Sharing my highlights of the Modern Art Museum
On my second trip to the Egyptian Museum of Modern Art I was looking specifically for the ways in which Egyptian artists reflect particular motifs and how they pass this shared cultural iconography across generations, genders and influences.
The first thing is to understand that Egyptian artists are, like any other artists, influenced by global art trends and tendencies, technologies, techniques and materials but then deploy them to express the thoughts, ideas cultures and experiences of their own lives and surroundings. That’s why it’s impossible to examine the work from a eurocentric perspective.
One thing I’ve noticed about Egypt is the absolute diversity. I’ve never seen a place so diverse. Yesterday I was driving along the Nile Corniche and I saw a woman walking along carrying a suitcase on her head. As we drove we passed several donkey carts – this is in the middle of a vast Modern City. At one point I saw two identical carts standing next to each other and the drivers chatting. One was powered by donkey and the other by scooter. If you go down to Luxor and its surrounding countryside, you find most local men and women dressed in the traditional costume of Southern Egypt: the women in black dresses and headdresses, with elaborate embroidery on the front of their dresses, the men wearing long kaftans and turbans. This is not dressed up for tourists, this is normal life; obviously the clothing works well for the lifestyle and climate. This diversity is reflected in much of the painting, the depictions of the countryside could be painted yesterday or 50 years ago and it’s interesting to see how the changes are definitely there but how so much remains. In one hour you can go from the medieval streets of Khan el Khalili bazaar to the Mall of Arabia (one of the world’s biggest malls – astonishing!) to complete your shopping.
Eyes. You are probably familiar with the ancient Egyptian motif of the eye, which was a hieroglyphic as well as a feature of every figure carved or painted. The Egyptians almost always gave prominence to the eye and this is very often carried over into Modern art. The ancients venerated the Eye of Horus, (also known as wadjet, wedjat or udjat), as a symbol of protection, royal power, and good health. Not only Horus, but also the god Amon- Ra. The Eye of Ra is the solar disk – the eye that sees everything, the omniscient and all knowing.
So it’s not surprising then that the eye motif has endured in Egyptian folk culture and finds its way into art. Many painters in the Museum paint eyes with extraordinary sensitivity.
As well as the sheer diversity of Egypt, the art works in the museum reflect the one overwhelming thing about Egypt which is its particular light. Nowhere has light like the north of Africa. That’s my little paintings made in the South of France or in Spain or Italy show the light of the northern Mediterranean but Egyptian light is not the same, and you can see it in the Egyptian paintings. That’s why even if the painting superficially resembles European painting when you look again you realise that the light is entirely different.
The Egyptian Museum of Modern Art is a must-see if you’re in Cairo, it is the perfect follow up to the stupendous Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, and invaluable preparation for an art tour of the city’s fine contemporary art galleries. It’s open every day except Monday and is EGP£20 to enter