The story of modern and contemporary art in Egypt is ultimately a complicated and tumultuous love story. It’s a story of a country striving to find its own voice and identity after years of foreign occupation and oppression from both Middle Eastern and European nations. As in many other countries, the need to create was driven by a desire for change and freedom of expression. Modern art movements including abstract expressionism, surrealism, cubism and more, needled their way into Egyptian culture and a group of modern artists fell upon them as a way to voice their concerns and rally the country into a state of nationalism.
According to an essay by Salwa Mikdadi entitled, Egyptian Modern Art, “The first generation of modern Egyptian artists was driven by a renewed appreciation of their national patrimony and the return to ancient pharaonic art detached from any African, Arab, or religious cultural references.” Throughout the years, this theme has stayed — and become stronger — among contemporary artists working in Egypt today. Artists are mounting their art in public areas and using a combination of painting, sculpture and writing to tell their story. However, as generations continue to renew, materials evolve to include spray paint, video, photography, performance and more.
Modern Egyptian artists also challenged conventional subject matter and themes. In the mid-1940s, a group of art students and their teacher, Husayn Yusuf Amin, formed a group known as the “Rejectionists.” “They challenged previous romanticized imagery and Western academic styles by exploring the daily realities of poverty and oppression,” according to Mikdadi. And while contemporary artists may draw on those traditions, their inherent messages cater more toward the religious, social and political realities Egyptians face today. This has resulted in a very active street art culture that draws on several styles seen around the world, including that of renown artist Banksy.
Artist Alaa Awad is most often noted for his enormous murals that depict various battle and spiritual scenes. He is of the Neo-Pharaonic persuasion, which means he draws on the style and symbolism used in ancient Egyptian art. His figures are shown in the traditional and idealized side view with characters including various pharaohs and deities. Awad also uses extremely bright and vibrant colors in his work that captivates the viewer and draws attention to even the most minute details in the piece. By combining the Egyptian art history with scenes meant to portray current social and political issues, Awad deftly creates scenes that are inherently Egyptian, but also whose subject matter could be easily understood across all borders.
Another contemporary Egyptian artist concerned with creating something inherently Egyptian, is Reda Abdel Rahman. Rahman is a painter, sculptor and multimedia artist that works in Cairo near the Nile, from which he draws much of his inspiration. According to his website, Rahman focuses his work on the relationship between ancient Egyptian heritage and the demands of contemporary life. Much of his work shows his traditional beliefs that were long held by both ancient and modern Egyptian culture. These include the importance of working the fields and drawing from the earth to create a “good life,” as well as the importance of women in cultivating a healthy family and society. Rahman is one of just a few Middle-Eastern artists to portray the naked or semi-naked female figure.
Like Awad, Rahman’s rendering of figures is reminiscent of ancient traditions, although he adds more details to distinguish one figure from another, even when they are not royalty or deities. His works are pleasantly colorful and often include gold (perhaps another nod to ancient Egyptian fascination with the metal.) Much of his work draws on the decorative aspect that often drove ancient Egyptian art. His work has a beautiful, mythological feeling to it, as if these paintings could have been pulled from an ancient book or illuminated manuscript. Rahman has said he wants it to be obvious that his work was created by an Egyptian, and I believe he succeeds in doing just that.
While there are several strong, groundbreaking contemporary Egyptian artists out there, I will end on one final artist whose work prominently features language and caligraphy: Fathi Hassan. Hassan was born in Cairo, but studied art in Italy. As he returned his creative energies to Egyptian subjects Hassan experimented with several mediums and subject matters, although some of his most compelling work falls on his use of spoken word and language. According to the artist’s website, Hassan explores the “theme of ancient languages erased by colonial domination.” He invented Kufic-inspired scripts which he uses to create different images with varying textures and styles of calligraphy. He uses this “to explore the space between graphic symbolism and literal meaning in vibrant colors and collage,” according to his website.
The works I find the most interesting from Hassan are his series of images in which the viewer sees a real piece of a person matched up to an identical image made out of his invented script. For example, in “Glance towards the unknown,” we see a man on the right, and an identical silhouette on the left. Others include the same basic idea with a foot or a hand holding a vase made out of words. What I love about this series is that it seems to show the Egyptian people lost to the passage of time and the evolution of the world, as well as Hassan’s work to regain a connection with those people. I think Hassan’s work really re-establishes a connection in Egyptian language and writing, as it was incredibly crucial to the culture of ancient Egypt, in the form of hieroglyphs.
I think we all have some level of interest in connecting with our heritage, but that urge is present in such a pressing way for Egyptians that they cannot just ignore it. They must find ways to reconnect and use that to build a stronger, and more cohesive country in the face of grave political and social distress. I think what these artists are doing is revolutionary, as they ask the rest of the world to honor the people and cultures that came before us, rather than work and fight to erase them completely.
What is your interpretation of some of the contemporary Egyptian artists working today? How do you see them both reconnecting with the past and working toward a better future? What do you think of the power of art to spark nationalism within a country? Do we see these same things in art of other countries and cultures? Let’s talk.