nefertiti hack. In contrast to the Berlin original and a printout based on Nelles and al-Badri’s data, this bust was greatly reduced in size and made of fluorescent material. A significantly expanded conception of art developed amidst questions of reproducibility, reproduction, aura and figurative trademarks. Unlike the officially signed copies produced by the Berlin Gipsformerei, these replicas 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 gains new materiality through printing. The latter is freely scalable, a series of enlarged or downsized reproductions can be made, 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 its reproduction: the intriguing story of outwitting and interrogating the museum becomes an immaterial and performative work of art, which exists on an equal footing with the shapeless dataset and the multitude of printed and altered Nefertiti busts.

    What can an object do as a representative? Which discursive spaces does it operate within? What kinds of questions can be asked of the original and copy? Which terminologies are capable of describing new metamorphical translation processes and aesthetics?


    Critical comments on the Nefertiti project point out that simple, transportable 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 State Museums or that they themselves had a replica of the bust scanned (SPK 2016). Both remarks are difficult to verify after the fact and do not affect the intention of the project.


    Little is known about 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 constitutive memorial function in 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 to both 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 contemporary terminology used to discuss 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