The history of Egyptian modern art is rich with patrons whose legacy, visionary commitment and generosity have set the structural foundations of where we are today.
During the first half of the 20th century, the state and a few extraordinary individuals dug deep into their pockets or provided different means of support, paving the way for spectacular Egyptian visual art movements and artists. Sadly, for various reasons, both state and individual patrons abandoned ship in the late 1960s.
Since then, the incompetence of the Ministry of Culture and the absence of signs of future improvements suggest that the creation of a parallel state is urgent. Individual and institutional art patrons need to take the lead by providing funding to implement private-led long-term strategies for artistic advancement and heritage preservation.
In the meantime, meet five remarkable 20th-century Egyptian art patrons whose contribution may inspire future philanthropists to give something back.
Sheikh Mohamed Abdou died in 1905, three years prior to the foundation of the first fine arts school in Egypt. But while he did not have a direct influence on the emergence of fine arts in Egypt, his bold, forward-thinking views were instrumental in enlightening society that arts are compatible with Islam. Despite the objections of religious conservatives who wanted to ban pictorial art, Abdou issued a tafsir (Quranic explanation) that Islam did not prohibit artistic expression, paintings or sculptures but rather praised them as beneficial and educational. He is quoted as saying “arts (are) excellent avenues to greater knowledge,” in Arthur Goldschmidt’s Historical and Biographical Dictionary of Modern Egypt (1995).
Controversy around idolatry and figurative imagery within Islam has been a focal point since 1800. All injunctions against making images of human beings do not come from the Quran but the Hadith, traditions recorded by followers about what the Prophet Mohamed said and did. In contrast, Abdou’s religious commentary derived principally from the Quran, and highlighted the very contemporary and subjective nature of the calls to erase various forms of imagery. According to Abdou, taqlid (blind following) caused theory to be confused with practice and fact with belief. As he exposed a rational interpretation of Islam, Abdou concluded, in an article titled “Art and Arab Nationalism,” published by Ministry of Culture in 1963 and quoted in Sedki al-Gabakhangi’s History of Egyptian Art until 1945: “The painter has drawn and his accomplishment is undeniable. The worship of the statue or image has been eliminated. And on the whole, I doubt whether Islamic law ever prohibited such representations, once it was proven that such a tool did not constitute an attack on religious doctrine or observance.”
Born in 1850, Abdou is regarded as a key founder of Islamic modernism. His progressive school of thought on Islam’s ability to adapt to the modern environment was arguably the first real innovation in Islamic thinking in over 700 years. Appointed Egypt’s grand mufti, the highest Islamic title in the country, in 1899, he used his office to liberate Muslims from decadence, orthodox rigidity and backwardness, as described in Charles. C. Adams’ 1929 article Mohammed ‘Abduh: The Reformer.
A religious scholar, philosopher, jurist and cultural reformer, Abdou aspired to reconcile the divides between modernism and Islamic ideals and took a brave stand against the fundamentalism that was an entrenched ideology and a reaction to a perceived “western” cultural invasion.
His tafsir of gender equality was courageous and antagonized many religious diehards. Quoted by Goldschmidt as saying “to leave our girls prey to ignorance, and taken up by stupid pursuits, is indeed an unpardonable crime,” Abdou relentlessly supported education for women and fought against polygamy.
Abdou’s doctrine spearheaded a dynamic reinterpretation of Islam to suit modern conditions. “Only then, (Islam’s) true character as a world religion will be apparent,” he wrote. His teachings and writings had a profound influence, including far-reaching effects on Egypt’s nascent arts scene and key players in the cultural renaissance project (Nahda), such as nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul , dean of literature Taha Hussein and women’s rights advocate Kassem Bey Amin.
With LE10,000, in 1908 26-year-old Prince Youssef Kamal (1882-1966) opened the first art school in Egypt to promote the arts and immortalize his name. An avid collector of oriental antiquities and Islamic works of art, Kamal believed in opening the door to local talents and sought to disprove the idea that Egyptians were indifferent to, incapable of appreciating or, for religious reasons, shied away from the arts. After all, for centuries Egypt had been stuck in an artistic rut under various forms of colonialism.
