Nefertiti in a Gas Mask
In September 2012, the Egyptian street artist El Zeft pasted the stenciled image of a battle-ready Nefertiti onto a long concrete wall stretching across Muhammad Mahmud Street, the famous mural art corridor leading to Tahrir Square. He signed his name in a spray paint can next to this famous Egyptian queen, whose defiant eyes fix the viewer between her royal headgear and gas mask. As soon as his iconic image appeared in the streets, El Zeft took to Facebook to share his new work, writing: “A tribute to all women in our beloved Revolution. Without you we wouldn’t have gotten this far. Thank you.”
In the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, popular demonstrations had continued to rock Cairo, and collective action by women helped precipitate the downfall of the Mubarak regime. Over the next two years, while the Muslim Brotherhood and Sisi government jockeyed for power and further protests filled Tahrir Square, El Zeft’s Nefertiti continued to cling obstinately to the walls. By March 2014, there she remained: exhausted, torn, and burned, having endured long days of demonstrations, tear gas attacks, and Molotov cocktails hurled her way.
The stubborn rebelliousness that Nefertiti represents is not frequently the subject of praise in contemporary Islamic art featuring women. El Zeft’s image thus offers a pictorial form of protest against an incumbent regime while also rejecting gendered conventions prevalent in Egyptian culture. Through this double dissent, the image of a war-worn Nefertiti seeks to laud Egyptian women who are present and active in the public sphere as well as willing to place their bodies in danger while fighting for social and political change alongside their male counterparts.
Besides objectifying the body of a resistant female collective, the historical Nefertiti also symbolizes Egypt, the “Mother of the World” (Masr, Umm al-Dunya).* El Zeft’s female personification of the nation refuses to cave to the Islamicist-military divide that has become a hallmark of contemporary Egyptian politics. Instead, the portrait reasserts Egypt’s common heritage and long history stretching back to Pharaonic times. This visual articulation of pre-Islamic Egyptianness echoes and sustains the agenda of young activist-artists like El Zeft, who refuse to accept ideological binaries while nonetheless showing a preference for a secular democratic system that, to no small extent, is fueled by Egyptian national sentiment and pride.
Symbolically liberated from museum galleries and textbooks, this image of Nefertiti seems to come alive, inhabiting the streets of Cairo alongside the women who regularly donned masks to protect themselves from tear gas attacks. El Zeft’s uncanny conjunction of female charisma and military apparel also undermines the aesthetic conventions that typically govern notions of beauty. Instead, in his daring image, opposites seem to attract, fortifying the symbolic strength and power of their combined totality.
Nefertiti in a Gas Mask has inspired a number of creative variants, including those brandished at a demonstration organized by Amnesty International in January 2014 at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. At this time, protestors clamored on behalf of prisoners of conscience while holding colorful replicas of Nefertiti whose gas mask became suggestive of a muzzle. Empowered yet gagged, this Egyptian queen thus eschews a fixed and stable meaning.
And yet the Sisi government considers this and other images of the Egyptian uprisings as “instigating revolt.” It is for this reason that 400 copies of the publication Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution recently were confiscated. While the printed image of this tattered and unyielding Egyptian queen remains impounded between the covers of a book today, the spirit of protest that she epitomizes promises to endure for some time to come.
* On Nefertiti with a Gas Mask as representing the “sound of the revolutionary woman,” see Basma Hamdy and Don Karl, Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution (From Here to Fame Publishing, 2014), 213.
CHRISTIANE GRUBER is Associate Professor of Islamic Art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has written extensively about pre-modern Islamic book arts and modern Islamic visual and material culture. In 2014 she curated the exhibition "Creative Dissent: The Arts of the Arab World Uprisings." Her publications can be accessed here.