The exhibition “When Arts Become Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938–1965),” curated by Salah Hassan,1 Hoor Al Qasimi, Ehab Ellaban, and Nagla Samir, focused on a specific thread of modernist art in Egypt from the 1930s to the 1960s. Held at the Palace of Arts in Cairo and sponsored by the Sharjah Art Foundation (Fig. 2), the exhibition worked to situate Egyptian surrealist practices within global discourses and nationalist politics while also suggesting an afterlife in more contemporary works through the 1990s.
Egyptian surrealism formed with a 1938 statement—titled “Long Live Degenerate Art!”—issued against the rise of European fascism and censorship and connecting to the international circles of the Surrealist movements. The Art and Liberty Group (Jama'at al-Fann wa al-Hurriyyah), at the center of this exhibition, was made up of artists and intellectuals including Georges Henein, Ramses Younan, Fouad Kamel, Anwar Kamel, and Kamel Telmisany, and organized major exhibitions under the umbrella of Exhibitions of Free Art (Ma'arid al-fann al-hur) and publications such as Don Quichotte, Part du Sable, and Al-Ta-tawwur (Evolution). While short lived as a group, this experiment in surrealism had ramifications on many artists, including the Contemporary Art Group (including Hussein Yousef Amin, Kamal Youssef, Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar, and Samir Rafi), which focused on art as a crucial part of shaping the national identity of modern Egypt. In addition to showcasing these two groups, the exhibition also included artists working in the 1940s to 1960s who exhibited along with them or independently experimented with Surrealist ideas and aesthetics, such as Inji Efflatoun, Amy Nimr, and Van-Leo, and from the 1960s on, including Ahmed Morsi.
Along with exhibitions like “Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist” (2012) and “Unedited History: Iran 1960–2014” (2014), this exhibition is evidence of a new intellectual and curatorial landscape in which there is space and interest in situating non-Western modernist practices within their precise sociopolitical contexts as well as their global networks through a multidisciplinary combination of fine arts, visual culture, and historical data. No longer the mega shows that tried to provide an overview for entire continents or regions, these exhibitions are diving deep into precise configurations and experiences of modernity. These kinds of exhibitions are being developed alongside a growing body of academic research into these same movements. “When Art Becomes Liberty” both rested on the foundation of current research into Egyptian and, more broadly, global surrealism, and offers its own thesis about Egyptian surrealism, acting as an attempt to write art history via an exhibition. Not everyone will agree with every artist that was included in the exhibition. This is particularly the case for the photographer Van-Leo, who was not ever a part of the broader intellectual project of surrealism (Fig. 1). Given the exhibition framework that included the aftershocks of the movement, I nonetheless found the suggestion that there is within his work a visual resonance with Surrealism to be a compelling case. That was also one of the successes of the show: pushing boundaries, making a case for inclusion within a specific narrative, but also making enough of an argument to be able to provoke disagreement and to together write this art history.
The large exhibition snaked through many rooms in the Palace of Arts on the grounds of the Egyptian Opera House, following a roughly chronological pattern. Moving from the Art and Liberty Group (Fig. 3) in the entrance to the Contemporary Art Group to the Afterlife of Egyptian Surrealism (Fig. 4), there was also a cyclical nature to time in the exhibition—we moved forward in time but came back suddenly to the beginning. For example, Art and Liberty painter Ramses Younan's Landscape Totemic (1961) in one of the last rooms (in the Afterlife section) was noticeably formally similar to his Storm Threats (1960), on a freestanding wall as you entered the exhibition (Fig. 5), circling the viewer back to the beginning just as you thought you were reaching the end.
One of the greatest pleasures of this exhibition was simply seeing all of this work. With a list of twelve sources, the lenders ranged from Egyptian collections like the Cairo Museum of Modern Egyptian Art and the Museum of Modern Arts in Alexandria, Emirati collections, smaller museums, and private collections. The challenge of securing international loans to Egypt right now allowed for a real spotlight to be put on what is held inside of Egypt already, and there was palpable excitement that this body of work had at last been taken out of the storage that it had been relegated to for the last fifty years. Beyond the experience of seeing some of these iconic works in reality, close up and in detail, it was also interesting to see the dialogue that was created between them. For example, in the early 1950s, Contemporary
Art Group artist Abdel Hadi El Gazzar painted multiple versions of a lineup of struggling archetypal Egyptian women with empty bowls in front of them, one version of which led to his imprisonment. Two of these paintings were included in this exhibition, Al Goo'o (1951) and Folk Choir (1951). It was a great opportunity to see them situated within the Contemporary Art Group and within El Gazzar's own body of work, but it was particularly incredible to see them next to each other, highlighting their small differences.
The extensive display of artwork was grounded in the last room, which featured cases of archival documentation such as journals and posters along with a long timeline that covered a full wall, drawing us from 1908 and the start of the Cairo School to the death of author and founding Art and Liberty Group member Georges Henein in 1973. Including political and art historical moments as well as the meetings, exhibitions, and publications that structured Egyptian surrealism, this timeline grounded the exhibition in its full context. While there is substantive work being done on Egyptian modernism by a small community of international early-career academics as well as a simultaneous exhibition happening about
Egyptian surrealism at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, much of this history remains marginalized and under researched. Given the ways in which this art history has been sidelined in Egypt itself, it was all the more important to have it in Cairo, grounded in its multifaceted history.
This exhibition will tour, though its schedule has not been released, ending at the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2018. Reading the explosive politics of the work against the backdrop of the current political situation in Egypt, the version seen in Cairo was all the more unique. The works within the exhibition will change when it tours based on institutional calculations of where international lenders will and will not loan to. Moreover, rules and regulations for the exportation of artwork from the country play a significant role in what can be seen outside of Egypt. While these laws in many countries shape exhibitions quite profoundly, their ramifications are rarely if ever discussed in writing.
In the words of its opening wall text, the exhibition sought to “provide a glimpse of the complex and nuanced story of artistic and literary modernisms as they are staged and performed outside the West,” approaching surrealism as a pivotal part of the experience of modernism in Egypt. It was a significant achievement to do this on such a large scale, and to meet it with a rigorous scholarly foundation.
In the interest of transparency, I should note that Salah Hassan was my doctoral advisor at Cornell University.