A place in the nation's art
An exhibition of paintings and sculptures by major Egyptian artists of modern times marks the nation's fine arts centenary. Nevine El-Aref
admires their work
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Some of the paintings and sculptures displayed at the exhibition. From top: the works of Mahmoud Mokhtar; Hussein Bikar; Ragheb Ayyad; Gamal Kamel and Gamal El-Segini
The scene is the Cairo Opera House at its most serene and enchanting. Soft oriental music wafts through the night air, and a light breeze flutters the women's hair and dresses as they cross the gardens that are bedecked with softly lit trees and shrubs. A crowd of Cairenes at their most elegant clad has gathered in the forecourt of the Arts Palace building, where an exhibition of modern art is celebrating the centenary of the Faculty of Fine Arts.
On the left side of the palace gate is an enormous cinema screen showing a documentary about the history of the modern art movement in Egypt and touching on the professional life of some of the best- known artists along with some of their works of art. The show in the ornate gallery of the Arts Palace comprises 436 paintings and sculptures created by 218 modern Egyptian artists. Hanging on the walls are works by Salah Taher, Ramses Unan, Hussein Bikar, Gamal El-Segini, Beshara Farag and others who enriched Egypt's arts movement during the 20th century.
The exhibition starts in the palace's main court and continues upstairs to fill the second and third floors. Visitors are welcomed by the works of the first generation of artists representing the first graduates of the Faculty of Fine Arts, including Mahmoud Mokhtar, Youssef Kamel, Ahmed Sabri and Ragheb Ayyad. The works of the second and the third generations of artists that follow are displayed in chronological order.
Graphic designer Samah El-Laithi, one of the organisers, told Al-Ahram Weekly : "I am really very proud of this exhibition, which has grouped the masterpieces of those great artists who played a major role in creating and developing the modern art movement in Egypt."
It has taken almost two years to put the show together. "Members of the exhibition committee hunted through all the modern art museums, galleries, storehouses, archives and private collections in Egypt in order to find pieces that reflected the development of fine arts in the nation. "The main obstacle we faced was how to put these pieces on display together, in spite of their different schools of art," El-Laithi said. "It took us six months to create a display that was distinguished but set up in a way that visitors could easily move around the different sections of the exhibition without missing a piece or disturbing their mood of reflection."
El-Laithi laments that the work of some leading artists such as Mahmoud Said, Mohamed Nagui, and Seif and Adham Wanli are not represented in the Arts Palace as these artists were not among the graduates of the school of fine arts. Mahmoud Said actually went to Paris as a law student, but during his stay in the French capital he spent most of his time studying art. Upon his return to Egypt in 1922 he was appointed assistant attorney at the Mixed Courts in the Delta town of Mansoura. Said, however, never forgot his true vocation of painting, and the pictures he produced of Alexandria and of coastal scenes are part of the nation's artistic inheritance.
Mohamed Nagui also studied law in France, but soon abandoned it and moved to Florence where he pursued his wish to study art. Nagui's later work shows the influence of his life in Gourna in Luxor, and his paintings feature evocative images of the Egyptian countryside.
As for the brothers Seif and Adham Wanli, they studied painting under an Australian artist and then under an Italian. Seif Wanli went on to teach at the Alexandria College of Fine Arts, and in 1959 he travelled to Nubia on a government mission to record the landscape of the area before the construction of the High Dam and the creation of Lake Nasser.
El-Laithi has asked the government and the Ministry of Culture to apply intellectual property rights to this great collection, documenting each piece and providing a print for every painter and sculptor. "This will prevent all ways of forging and stealing these unique pieces, especially since the illicit trade in this field has become an international phenomenon," she said.
Some of the patrons crowded into the exhibition complained that a lack of publicity meant they had missed the opening day. Kamilia Atris, a journalist and herself a fine arts graduate, said she had missed the opening ceremony because she had not heard about it. She said there was a lack of promotion of the faculty's centenary and said some of her co- gradates had also missed it. "This is our faculty and I would have liked to celebrate its centennial and see my professors and colleagues, since we don't often get together," she said. Another artist, Ibrahim Abdel-Malak, was quoted as saying that although he was a faculty graduate and some of his works were on display at the exhibition, he only learnt of the opening by chance.
