Named “The Beginnings: A Return to the Early Years of Creativity,” the most recent exhibition at the Arts Palace on the Cairo Opera House grounds (5-23 November) was inaugurated by Plastic Arts Sector chairman Walid Kanoush. It featured over 250 pieces by some of the most significant names in the history of modern Egyptian art, going through three generations from Gazbiya Serry, Mohammed Sabri and Hassan Soliman to Salah El Melegy and Omar El Fayoumy to Ibrahim El Dessouky and Hend Adnan.
The idea of “beginnings” is that the pieces on show kicked off their creators’ path, but they don’t all belong to an early stage of the artist’s career. Together with less-than-ideal presentation and complete lack of information about the pieces – date, size, media – this took away from the pleasure of the experience, especially since even on the last day the exhibition catalogue had still not been printed.
Soliman’s Work in the Field, which includes the date 1962 next to the artist’s signature, depicts two oxen drawing a wooden thresher and a distant figure. It is a celebrated work and an acquisition of the Museum of Modern Art, accomplished when the artist was 34, but it would be hard to say that it was his true “beginning”.
I found out from Ahmed Abdelwahab’s Amira that his stone sculpture of three bald figures in flowing gowns was made in the early 1970s, some 15 years after he graduated from art school in 1957.
Though the exhibition lacked calligraphy, caricature or photography, three portraits by El Fayoumy that do constitute his beginning as a fresh 1979 graduate prove inspiring.
So do two 1989 surrealist paintings of humans with animal heads following each other in a vicious cycle by Evelyn Ashamallah, which though they were not her beginning as such were the beginning of a new phase in her career that started on her return from a five-year stint in Algeria. Ashamallah, who was born in 1948 in Dessouk in the Nile Delta, told me she grew up so close to nature she befriended insects, and seeks the nature connection in everything she does. “My recent work is an extension and development of the early style of the two paintings,” she added.
Equally powerful are a group of small paintings by pioneering artist Gazbiya Serry (1925-2021) depicting life in the Egyptian countryside. One of those paintings, dated 1954 (two years after the July Revolution against the monarchy, two years before independence from the British), depicts a beautiful young country woman in green breastfeeding her child. Both have halos of grass. The child, who is not actually a baby, recalls Coptic depictions of the baby Jesus. They symbolise Egypt and its people.
In a 1962 socialist painting by Zeinab Elsegeny, a woman and three men symbolise agriculture, industry, marine industry and science under Nasser.
Beginnings were further elucidated in a closing-day seminar when artist Reda Abdelsalam gave a long talk on beginnings: : “The idea of the exhibition is brilliant. I consider beginnings a key factor in any artist’s progress, but what kind of beginnings are we talking about here? Is it the beginning of the artist’s journey, of his participation in an art movement, or maybe of a specific phase or project?” He suggested narrowing down the concept to a single generation or time period and exhibiting more works at a range of Cairo Opera venues.
Palace of Arts director Aly Saied, the exhibition’s commissar, explained that many older pieces remain unavailable for technical reasons to do with the Museum of Modern Art renovations and affirmed that future versions of the exhibition would be an improvement on the present one.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly