How a Leiden museum got sucked into Netflix series’ attack on Cleopatra
If you think you’ve put on a great summer show, you’ve earned the wrath of a nation. It happened at the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO) in Leiden with the exhibition Kemet. Egypt in hip-hop, jazz, soul and funk, which opened on April 22. After a week, Egyptian reactions started pouring in: nearly a thousand 1-star reviews on Google and hundreds of furious comments on social media. What was going on here?
In the exhibition, the museum seeks “the significance of ancient Egypt and Nubia in the work of artists from the African diaspora” – particularly black artists from the United States. They “embrace and claim these ancient African cultures to express resistance, empowerment and spiritual healing,” the museum explains. The visitor will see Beyoncé and Rihanna as Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, rapper Nas as Pharaoh Tutankhamun and Eddie Murphy as Pharaoh Ramses, among others.
Innocent inspiration from another culture? No, according to members of the Facebook group “Egyptian history defenders”: these powerful American artists are appropriating a culture that is not theirs. A call for protest from this group was the start of a storm of criticism, says director Wim Weijland. “There were so many reactions – sometimes of a very racist nature – that we could no longer manage it in terms of moderation. We have therefore temporarily closed our Facebook page.
Weijland says the museum was aware in advance of the possible sensitive nature of the exhibit, but was still overwhelmed by the vehemence of the reactions. “Warning: they come from people who have not seen the exhibition. We carefully place the current state of knowledge in Egyptology alongside these cultural expressions of American artists.
In a long statement in English on the site the RMO reviews all possible points of criticism. There is no question of “Afrocentric propaganda”, assures the museum. Afrocentrism is an intellectual movement that studies history from the perspective of Africa and the African diaspora. These include studies that view ancient Egypt as an African culture; some scholars claim that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans.
The visitor sees Beyoncé as Nefertiti and rapper Nas as a pharaoh, among others
Weijland: “We test these claims against scientific knowledge. Kemet is ancient Egyptian for ‘the black’. According to some Americans, this indicates the skin color of the inhabitants of ancient Egypt. We explain that “the black earth” is the fertile soil around the Nile. »
Now the negative reviews have been removed by Google and it is possible to reply on the RMO’s Facebook page again, says Weijland. “We have expanded our moderation team so that we can also respond outside office hours and remove racist comments immediately.”
The RMO exhibition found itself in the middle of the controversy that arose about the documentary Queen Cleopatra which premiered on Netflix this month, but the first trailer appeared in mid-April. This four-part series is produced by Hollywood star Jada Pinkett Smith and the role of Cleopatra is played by black British actress Adele James. In addition, experts speak, one of whom claims that Cleopatra was black.
Uproar in Egypt
A global streaming giant has a wider reach than a Leiden museum, so this documentary immediately caused a stir in Egypt. It was a little different then Liz Taylor who played Cleopatra in a 1963 feature film, according to critics, a historic claim has been made here. A lawyer wanted to ban Netflix from broadcasting the documentary, and there were also protests at the political level.
Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s most famous archaeologist, wrote in a comment that Cleopatra was not black. “She was descended from a Macedonian Greek general, a contemporary of Alexander the Great. Her first language was Greek and contemporary busts and portraits clearly depict her as white. President of the Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri Talk about “falsification of Egyptian history”.
Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s most famous archaeologist, wrote in response that Cleopatra was not black
Pinkett Smith supported her choice and Adele James recently said in a podcast that there is no such thing as ‘Whitening‘. She regrets that people “feel the need to separate Egypt from the rest of the continent”. In an opinion piece in the New York Times two American scientists write this week that Cleopatra’s skin color may not have been black, but was ‘culturally black’ as part of a story of ‘triumph, exploitation and survival’ .
Weijland finds it really unfortunate that the discussion has gotten out of control, he says. “And to think that our exhibition was planned a year earlier, but was postponed because of the pandemic. Whether Kemet hadn’t coincided with this documentary, we would probably have been spared this storm. I hope many people will come and see for themselves, so they can form their own opinion.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on May 13, 2023.
“Bacon trailblazer. Certified coffee maven. Zombie lover. Tv specialist. Freelance communicator.”