Another facet of the faculty centennial celebrations is a four-day scientific conference at which Egyptian and foreigner professors in various art disciplines will join to discuss the latest scientific research in relation to art, education and the environment. Aliya Abdel-Hadi, professor of interior design in the decorative arts section at the school of fine arts, told the Weekly that measures were now being taken to enable the faculty's gradation certificate to be acknowledged internationally. She explained that a new graduate of the faculty would thus find work easily at any institution or academy abroad without further study being required.
Former faculty dean Yehia Abdu said that over the last century the school had played an important role in enriching the nation's artistic life, and that most of the names now associated with the Egyptian art movement of the first half of the 20th century were either students or professors at the faculty.
He said that now, with the invasion of IT technology, the faculty was developing its curricula and style of teaching to meet standards found abroad. Abdu pointed out, however, that to reach such goals and to upgrade the quality of student work, three conditions must be implemented. First the admission exam, which enables a student to enter the faculty, should be sat in the faculty under the supervision of its professors and it should not be one of the thanawiya aama exams as is currently the case. Second, admission to the faculty should not depend on the student's thanawiya aama score but should rest on his or her talent and artistic skill. Third, the number of new students must be reduced by half in order to give a professor the time and opportunity to take care of each of the students in his or her section. "If these requirements are achieved, all the graduates will be famous modern Egyptian artists like those first graduates in 1911."
Artist Wagdi Habashi, a graduate of the school of fine arts in Alexandria, agrees with Abdu, and adds that this is the only way to develop the faculty. He also suggests that such rules of admission can be implemented in the faculties of pharmacology, medicine and engineering. He claims that most new graduates do not have a chance to find their own personality in art. "They became more professionals than artists," Habashi told the Weekly, adding that most artists were now running after international decorations, and that was why they were specialising in abstract and cubic art and forgetting the modern Egyptian arts that form the national identity.
"These new thoughts in art, in my view, are a short-life type of art that will not last. It is empty art," he commented.
The Egyptian School of Fine Arts opened its doors on 12 May 1908 in the area of Darb Al-Labbana, thanks to the generosity of the aristocratic Prince Youssef Kamal. Three years later the first group of students graduated from the school, among them Mahmoud Mokhtar, Ragab Abbas and Mohamed Hassan. Once established, the school quickly acquired new premises in Darb Al-Gamamiz, later moving to Sayeda Zeinab. The school was placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Education and was thus recognised as a national institute of higher education. In 1927 it moved again to new premises in Shubra, then to Giza in 1931 before finally moving to Zamalek, where it is still housed today.
In those days all the instructors were French, and they encouraged students to travel to Paris for further study. Sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar was among the first group to travel. To his contemporaries Mokhtar was "the fruit of the arts", with his work echoing the poise and grandeur of ancient Egypt, yet drawing on deceptively simple subjects such as women carrying water jars and rural figures such as the village headman or agricultural guards. Mokhtar brought his nationalist symbolism to a new level of achievement in his famous depiction of Nahdet Masr, "Egypt's Renaissance", which represents a woman and a sphinx. This stature now stands in Giza outside Cairo University, and many artists since have tried to emulate Mokhtar's emotive yet restrained style.
Youssef Kamel and Ragheb Ayyad have a different story. Habashi tells how, after their graduation, both artists worked as art teachers in a secondary school, but their ambition and passion for their art were on a higher level than that of a secondary art teacher. They decided to continue their studies in Italy, but to achieve their target they agreed between themselves that Kamel would travel first to Italy to study and leave Ayyad in the classroom in Egypt, and then they would change places. When the Maaref Ministry, now the Ministry of Education, learnt about this friendly arrangement, the minister at the time offered them both a scholarship so they could continue their studies in Italy at the same time.
On their return to Egypt, Kamel was appointed director of the school while Ayyad became director of a department and went on to found various art societies. Somewhat non-conformist in nature, his work draws on rural themes, while at the same time evoking a strong sense of the artist's independent personality.