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Egyptian Antiquities Minister Sentenced to Prison, Under Fire for Fashion Faux Pas

by Danny Ramadan on April 18, 2011

The troubled Egyptian Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass (via Ahram.org.eg)

The bad news keeps rolling in for Egyptian Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass, who yesterday was sentenced to one year in prison for his failure to enforce a court ruling. According to Al-Ahram newspaper, the largest circulating newspaper in Egypt, the report says that the Egyptian court removed Hawass as head of the Antiquities Ministry, forced to pay a small bail amount and an additional of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,678) as interim compensation to the plaintiff for failing to implement a legal ruling about a dispute with the Egyptian Antiquities Authority. The news is also being reported in the English site of the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.

But this isn’t the only shocker for the once untouchable Hawass. Recently a number of Egyptian tweeters discovered a November blog post by New York photographer James Weber that details what is describes as a “fun night in the museum.”

According to Weber, the photographer was contracted by Hawass, who at the time was the Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, to do a photo shoot for Hawass’ self-titled fashion line. The unusual commission took place on October 7, 2010 in New York at the King Tut Exhibit in Times Square.

The cover of the Zahi Hawass fashion line (via jamesweberstudio.wordpress.com)

The post explains, in detail, the long night the photographer and his team spent in the exhibition taking photos of a model for the menswear line. Multiple photos were included in the post and some show a number of original Egyptian artifacts used as props.

The post went unnoticed for over four months, while, in the meantime, the Egyptian revolution raged and the bombastic Hawass has been under increased scrutiny from supporters of the January 25th revolution. Even as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is under investigations, Hawass has been largely unscathed until now.

The post, which is being widely circulated online, has been receiving a largely negative response from Egyptians and others, who are enraged that ancient Egyptian artifacts were used by an Egyptian government employee to promote his personal fashion line.

“It was really unprecedented that we got access to shoot at the museum.” The photographer says on his post. “Usually, there are no cameras permitted inside the museum space. Obviously, we had to do the shoot when the museum was closed as we couldn’t interrupt the daily business of the Exhibit.”

Many people initially thought Weber meant the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo, yet the photo shoot appears to have taken place at the King Tut exhibition in Times Square.

One of the photo shoot prepared by photographer James Weber for the "Zahi Hawass" fashion line. (via jamesweberstudio.wordpress.com) (used with the permission of the photographer)

“The only original artifacts used in the shoots were as backgrounds. None were ever touched,” photographer James Weber says in an interview for Hyperallergic. “The chair and the bench that we used are replicas. We never would have sat a model down in a 3,000 year old artifact. We would have also never had the chance. All of the artifacts are protected under glass. There was also some Photoshop involved in some of the images. The one photo where [the model’s] foot is up in what looks like a Hieroglyphics wall, that’s a photograph of the Hieroglyphics wall, mixed with a photo I took of the model.”

A Hawass model with the gilded coffin of Tjuya (via jamesweberstudio.wordpress.com) (used with permission of the photographer)

According to Weber, the safety of the artifacts was a primary concern. “The entire time that we were there, the Exhibit’s head of security was with us.” The photographer explains, “He was there to safeguard the artifacts themselves and also informed me about the safety features that the items behind glass had in them.”

The photographer adds that “that being said, the artifacts were never in any danger of damage from heat or being touched. These safety measures were in place at the King Tut Exhibit prior to and after our shoot. It’s just a part of how the New York exhibit protects these artifacts.”

Weber claims that he never met Hawass himself and he never saw any documentation that gave the government official and Egyptologist the right to use the artifacts for promotion purposes. “The documentation question you ask was an irrelevant one at the time.” Weber says, “He was the … [head] of Antiquities. From that post, he was in charge of the very artifacts that we were shooting. Prior to the Revolution, there wasn’t any question about his role in the country.”

It seems, however, that post-revolution Egypt has a different view on the matter. Egyptian-British journalist and blogger Sarah Carr has a sarcastic take on the issue, which she published on her blog Inanities:

You might be thinking that there is an ethical question surrounding a minister using 5,000 years worth of a country’s heritage as a backdrop for private enterprise in a crass fashion. Perhaps that he is a low rent hustler. You would be wrong. As Moftases [another Egyptian blogger] points out, the Zahi Hawass trademark is owned by Andres Numhauser. Numhauser is international vice president of Arts and Exhibitions International which is responsible for the New York exhibition Weber used as his backdrop for the Zahi Hawass clothing line photoshoot. So it’s all kosher.

Ingy Hamdy, an Egyptian tweeter told Hyperallergic that she believes that such acts are not going to repeat themselves in Egypt anymore. “Now that people in power know that such acts are resented by Egyptians whose eyes are wide open and are closely monitoring those in power, it won’t repeat again,” she says.

Hamdy adds that knowing that the photo shoot was taken in New York did not make her feel any better. “I heard that this museum allows renting its space for such purposes, but I’m not sure whether it’s true or not, I still don’t like this type of ‘commercial use’ of Egyptian history,” she said.

The photographer, who vows never to work with Dr. Zahi Hawass again, explains that:

Now, after the revolution, there are other questions that arose about things like this shoot: using country resources for personal gain. I understand why the Egyptian people are outraged at what [Hawass] and other governmental ministers were doing. I’m sure everything will come out in due course as the Egyptian people demand answers. This is only the beginning, and I think discourse like this is very healthy and necessary in any society.

This isn’t the first business venture by Hawass, who has previously sold over-priced books and Indiana Jones-look-a-like explorer hats.

The Hyperallergic interview conducted with the photographer via email was shortly thereafter published on the photographer’s blog who later stated later that “let’s just say the heat was getting a little much and I needed to get a response out there” adding that the people who hired him to do the photo shoot were contacted by Hawass’s people asking for the photographer to make a statement.

Today, the Office of Dr. Zahi Hawass, Minister of State for Antiquities, released a statement referencing the interview.

See the full text of the statement below:

Release Date: Monday, April 18, 2011
From: Office of Dr. Zahi Hawass, Minister of State for Antiquities
Subject: Hawass Response to Clothing Line Misunderstanding
Contact: The Press Office: sca3press@gmail.com or +20 (0)2 2735 3964; Also visit: www.sca-egypt.org/eng/MR_PR.htm

The Minister of State for Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass, announced that the news published in the media concerning the use of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, to promote an American clothing line in his name is unfounded.

Dr. Hawass added that the photos used in the promotional campaign were taken on October 7, 2010, in New York City at the King Tutankhamun exhibition, and complied with all safety measure requirements. Hawass asserted that none of the authentic antiquities were handled during the shoot, as they served only as background, while only replica pieces were used by the models.

James Weber, the American photographer who took the photos, asserted in his interview with Danny Ramadan in the “Art in Revolution” Blog, that none of the authentic objects were touched in the shooting process and the chair and the bench used in some photos were replicas. Weber added that there was also some Photoshop involved in some of the images, such as the photo that shows a model with his foot against a wall, which appears to be decorated with hieroglyphic text.  Weber also asserted that Dr. Hawass did not attend the shooting, which occurred in New York City.

Dr. Hawass stated that Tutankhamun’s chair is one of the unique objects prohibited from travelling abroad in any exhibition. Hawass stated that by the terms of his agreement with the clothing production company, his profits from this line will be donated to the 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital in Cairo. A letter to Dr. Sherif Abul Naga, Director of the hospital, was sent to him by Dr. Hawass clarifying these arrangements.

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