29 Sep Feature: The enduring beauty of Queen Nefertiti / Dazed Beauty
In 1912, a team of German archaeologists led by Ludwig Borchardt were trawling the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna when they uncovered a series of stone busts. Continuing to excavate, they stumbled upon a studio belonging to Thutmose, the official court sculptor to the ruling Egyptian dynasty throughout the 14th century BC. Borchardt dug a layer deeper, brushing away some dust to reveal a kohl-rimmed eye staring out at him. It was a face so extraordinarily lifelike, he believed for a moment he had uncovered a human body.
In reality, the face was to become one of the most memorable images from all of antiquity: a portrait bust of the Queen Nefertiti, who ruled Egypt alongside her husband, Pharaoh Akhenaten. Some historians even argue that after his death, she was the civilisation’s sole leader. Today it sits pride of place in its own room at Berlin’s Neues Museum, a timeless vision of female beauty recreated over the decades and referenced by some of the world’s most iconic women. There’s Iman in full Pharaonic drag for Michael Jackson’s 1992 Remember The Time music video, or Rihanna’s 2017 Vogue Arabia cover, where the singer sported not only Nefertiti’s signature cat-eye but also the traditional Egyptian headdress — even after thousands of years, some beauty trends never go out of style.
There are few cultures as fixated with physical appearance as the ancient Egyptians. Both men and women wore makeup not just out of vanity, but in the belief that adorning oneself with dazzling colours and intricate patterns would ward off evil spirits — like a sacred version of today’s “peacocking” pick-up technique. It’s this belief that left us with the legacy of extraordinary objects from Egyptian antiquity that populate museums across the globe, thanks to their love of durable materials like gold or precious stones and their knack for preservation, with many objects sealed away in air-tight tombs until their modern rediscovery. From Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt at the turn of the 19th century, to the uncovering of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, to The Mummy franchise, the public appetite for Egyptology has rarely waned.
It’s interesting that the most iconic image of the might of ancient Egypt — a civilisation that spanned over three millennia — is that of Nefertiti, one of its most unlikely leaders. Her name roughly translates to “the beautiful one has come”, and it was a beauty that she used to her advantage, coming from a humble background and searing herself onto the public consciousness with unprecedented savvy. It’s no coincidence that the modern women who embody Nefertiti, like Rihanna or Iman, share both physical characteristics and personality traits. They are intelligent and industrious, using their striking appearance and talents to achieve positions of influence: Iman launched a cosmetics label catering to women of colour back in 1994, while the runaway success of Fenty Beauty and Fenty x Puma pay testament to Rihanna’s entrepreneurial instincts.
Looking back at the most significant female figures in history, they almost without fail possessed an uncanny ability to use their physical appearance as a propaganda tool, or a means of advancing their agenda, political or otherwise. There are the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, for example, produced in collaboration with the leading painters of her day to emphasise her heavily powdered, arsenic-white face as both virginal and ageless. Existing as a powerful woman in an oppressively patriarchal society requires serious political acumen, and one of the few tools they had to direct public opinion was the symbolism afforded by clothing and makeup.