Beauty on borrowed time
Salafist stirrings? Sexual mores under scrutiny? Literally, ends that mark new beginnings. Art in an Islamist-oriented Egypt is a fascinating subject not least in that it reveals the transient nature of social values that seem non-negotiable today, remonstrates Gamal Nkrumah
Sherwet Shafie's wanderlust in the world of Egyptian art spans many decades -- from the 26 July 1952 Revolution to the 25 January Revolution. Her artistic acquisitions have spanned rare paintings and sculpture, early-to-mid twentieth century as well as more contemporary Egyptian forms of artistic expression. All of them tell a tale, each in its own aesthetic fashion.
She has lived long enough to witness a reappraisal of cultural policies and especially as it concerns painting and the plastic arts. Her acquisitions of many of the oeuvres and masterpieces of the celebrated masters of the classical age of contemporary Egyptian painting must be considered a colourfully chronicled national cultural treasure.
If any proof were needed of the dizzying rise of the Arab art market I recent years, a couple of years ago one of Egypt's celebrated artist Mahmoud Said's paintings fetched $2million at Christie's Dubai.
And, as Dubai has opened its doors, other Egyptian artists are trying to take full advantage hoping to utilise the expansion of one of the most prestigious international art markets, a veritable Arab souq. Shafie notes that over the past decade, as the internationalised Arab market for Egyptian art has shown both a broadening of the collecting base and an ever-increasing willingness of wealthy Gulf Arab clients and collectors to dig deep into their boundless pockets. Paintings like Mahmoud Said's Les Chadouf, The Waterwheel, and his 1929 Whirling Dervishes have attracted the attention of potential collectors with an insatiable taste for contemporary conceptual art, and in particular painting.
Watercolours are no longer only worth the paper they were painted on. Oils on canvas, the works of celebrities of such as Mahmoud Said are wetting the appetites of prominent art dealers in the Arab world and beyond its borders for a freer aesthetic art market.
But behind the façade there are perplexing political and ideological issues at play. And it is in this particular context that the exceptionally pertinent exposé by novelist Alaa El-Aswany in the British Times draws the acute attention of art-lovers throughout Egypt and the Arab world.
"The violations of citizenship rights as is happening in countries like Saudi Arabia and Sudan will jolt us back into the Middle Ages," El-Aswany exhorted.
The question uppermost in many people's mind is whether the cultural policy of Egypt will drastically change with assumption of the presidency of a member, or former member of the Egyptian governing economic and military elite. Mahmoud Said was a member of the Egyptian aristocracy yet he was far more interested in painting chambermaids than he was in depicting the lavish lifestyles of his fellow patricians, blue blood peers. He abhorred the airiness of the aristocrats and eulogized the solidity of the servile classes, the enrapturing earthy beauty of the Egyptian peasant.
Mahmoud Said's renders beautifully these moments of tragedy. Queen Farida is a composed contemplative and quiescent -- and perhaps a touch too self-complacent. She is immaculately dressed, as aristocratic ladies of her day did.
Above her hangs the Egypt that is eternal. Yet the young woman painted by Mahmoud Said is the very embodiment of the as yet constantly changing beauty who knows she is forever living on borrowed time. She is the Egypt that is susceptible to the dictates of the religious zealots since time immemorial. She was manacled from the days of the omnipotent priests of Amon-Re to Salafists of today the bint al-balad, the daughter of the land, the country damsel, was never quite content with the ready-to-wear dress code prescribed by religious authorities.
"For me personally, this girl is the personification of Egypt itself," Shafie confides in me.
"Mohamed Said was critically ill, he thought he was mortally so at one point and it was precisely at that moment that he produced his most brilliant oeuvres," Shafei recounts. "The Prophet; Before Burial; After Burial; and Naima. I possess Naima. She is one of my most precious, priceless acquisitions," Shafie beams triumphantly.
Sometimes the most mind-boggling ideas can be the most obvious ones, and sometimes they can be the most oblivious ones. "Le Peinture Moderne en Egypte, by art critic Aime Azar, published in 1960 unveils the first flowerings of school of the Egyptian art in 1907 founded by Prince Youssef Kamal," Shafie assures me was a landmark in her own learning of the quintessential essence of Egyptian contemporary art.
