The Empty Museum

Dina El Kaisy Friemuth’s insistently minimalistic exhibition shows us what remains when we repatriate stolen artefacts.

Installation view, Dina El Kaisy Friemuth, No History at All, Overgaden, Copenhagen, 2021. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

“Some ideas have to die,” proclaim the white letters against a black background on a giant banner stretched out across the façade of Overgaden. While the exact nature of these ideas is still a bit unclear, the activist feel of the banner establishes certain expectations. Surely, I must be about to see an exhibition filled to the brim with loudly insistent political slogans.

No History at All
Dina El Kaisy Friemuth
Overgaden – Institute of Contemporary Art , Copenhagen

Imagine my surprise, then, as I step behind a curtain on the ground floor to be greeted by an almost empty showroom. A carpet, four posters, and a very short video are the result of a year of work carried out by Dina El Kaisy Friemuth, who has been a part of Overgaden INTRO, an initiative that gives the artists involved access not only to a long production period and curatorial input, but also to a larger exhibition budget than usual.

The slogan from the façade is repeated in the first poster, a cartoon featuring the Egyptian queen Nefertiti – or, rather, her bust – as the main character. The bust, now housed at Neues Museum in Berlin, relates how it misses the fresh air and the burning sand of the Valley of the Kings as the poster describes how German archaeologists abducted the sculpture in 1912 and now hold it as a kind of diplomatic hostage in a neo-imperialist struggle of ownership. Who does the bust belongs to? Since 1924, the Egyptian authorities have been trying to get it repatriated, citing that it was taken out of the country on a rather dubious basis – a claim which Germany has so far rejected. In fact, Germany refused to lend the bust to the opening exhibition at the new Grand Egyptian Museum in 2012, officially because it is now too fragile to be shipped, but according to the newspaper The Times also because German authorities worried about whether the Egyptian museum would return it. Whatever might have given them that idea?

In the video work House of KA (2021), we follow Friemuth and three family members as they visit the Neues Museum’s Egyptian collection after the museum’s usual hours. The film cuts from a close-up of an Egyptian bust to one of the young women’s faces, thereby establishing an identification between the two that is difficult to fully grasp. Her unfathomable facial expression does not reveal the thoughts running through the head of one whose cultural artefacts are trapped and separated from her life behind thick museum glass, but one senses a certain alienation.

In the second half of the video, the family sits on a carpet not unlike the one covering the gallery floor and listens to an older woman – Dina’s mother – tell them the macabre, grisly detail of how the deceased’s brain was removed through the nose when embalming the body. In ancient Egypt, it was not the intellect, but rather ka – the life-force, spirit, or soul – that was brought on to the afterlife. Friemuth’s film explicitly shows how the younger generation engages with their cultural background through oral storytelling in the home – not in a museum that is not only defined by Western history writing, but also exhibits the artefacts in a way that exclusively reflects the West’s ideals of knowledge and ethnographic desire.

The young people are amused when the mother explains that ka lent its name to the snake in the Jungle Book (1894), a threatening character who, through hypnosis, seeks to harm the hero Mowgli. In the West, we have not only misunderstood what ka stands for; the Jungle Book reference also hints at deliberate efforts to cast aspersions at and demonise Egyptian culture.

The Western gaze and its Indiana Jones-like understanding of ancient Egypt as a mysterious and perilous culture where the tombs of the pyramids hide concealed traps permeates the entire exhibition. From the show’s gloomy red lighting to the film’s horror-movie-inspired ambient soundtrack and the cats snuggling around the family’s legs while the mother tells her stories, one senses an underlying anger – an anger that is not about the rage of ancient pharaohs, but the activist cries of the young generation. “I am here because white people were in my country,” is one of the statements found on the carpet, a quote from the anti-Islamophobia activist Houria Bouteldja, and there is no way of telling whether it is the people on the carpet or the artefacts in the showcases that speak.

In any case, No History at All reopens a still-current debate about what we in the West should do with all the cultural objects we have dragged here from colonised peoples around the world. If one were to repatriate them all, our institutions would be left empty, and perhaps this is why Friemuth’s exhibition is so absolutely pared back and minimalistic. One could have wished for more: a greater number of works, a further elaboration of the many quotes and slogans, and perhaps also some insight into what the young woman is actually feeling when she sees herself reflected in the bust behind the museum glass. Responding to this, Friemuth would probably object that it is time for the West to fill its institutions itself – not with stolen objects from other cultures, but with content we produce ourselves. They do not owe us anything. 

Installation view, Dina El Kaisy Friemuth, No History at All, Overgaden, Copenhagen 2021. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.