A coffee break is an ideal meeting time for someone as quietly frenetic as Frannie Léautier. At the end of a long day of her virtual meetings ... in several different time zones, we connect via the ubiquitous Zoom, sipping our East African coffee as we work through my lengthy roster of questions.
By the end of the 18th Dynasty, Akhenaten and Nefertiti were King and Queen of Egypt. Not much is known about them. A famous statuette of the couple, dating to the 14th century BC was discovered during excavations at Tell el-Amarna in 1912. The statuette is magnificent, extraordinarily well preserved and has withstood the test of time, revealing multi-coloured ornaments.
Moreover, the Queen was then only baptised a “coloured queen”. She was also nicknamed “The beautiful one has come”, a literal translation of Nefertiti. But what did she really look like? The question has never stopped puzzling scientists, Egyptologists, art lovers and tourists visiting the Louvre, where the precious limestone bust of the bride and groom is preserved. Until Dutch artist Bas Uterwijk’s possible answer arrived.
The man is a photographer who excels in the art of portraits. His instagram is full of faces that are familiar to us, without necessarily understanding why they are at first glance. One is strangely reminiscent of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, another has the grace of Botticelli’s Venus, a third has the look and freckle Vincent Van Gogh. They have common traits of someone that you’d meet in the street, people you know you’ve seen somewhere before.
In actual fact, they are freshly extracted from famous works of art, thanks to a software called “GAN” (generative adversarial network). A form of artificial intelligence that allows the analysis of portraits from various media (painting, sculpture, engraving) and the transmission of the data to a current photographic interpretation. “The method I use is often considered scientific, because of the very realistic aspect of the result. But most of my portraits are actually based on my impressions and are therefore subjective,” warns Bas Uterwijk.
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On 19 February, the artist posted two faces, bare skull: that of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. As on the statuette, the queen has a lighter complexion than her husband, and she is strikingly beautiful . She has slender eyes, a deep gaze, a perfectly aligned eyebrow arch, and a relatively large pair of ears! The artist made sure to offer a plausible portrayal, while letting her vision shine through.
“Most of the artwork around Akhenaten and his queen make them look like Nubians, or at least Sub-Saharan people,” he says. Both figures are without headdresses, which were present in ancient representations. The explanation? Artificial intelligence does not recognise them, explains the photographer, who therefore chose to represent them without hair. “I read that it was a common practice at the time.”
Why transform a historical work of art into a pseudo-real photograph? Uterwijk is not the only artist to experiment with this, artist Daniel Voshart has recently proposed something similar with the “Roman Emperor Project”. In this series, he reproduced a family tree of Roman emperors whose drawn features have been turned into ID photographs.
On social media, Bas Uterwijk’s work has been controversial. His critics accuse him of claiming a truth that he does not necessarily possess. “People sometimes feel affected when their heritage or culture is reinterpreted,” he says.
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It must be said that this experience contrasts with artistic customs and traditions. Since the dawn of time, it is reality that is transformed into paintings, sculptures, engravings. Sometimes, “we even use a cliché to making a painting”, underlines the photographer.
Uterwijk wanted to take a different path, and try to capture the expression of personalities born a long time before the invention of the camera, his daily working tool. “For me, it’s a way of photographing history,” he says. “Nefertiti and Akhenaten were a fascinating couple. I wanted to try and capture the Nefertiti and Akhenaton charisma, which can be felt in ancient works. “
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