Kamal would donate one of his palaces to house the school in the Darb al-Gamameez district near Abdeen, nicknamed “mini-Montparnasse” because foreign orientalist artists lived there. The Egyptian School of Fine Arts opened on May 12, 1908. Within a few days the number of students, both foreign and Egyptian, reached either 150 and 400, according to Gabakhangy’s 1986 book or the website of Helwan Fine Arts School.
In 1910, the free-of-charge school was placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Education and recognized as a national institute of higher education. In 1911, it held its first graduates’ show at the Cairo Automobile Club, on downtown’s Qasr al-Nil Street. Among these graduates were some of today’s most recognized names, including sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar and painters Youssef Kamel, Mohamed Hassan and Ragheb Ayad. Ibn al-Balad (1910), a 59cm sculpture by Mokhtar of a boy who worked for him, received great reviews and was the only work that managed to sell, in eight editions.
Kamal not only funded the art school until 1925 but also funded artists’ trips abroad to pursue further academic studies. Mokhtar was the first student to be sent abroad, to l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1912.
Thanks to Kamal’s generosity and faith, Egypt was the first Arab country to establish a fine arts school and nurture future generations of artists from Egypt and the Arab world. After the 1952 revolution, Kamal donated many of his possessions to the state and went to reside in Austria, where he died in 1966.
The museum of art in Cairo had modest yet ambitious beginnings, thanks to the initiative of Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil (1876-1953), senior statesman, speaker of the senate and prominent arts patron.
In 1927 Khalil, by then holding the title of “bey,” convinced the palace to form a fine arts advisory committee, which he ultimately headed, to establish a museum answering to the Ministry of Education to house the state’s collection. On February 8, 1931, King Fouad inaugurated the museum, which held 549 works by Egyptian and foreign artists. It was at first situated in the former Mosseri family residence at the corner of Fouad I Avenue (now 26th of July Street) and Emad Eddin Street in downtown Cairo. Like the fine arts school, the museum kept changing locations, reaching its final location in 1991 in the premises of the Cairo Opera House, where it now has over 15,000 works in its collection.
In addition to establishing Egypt’s first fine arts museum, in 1923 Khalil co-founded, with Prince Youssef Kamal, La Société des Amis de l’Art to provide a platform for artists to exhibit. Khalil remained head of La Société from 1925 until his death in 1953. He is also credited with putting together the Egyptian pavilion at the November 1937 World Fair in Paris (Exposition Internationale Paris) and an exhibition of orientalist and Egyptian paintings in 1949 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. France elected Khalil to its Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1949.
A driving force in Egypt’s artistic movement from the 1920s to the 1950s, Sorbonne-educated Khalil owned Egypt’s best collection of European impressionist and modern paintings of the French 1830s school. An article published in La Bourse Égyptienne in February 1933 raves about Khalil’s art connoisseurship, compulsive buying and impressive collection, surrounded by “the most beautiful gardens in Giza.” Vincent Van Gogh’s 1887 Poppy Flowers or Coquelicots painting, stolen in 1978 and then again in August 2010, belonged to Khalil’s series of Van Gogh flowers.
His French wife Emilienne Luce Lock donated the entire Khalil art collection and their famous Giza mansion to the state in 1960 to establish a museum in their name. The Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum officially opened on July 23, 1962 showcasing 208 works by Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh, Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin among others.
While Khalil had no say in his residence turning into this fascinating museum (closed since the 2010 Van Gogh theft), he did have the long-term vision of providing a roof for the country’s art collection.
The new sort of intellectual patronage put forth by George Henein (1914-1973) fundamentally changed the way artists made, exhibited and circulated art. A defender of freedom and socialist values, the multi-lingual, well travelled and privileged thinker opened art up to a more engaged dialogue with politics and introduced the concept of artwork as means for social change. For the first time Egypt witnessed a true cohesive art movement – surrealism – with key second-generation artists adhering to a single-minded ideology.