The circus in the Egyptian art scene was inevitable. But with medieval perspectives on what Islam ought to be the farce has accelerated and worsened threatening a tragic collapse of all the glory, and beauty, that once was.
Hindsight is often ungrateful, graceless and downright uncouth hoisting the zealous banner the vertiginous ascent of Salafist and ultra-bigoted bogus religiosity masquerading as a political alternative to degenerate so-called secularism.
It is no secret that the Salafists have been keenly eyeing the education and cultural portfolios, even before the official inauguration of President Mohamed Mursi. Art, as well as film, music, dance and literature are amoral, the very works of the Devil incarnate.
In a sensible world, art is the highest expression of humankind, the very idiom of humanity. Cool heads and clear minds are sorely needed in these most testing times. Egypt's very artistic future depend on the asphyxiating of an extremist militant Islamist ideology that would throw up far more problems than it would solve.
Shefie insists that we cannot ameliorate from our collective memory the wonder that was the classical Egyptian woman. The daughter of the Nile is depicted in the works of Mahmoud Said as the dark, seductive damsel. Unpretentious, her very liberation from the engulfing niqab has political consequences. The draping of the Egyptian woman in dreary dress could provoke a powerful antipathy and there is no mechanism to enforce it but by sheer savageness.
Egyptians artists and intellectuals sniff suspiciously at the turn of political events. Artist and art gallery owners are no exceptions, they are in reality the pioneers of the understanding that religious fundamentalism will drive them further away from core decision-making.
That is where the insightful and articulate articles of Alaa El-Aswany enter the discourse and where the classical works of Mahmoud Said come into play.
Mahmoud Said adored the black beauty of the Upper Egyptian damsel. He instinctively understood that her ancestors were the pharaohs of yesteryear and he depicted her as such. Her dignity despite the indignities of having to serve her fairer skinned compatriots enhanced her sense of distinction, an alluring presence commanding the respect her supposed superiors. His work clearly has intense emotional resonance that Shafie patently reveres.
Born to an Egyptian aristocratic family in Giancaclis, Alexandria, of Circassian origin, Mahmoud Said was the maternal uncle of Queen Farida. She in turn was an aspiring artists even though she never quite made it to Christie's as her uncle did.
The irony is that the aristocrat was fond of painting maidservants, seductive black beauties of Egypt's labouring classes. He was besotted with the black belles, a tendency so to speak towards the darker side.
Alaa El-Aswany, author of the critically acclaimed Yacoubian Building, is concerned about the extinction of the last vestiges of a vibrant cosmopolitan culture in Egypt as exemplified by the oeuvres of the masters. MP Mohamed El-Sawy, and director of El-Sawy Cultural Wheel Centre, Zamalek Cairo concurs. He is head of the Parliamentary Committee on Culture.
El-Sawy is likewise leader of the Hadara, Civilization or Culture Party that during the last parliamentary elections was affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet, both dismiss the notion that the Islamists, especially the moderate strands of political Islam would succumb to the temptation of pulling down the pyramids as the Taliban did when they blasted the Banyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. Yet a number of Salafists in Egypt, have indeed called for the destruction of the archaic symbols of idolatry such as the Karnak Temple, Luxor, Philae Temple, Aswan and the Abu-Simbel, Nubia. They also have no qualms about demolishing the pagan pyramids in Giza and Saqqara. Salafists, the militant Islamists of the Nour, or Light Party, a virulently Wahhabist loose political group united in their adherence to the strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law as espoused by the Saudi Arabian Wahhabist sect of Sunni Islam.
The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb stressed in the Al-Azhar Document released earlier this year that Al-Azhar, Egypt's highest religious institution, fully and unequivocally supports personal freedoms, including the freedom of expression, not excluding artistic expression.
Al-Azhar Document also crucially expounded that Egyptians ought to avoid labeling people as unbelievers and apostates and admonished those who manipulate religion to disunite compatriots and pit them against each other, instigating in the process religious discrimination, sectarianism, sexism and racism. "Al-Azhar supports dialogue and mutual respect between citizens based on equality in terms of rights and duties," Al-Azhar Document declared.