"Grey Area" by Fred Wilson
Five plaster busts of Queen Nefertiti of Ancient Egypt are set on shelves. Each has been painted uniformly, from plain white at one end to plain black at the other, with shades of grey in between. An artwork based on an ancient image makes a dramatic contribution to the modern debate over racial discrimination.
Who was Queen Nefertiti?
She lived from about 1370 to 1330 BC and was the “Great Royal Wife” of Pharaoh Akhenaten. She may even have reigned in her own right for a short time after her husband’s death. She lived at a time when the Egyptian Empire was at its most prosperous, and she and her husband introduced important religious reforms that included a form of monotheism in that the sun-god Aten was worshipped as the sole deity.
Her image has become iconic thanks to a bust that has been attributed to the sculptor Thutmose and was copied widely throughout Egypt (the original is now in Berlin). It has been justly renowned for its realistic and proportionate portrayal of Nefertiti’s facial features and is always recognisable thanks to the distinctive headgear that she wears.
Fred Wilson’s plaster busts
However, there has long been a debate over Queen Nefertiti’s skin colour – was she light-skinned, like the Greeks, or black like the Nubians? This uncertainty has prompted the American artist Fred Wilson (born 1954) to make a pointed commentary on racial identity.
The full title of this work is “Grey Area (Black Version)”. It dates from 1993 and was seen on display at London’s Tate Modern gallery in 2013.
By placing five alternative views set side by side, the message is conveyed that every skin colour is as valid as every other – it doesn’t matter how you paint her, she is always going to be recognisable as Queen Nefertiti.
The commentary on race is therefore obvious to every viewer – the colour of your skin is completely immaterial – it is who you are, not what you are, that matters.