Firstly, Henein introduced the concept of surrealism to Cairo at a conference at Les Essayistes (The Attempters), an avant-garde francophone intellectual group. Peculiarly, the conference was broadcast over the radio on February 4, 1937, calling on intellectuals, artists and writers to use their “art as the means to liberate the nation.” Secondly, Henein established a surrealist visual arts group called Art et Liberté (Art & Freedom) with first-rate artists Ramses Younan, Fouad Kamel and Kamel al-Telmissani, to introduce new representation methods in art and challenge traditional art academies.
In December 1938, 31 artists and intellectuals signed Henein’s radical manifesto, Long Live Degenerate Art, advocating absolute artistic freedom that knows neither nation nor religion: “We believe that the fanatical racialist, religious, and nationalistic path that certain individuals wish modern art to follow is simply contemptible and ridiculous.” Henein thought that if expression was censored by religious authorities or the state, there could be no salvation for Egyptians.
Thanks to Henein’s support, the Art & Freedom group mounted five exhibitions between 1940 and 1945 – in which the spirit of provocation was far from absent. Leading journalists and intellectuals tore the exhibitions apart, preferring to see the art as chaotic, blasphemous and in denial of the Egyptian identity. This earthquake would encourage Henein to pursue his defiant activities further, carrying on with publishing several journals that echoed the group’s mission to defend free thinking.
The Egyptian police and British military authorities dismantled the group in 1945, seeing it as a threat to national security. “How sweet the victory was from afar,” wrote Henein in his notebooks, published in Paris under the title L’Esprit frappeur in 1980.
The attempt of Henein and the Art & Freedom group to attain greater freedom in Egyptian society could be seen as short lived or failed. Their philosophical messages did not reach the masses, but rather the authorities, and surrealism found little appeal. They succeeded however in paving the way for politically responsible artists and socially engaged art – albeit “more Egyptian,” as shown by the following, third generation of artists.
Ironically, Henein was forced into exile in 1961 by the socialist government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser: The fighter for freedoms and social justice expelled from his country for the ideas the 1952 revolution initially advocated.
“Egyptian painting started miraculously around 1946,” wrote Aimé Azar, a Lebanese professor of literary criticism at Ain Shams University and Egypt’s most important art historian, in his 1961 book La Peinture Moderne en Égypte. The man behind the miracle was Hussein Youssef Amin, who devoted his life to forming promising students and in 1946 created the Contemporary Art Group, to which is attributed some of the most spectacular and inventive Egyptian art.
The works by Abdel Hady El Gazzar, Samir Rafi and Hamed Nada from the mid 1940s to the mid 1950s exist because of Amin’s relentless efforts. His financial and ideological support was instrumental in the discovery of artists Azar described as from “social classes that were not only closed to art and intellectual values, but who also understood art to be a sin and against local customs.”
Born in 1904 in a socially privileged class and son of a Turkish government official, Amin was naturalized Egyptian by order of the khedive. During his youth he travelled to Italy, France, Spain and Brazil, acquiring deep understanding of various art schools and graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. During his travels Amin came closer to his Egyptian identity. Rejecting the absence of both local heritage and the reality of unprivileged people in the works of Art & Freedom, Amin built on the foundations of Henein’s socially engaged movement and sought ways to visualize a national character born from homegrown psychological, social and historical values. Amin succeeded in creating an embedded Egyptian surrealist-expressionist movement, which he termed “cultured emotions.”
Upon his return to Egypt in 1931, Amin taught art at two schools and spotted promising art students. In 1944, he created a circle with artists Gazzar, Nada, Maher Raef, Rafi, Kamal Youssef, Abou Khalil and Ibrahim Massouda, later called the Contemporary Art Group. The young students gathered every week at their mentor’s house in Maryoutiya to discuss art and artists and paint murals on the walls. Amin not only gave them the courage to embrace their traditions, but also to become spokespersons for the unheard majority of the population by depicting the fear and fatality generated by poverty. Following in the footsteps of the surrealist artists, Amin’s students condemned social injustice, political oppression and the bourgeoisie.
