On the fourth floor of the National Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Pompidou, where contemporary art collections are stored, visitors’ attention is drawn to a sign which reads: "Art and Freedom: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948)." Organised by independent curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath (Art Reoriented), the display is dedicated to the works of the Egyptian art group known as Art and Freedom, founded with a manifesto titled 'Long Live Degenerate Art,' published 22 December 1938. The movement that gathered Egyptian artists, intellectuals and social and political activitsts of the time continued until 1948.
The exhibition in Paris's Centre Pompidou opened 19 October 2016 and will continue until 16 January 2017.
Following five years of in-depth research and no less than a hundred interviews and field investigations in Egypt and in numerous other countries, the curators selected nearly 130 paintings, works on paper and photographs, as well as a great number of archive documents (historical photographs, film sequences and never-before-seen manuscripts). These works of art, many of which are unpublished, were taken from over 50 public and private collections in Egypt and other countries.
In the first room hangs a picture of the members of Art and Freedom, together with those of the Friends of Art Society.
Artswork by Ramses Younan
A documentary is playing in the middle of the room, showing King Farouk at the opening of one of their exhibitions. The voice of critic Anwar Kamel then begins to narrate the history of the artistic group, in the semi-classical Arabic of the old days. Gathered by writer, poet and journalist Georges Hénein —a friend of French surrealist André Breton, whose disappearance now dates back fifty years — over 30 Egyptian artists and intellectuals, as well as others having lived in Egypt, embraced the mantra “Long live degenerate art.”
The group opposed members of the Friends of Art Society, along with all “official” artists who maintained close relations with the regime, and propagated a clichéd image of Egypt. The group also opposed the fascist, nationalist tendencies of the era and denounced World War II.
The exhibition explores elements of the surrealist movement adopted by the group and their connection to the international context, while simultaneously offering a critical vision of the Egyptian monarchy under British colonisation.
Sequences of black and white documentaries projected onto a wall, where copies of old newspapers are hung along with the group’s publications, all tell the story of a clearly rebellious movement.
George Hénein, still in correspondence with Breton and other surrealists across the world, defended a movement capable of expressing the pain of a man torn apart by war and longing for change. Anwar Kamel’s voice echoes across the room as he proclaims, “We still believe in the permanent revolution.”
Artwork by Inji Aflatoun
'The Voice of Canons' is the significant title given to a section of the exhibition that showcases the visual artworks of the group, many of which show nightmarish images and monstrous creatures. Inji Aflatoun’s 'Young Girl and Monster,' and Rateb Seddik’s work, in which the artist depicts macabre tombstones and shredded corpses, serve as a testimony to the abominable effects of war. The same could be said of Amy Nimr’s painting of drowning skeletons.
In most of the group’s artworks, bodies are fragmented and deformed, serving as a means of social and artistic protest. By fragmenting the bodies, the artists identified with the surrealist revolt and expressed their opposition to the symbolism and naturalism movements, advocated by the bourgeoisie and preventing social upward mobility.
Moreover, the Art and Freedom group developed the notion of “subjective realism.” They made use of local Egyptian symbols to send out an international message, more universal and more humane. Ramses Younan, for instance, incorporated the image of ancient Egyptian goddess Nut into an artwork where the woman’s face expresses sadness, and her body, suffering.
As for Hénein, the artist often wrote about the women who, under the effect of poverty, sold themselves in times of war. The writer transformed this figure into a recurring image in everyday life, often described as “the woman of the city.” Thus in the group’s artistic works and illustrations, woman never plays the role of a muse, nor does she attempt to seduce. Her body is engraved with her misery.
Artwork by Mohammad Abdel Latif
Among the disciplines mastered by the group was surrealist photography. The curators’ research allows us to discover unknown photographers who experimented with photomontage and other techniques in order to create surrealist images. To achieve this, the artists played on proportions, photomontage, contradiction between elements, even sarcasm, to ridicule cliché images of touristic Egypt. Aside from Van Leo’s work, the works of Mohamad Abdel-Latif, Ida Kar, Ramzi Zolqomah and others were also showcased.
Over a period of 10 years, the surrealist movement of Art and Freedom had well developed. Yet the group struggled to survive after 1948. Some of its members were forced into exile. Others were imprisoned for their communist ideals. Censorship prevented the publishing of their artworks. Hénein distanced himself from the French surrealist movement, as Breton began to show interest in shows and exhibitions. On his deathbed, while in exile, he said to his wife, “Baby elephants die alone,” a metaphor that summarised the situation. The story had ended, but the works exhibited in the Centre Pompidou keep it forever alive.
Following the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the collection will embark on an international tour.
The same surrealist works will be shown at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid from 14 February to 28 May 2017.
They will also be showcased at the Tate Liverpool from 10 November to 11 Mars 2018 where the exhibition will underline the presence of English surrealist artists living in Egypt during the 1940s.
In Spain, the exhbition will highlight the influence of Picasso’s Guernica on members of the Art and Freedom group.
Later on, in Germany, the display focus on the group’s manifesto, published as a protest against Nazism and fascist authorities.
Artwork by Greek-Egyptian artist Mayo
This article is translated from Al Ahram Hebdo (French)
For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture