the Art Traveller discovers Egyptian Modernist Art

Last week I visited the Egyptian Museum of Modern Art. I arrived rather late (everythig closes at 4 and I’m not quite used to that!) so I did not manage to see everything and I plan to go back soon. It’s in Gezirah, a district which shares a Nile island with Zamalek, the premiere art district in Cairo. The Museum is a part of a fabulous complex of buildings and gardens known as the Cairo Opera, because the opera house is here too.

Painting by Egyptian painters in Egypt burst forth in the late nineteenth century, in much the same way that painting burst out suddenly in Russia at the start of the 19th century, or in England in the 18th century. Like the earlier examples, Egypt went from being a nation without much of a secular art tradtion to becoming one with strong, fascinating artists and works. Some of the artists studied in Italy and France, but there was a home grown movement based in the various newly founded art schools. Artists took the prevailing tendencies in art and implemented them to express the light, colours, people and topographies of Egypt.

The museum is fascinating and it is wonderful to see an alternative modernism, one that does not totally look like Europe but can stand next to it in a dialogue. For too long histories of art have intepreted modernism as something originating in France, spilling over to Germany and then exploding in America, after a stopover in England. It’s not that they’re wrong but there’s way more to it than that. Seeing the paintings and sculptures in the Museum made me understand why painting and scuplture are so strong here in Egypt and why conceptual art is less so. Egyptians really believe in the power of visual language to deliver thoughts and ideas.

I was fascinated by the portraits of women painted by Emma Kaliy Ayyad but I cannot find out anything about her. The picture on the left is her self portrait; the one on the right is a painting of a subject usually painted by men and painted in a prurient way. Here though, Emma painted the dancing woman with a wonderful sensitivity: lost in the ecstasy of her dance. Although she is bare-breased she is not sexualised. Beautiful.

Ramses Younan: from surrealism to abstraction

Ramses Younan (1913-1966) was associated with a group called Art and Liberty, a collective of Cairo based surrealists who applied global surrealist tendencies to the specificities of the Egyptian culture, geography and situation. In 1938, Younan published a book, “The Aim of the Contemporary artist” which I have not read but would certainly like to; I will try to see if it is available in English. Younan spent time in Paris after the War and moved from Surrealism to abstraction. I have not seen any of his surrealist paintings yet, but some are featured in the Art and Liberty catalogue published by Tate. Recently TateModern bought one of Younan’s abstracts. I like his works very much, their use of the Egyptian palette of earthy colours as you can see in these two pictures from the Museum’s collection. The couple on the left are dressed in traditional garb of rural Egypt, which is still seen today in the South. Younan, a Coptic Christian, hailed from a city called Minya, which is south of Cairo on the way to Luxor, more or less in the middle of the journey. I passed through Minya on my train but I did not visit the city.

I’ll be back at the Museum next week to see (and report) more. Meanwhile here are some shots of the beautiful location.