Amin organized the group’s first art exhibition in 1946, at the Lycée Français du Caire. History was in the making with 190 works by Amin’s protégés that dealt with previously unexplored themes rich in symbolism. In 1948, a second exhibition took place at the YMCA in downtown Cairo and later travelled to Paris, at Le Pavillon de Marsan, where Gazzar presented arguably his most important work – Theater of Life (Le Repas, 1948). The painting, depicting a line of people with empty bowls, offended King Farouk and landed Gazzar and Amin in jail for a few hours. In total, the group organized five exhibitions in Cairo, Alexandria and Paris.
When Amin died in 1984, his wife went to live in the United States and the house where “authentic” Egyptian art was born was torn down. But without Amin’s vision and patience in mentoring pupils from school until university, it’s probable Egypt would have lost these extraordinary talents.
During the first six decades of the 20th century the state was a patron of the arts par excellence. It worked with these individuals hand in hand to nurture Egyptian arts in a coordinated, enlightened way. When in 1925, dubious claims arose that there were no more funds to complete Mokhtar’s iconic sculpture Nahdet Masr (Egypt’s Renaissance), influential journalists from Al-Ahram newspaper in tandem with Prime Minister Mostafa al-Nahas appealed to the masses to raise money. On May 20, 1928, the colossal sculpture was inaugurated in the presence of King Fouad, whose sabotage attempt had failed thanks to the unprecedented generosity of the people.
Several complimentary and sometimes overlapping institutions (such as La Société des Amis de l’Art, Atelier Alexandria and Cairo Atelier) were created with the primary task of cataloguing, exhibiting and disseminating appreciation of this rarefied art form. These privately funded institutions, ancestors to today’s art galleries, acted as the platform for selling art to the state, the primary buyer back then. The state appointed experienced artists to preside over its museums and fine arts schools. It carefully selected and exhibited talented artists’ works locally in its museums and internationally. Taking over from Youssef Kamal, it also allocated a scholarship fund to finance the studies of promising artists abroad. It provided a monthly stipend so artists could dedicate their time to making art rather than take a parallel job to make ends meet. This successful state patronage was possible thanks to competent and informed government employees who could comprehend the magnitude of such an endeavor and follow the ambitious lead of individual art patrons.
Following the 1952 revolution, the world of Egyptian art patrons – the people and their collections – collapsed, as did state patronage helmed by cultural specialists. Confiscations and nationalizations targeted the fortunes of the elite. State-commissioned propaganda art emerged to celebrate the 1952 revolution, the high dam construction and the digging of the Suez Canal.
In the decades since, deteriorating education has had its toll on the minds of intellectuals. Bureaucrats no longer have a vision to embrace. Corruption and incompetence has found a home.
Neighboring countries have been using Egypt’s old model to advance the arts and establish themselves as key players on the international art scene. With significant private funding in tune with sophisticated state visions, they are succeeding where Egypt is now failing. State and private museums are under construction, with the Guggenheim and the Louvre in the Gulf and the private foundations of Aïshti fashion chain owner Tony Salame and businessman Ramzi Dalloul in Beirut. Art Dubai, Abu Dhabi Art and Sharjah Biennial are setting the bar high. Auction houses Christies and Sotheby’s chose Dubai and Doha respectively as their bases in our region. In Saudi, privately funded arts councils organize yearly international art events in Jeddah. In Qatar, state-of-the-art museums and state collections are being built. While the Gulf model is far from faultless, as serious concerns about censorship, harsh labor conditions for construction workers and entry bans on outspoken artists (recently Walid Raad) have emerged, the positive aspects of governments anxious to encourage major cultural projects and transform their countries into “culture zones” and tourism destinations cannot be denied.
In Cairo, Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil must be turning in his grave as the safe roof he built to house the state collection seems to be leaking.