A new exhibit at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Netherlands has sparked a fierce international debate about race in ancient Egypt. At the center of the scuffle is a statue inspired by the album cover for Nas‘ 1999 LP, I Am… where the Queens-bred rapper was depicted similarly to King Tut.
“Kemet: Egypt in Hip Hop, Jazz, Soul, and Funk” examines the legacy of Egyptian history in the African diaspora, and specifically music rooted in the African diaspora. Artist David Cortes’ statue titled “I Am Hip Hop” led Egyptian antiquities expert Abd al-Rahim Rihan to blast the creation for portraying Tutankhamun as Black, according to Egypt Independent. It also led to backlash on social media for allegedly promoting an ahistorical view of ancient Egypt.
The institution responded with a statement breaking down its reasoning. “[The exhibit] explores music by Black artists whose work refers to ancient Egypt and Nubia: music videos, record album covers, photographs, and contemporary artworks. This music often reflects on experiences of Black people in the West and tells stories about the African diaspora and pre-colonial Africa, including ancient Egypt as part of the African continent,” it read. “The exhibition explains why ancient Egypt is important to these artists and musicians and from which cultural and intellectual movements the music emerged.”
As for the statue, the museum pointed out that the work wasn’t meant to actually portray King Tut, but the Grammy-winning “Ether” MC. “This is not a replica of Tutankhamun’s mask but a contemporary artwork made in 2019 by an artist based on the cover of a 1999 record album by [Nas],” it contended.
Daniel Soliman, the museum’s Egyptian and Nubian curator, shared his reasoning for the choice in The Art Newspaper. “This is a very difficult topic and that is the thing with this exhibition: I think you really have to give it a chance,” he said. “There are Egyptians, or Egyptians in the diaspora, who believe that the pharaonic heritage is exclusively their own. The topic of the imagination of ancient Egypt in music, predominantly from the African diaspora, Black artists in different styles, jazz, soul, funk, [and] hip hop, had long been ignored.”
It’s not the first time in recent weeks that the race of ancient leaders from that part of the world have come into question. Following the debut of Netflix’s “African Queens” series on Cleopatra, one Egyptian lawyer even sued the streamer for casting a Black woman in the role.