Can the Egyptian contemporary art canon afford to abandon a large collection of work by the impressionist artist Youssef Kamel? Nevine El-Aref
Modern Egyptian art began with the Art College founded in 1908 by Prince Youssef Kamal. The first and second generation of artists “ê" Ragheb Ayyad, the brothers Seif and Adham Wanly and Mahmoud Said, for example “ê" produced a wealth of inspiring work. Youssef Kamel, the father of impressionism in Egypt, was among them. He served as director of the Modern Art Museum in 1948-1949 and director of the Fine Arts School in 1950-1953. He died in December 1971.
In 1925, on returning from Italy, where he spent four years studying, Kamel settled in Matariya “ê" then a wholly rural area “ê" where he bought a 600 sq m villa overlooking the countryside from the previous Italian resident. The villa is a two-story building with a large garden and basement. On the roof, Kamel set up his atelier where he produced over 2,000 paintings depicting the countryside and traditional markets. He never donated or sold these works. Some 46 years later, on his death, Kamel's children locked the collection in the house together with his personal belongings. No one visited again for another four decades.
This week members of the family decided to visit again. The scene was shockingly transformed. Surrounded by a four m-tall stone wall, the dilapidated, dusty building looked like a cement fortress. Where there had been soothing greenery there was now rubbish spattered with vegetable peddlers. "I am really sad about what had happened to my grandfather's house and belongings," says Youssef Mostafa (named after his grandfather), an economist and collector. On locating the house, he recounts, Mostafa, his uncle and his mother found a wooden gate open but, stepping inside, they were stopped at gun point by squatters who prevented them from entering. They said they rented the property from Ismail, Kamel's former doorman. "We tried to convince them we were the original owners “ê" it was no use." After hours of discussion, the squatters agreed to let Kamel's heirs retrieve the paintings but nothing else; they were allowed in.
"Roaming around the house made me miserable," Mostafa recalls. Two rooms on the first floor were in a mess, dug up and jam-packed with rubble. Buckets, axes and building material lay about. Matariya being a well-known archaeological site, "It seems the gang were digging for antiquities." Mostafa went on to describe torn-down furniture and paintings in various states of deterioration. "Some were strewn on the floor, other were on the walls covered in a thick layer of dust, others were piled in corners but had been torn up into two or more pieces. We did not find the whole collection," he asserted: only a handful were found. Colour pallettes, paintbrushes, paints, stands, notebooks, sketches, glasses, camera equipment and clothes were all there, but the squatters refused to hand them over. "What misery," says Mostafa, heaving a sigh. "The house is no longer the same. All those memories gone. I feel like a stranger in my own home, in the place where I grew close to my grandfather having good times as a child“ê¶"
He remembered stories Kamel told him while he was working on the roof: a duel with a Russian collegue at the Rome art college who had insulted Egypt; a Coptic friend who was like a brother to Kamel (they took turns going to Italy on the same scholarship, which couldn't cover them both at the same time); meetings with the great women's rights activist Hoda Shaarawi and the great statesman Saad Zaghloul in Italy and Rome. "I learned loyalty, humanity, beauty, patriotism and national unity." After the death of Kamel, the plan was to turn his house into a museum “ê" like the houses of Om Kalthoum and Taha Hussein. "Now it's a haven for criminals“ê¶" Since then, Mostafa's mother and uncle have filed a suit with the Prosecutor General to claim ownership of the house.
"What I really care about is my grandfather's work," said Mostafa. Navigating several web sites, Mostafa found several paintings of his grandfather's on numerous auction lists. He also found another bunch for sale “ê" secretly “ê" in Egypt's downtown antique shops. A warning email with photo reproductions was sent to collectors' mailing list Mostafa is on, advising him not to buy 72 of Kamel's pastel paintings that were under legal restitution demands. "Now," he continued, I am trying to buy some of these paintings to rescue them from vanishing out of Egypt's art life because it is part of the country's heritage; regretfully I don't have enough money to collect all of it. I call on all concerned authorities to stop the scandal and rescue my grandfather's treasure “ê" it was the absence of security in the last two years that gave those vandals the opportunity to invade our house..."
Hamdy Abul Maaty, head of the fine arts syndicate, says Mostafa must submit all the relevant legal papers required to show his possession of these paintings and a copy of the complaint filed by his family with the Prosecutor General, to the syndicate and to the Fine Arts Department at the Ministry of Culture in order to help them to retrieve his grandfather's paintings. "It is the first time to deal I've dealt with such an issue," Abul Maaty pointed out, adding that all the syndicate's criminal experience has been restricted to fraudulent paintings.