How Nefertiti Became a Powerful Symbol in Contemporary Art

Since its discovery in the early 20th century, the bust of Nefertiti, a work of limestone and stucco crafted by the sculptor Thutmose around 1345 B.C.E., has cemented the ancient Egyptian queen’s relevance as a global pop-culture icon. The Nefertiti of the infamous sculpture dons her signature cap crown, an extravagant royal blue headdress with a golden diadem band and elaborate designs, which suggest a power embellished by an elegant aesthetic. Beneath it, her face—symmetrical, poised, and objective in its beauty—is a reminder of the allure that has made the bust of Nefertiti one of the world’s most enduring artworks.

A testament to her staying power in popular culture, Nefertiti’s likeness continues to be reimagined by contemporary artists around the world. Through their adaptations and homages, these artists’ works bridge the gap between antiquity and modernity. Yet the sculpture is also the subject of heated debates; the significance of Nefertiti’s gender and questions surrounding her racial identity have forged schisms in her modern cultural appeal. Over the past few decades, German, Egyptian, and American artists, in particular, have pushed matters of race and gender to the forefront of the discourse surrounding Nefertiti, calling on us to consider what it means to co-opt, distort, and reimagine the image of an African queen to whom many feel entitled.

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