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A contested cockerel and other controversies

26 February 2016

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

The story of the two ‘guerilla artists’ who surreptitiously scanned the Nefertiti bust in a Berlin museum in order to produce a replica is, if nothing else, a rather good yarn. According to The Times, Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles captured the image of the 3,000-year-old likeness using a scanner concealed in the former’s coat – no mean feat, given that even photography is forbidden in Nefertiti’s presence. This dynamic duo apparently carried out their subterfuge in protest against the museum’s ‘monopolisation’ of the bust, which is itself the subject of a debate between Germany in Egypt. Whatever your thoughts, you can’t fault them for their novel approach to ‘restitution’.

In Britain, however, we do this sort of thing rather less audaciously. In Cambridge last week, the Jesus College Student Union (JCSU) voted unanimously to repatriate a bronze sculpture of a cockerel to Nigeria, from where it had been plundered by a British expeditionary force in 1897. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the college authorities have as yet remained shtum on the matter.

In response to this textbook non-news, The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones slammed Jesus for treating the cockerel (itself a mascot for the college) as a ‘quaint curio’, while the newspaper itself took the ostensibly more circumspect decision to crowdsource further examples of statues or artworks that readers felt like challenging.

‘Should we review public art pieces to make sure who and what they celebrate is fitting to a modern audience and context?’, it asked on the Guardian Witness platform, ‘Or should we confront uncomfortable truths hiding in our past and learn from them?’ The article then invited readers to submit photos of contentious statues around Britain, along with a reasoning as to why they should leave or remain in place.

The reaction so far has been muted: at the time of writing, just three posts have been uploaded to the site, one of which loudly declares the matter to be ‘Political Correctness on Steroids’. The below the line comments on the piece, meanwhile, have descended into farce:

‘Let the BBC decide with the Great British Plunder where representatives from countries that have been robbed blind by Wee Britain ask for their artefacts to be returned while Camford poshos who talk like Elmer Fudd tell them why the can’t have them back,’ declares one, confusingly. ‘Christ this will take awhile for someone visiting the British museum, most of the stuff in there is looted,’ says another anonymous pundit. Rakewell gave up reading (and indeed the will to live) after a while, but suffice to say the debate rolls on. And on. And on.

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.