Uncovering the gems of recently-opened Museum of Modern Egyptian Art

May Selim, Wednesday 6 Jan 2021

Following six years of closure, one of Cairo's most important museums opened its doors to pubic last month

Museum of Modern Egyptian Art
Main hall of the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art

After six years of closure and restoration work, the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art has reopened its doors to the public in December 2020. We are given the privilege to be guided through the museum’s rooms by its new director, artist Tarek Maamoun, who has been in charge of the premises since 2017.

"Dating back to 1927, the museum contains many important works by Egyptian artists such as the country’s early 20th century contemporary art pioneers: Mahmoud Said, Ragheb Ayad, Gazbeya Sirry, Abdel-Hadi El-Gazzar, and many others," writes Soha Elsirgany in Ahram Online (2015). "The museum was renovated several times in 1991 and 2005, it was closed in 2011 and partially re-opened in November 2014, showcasing segments of the first floor only," she added.
Now that it has opened all of its floors and rooms, we have an opportunity to visit many gems that the museum is home to.

After leaving your belongings at the entrance and registering your personal details, you turn to the large room which promises a beautiful dive into the history of Egyptian plastic arts, focusing on years between 1887 and 1975. The ground floor brings together the work of artists born between 1887 and 1910, the true pioneers of modern Egypt’s cultural scene.

We thus discover the work of the Egyptian-Armenian artist Ashoud Azorian, tackling motherhood. “Azorian is one of the museum’s finds. Armenians are an integral part of the history of Egypt and during his time, Cairo was truly a cosmopolitan city,” Tarek Maamoun comments to Al-Ahram Hebdo.

The current new and permanent exhibition aims to showcase works unrecognized by critics, since they have rarely been shown in exhibitions.

“The museum's selection committee, chaired by artist Hamdi Abdallah, began by asking a question that was both relevant and provocative: what is the role of this museum? Is it simply a place of exhibition and documentation? Or is he supposed to give clear answers regarding the history of art in Egypt?” Maamoun comments.

This task was not easy. Maamoun reviewed a collection of 13,000 pieces of works, piled up in the museum's storerooms. He eventually chose 890 of them, created by 709 artists.

Continuing the tour in the great hall, we stop in front of Georges Al-Sabbagh's oil painting titled The Wave (1928). With shades of green and grayish-white, the painter represents the wave movement in a perfect way. It is the only painting by the artist in the museum's collection.

Uncovering the secrets

Two other artists capture our attention: Mohamed Sayed Al-Gharably’s painting of a man and a woman in the mystical universe of paradise, and Al-Hussein Badawy’s Villager, carving the face of a somewhat sullen peasant woman with a dark palette. The two artists are not well known to the general public, since their work had never been exhibited in the museum until now.

Among this generation of 1910, we also discover Emma Kaly Ayad, who often painted women. Besides some classic portraits of her, there is this painting of a naked dancer, which immediately stands out and testifies to the great freedom of the time.

Then, we see the portrait of the young girl with braids, which indicates how sculptor Abdallah Al-Dinawi has fallen into oblivion.

Armenian artist Simone Samsoniane's painting The Revolution expresses her strong attachment to Egypt and her involvement in local political life.

Further on, we come across a surrealist piece by Ramsis Younan, one of the founders of the L’Art et la Liberté (Art and Freedom) group. The canvas on display conveys a nightmarish dream, realised with the help of a revolutionary colour palette and marked by the influence of Jackson Pollock, especially in terms of technique.

In the middle of the room, sculptures by Abdel-Badie Abdel-Hay, Mahmoud Moussa and other undisputed masters of the genre give great testimony to the figurative style with a slight touch of abstraction.

Surprises of the museum halls

The tour in this room ends with the works of two great names in Egyptian painting: Hamed Abdallah and Taheya Halim. Their pieces sort of respond to each other, especially since they were married at some point in their lives. It's as if the characters of the two artists communicate with one other.

As we move to the second floor, we discover work created between 1910 and 1932.

Here we find the scrap sculpture of Salah Abdel-Karim and the simple portrait of Adam Henein - abstract and innocent - representing the face of a child.

Then we dwell on Slave Trader, a painting by Fatheya Zohni. The work is reminiscent of those of the Orientalists. Unfortunately, the artist's name is unknown to the general public.

Time and time again, Abdel-Hadi Al-Gazzar surprises us with his restored masterpiece The Man and the Cat. On the reverse side, the museum staff discovered another older painting from 1950, titled An Old Woman. This painting reveals the artist's old technique: an elderly woman wears black against a greenish-gray background.

The portrait of the writer Taha Hussein by the painter and cartoonist Georges Bahgoury also testifies to a different style. It is a unique masterpiece, in terms of form and iconic representation.

In addition, we discover the sculptor's talent of the press cartoonist, Nagui Kamel. He knows very well how to handle mass and volume, in a work in black polyester: a young woman with big eyes who hides under her veil and her long traditional dress.

The big names of the 1990s

The third floor houses the work of artists born between 1932 and 1975. These are the renowned names in the art scene today. Some paintings undoubtedly underline the value of certain artists, such as Said El-Adawi. The paintings of the latter summarize its evolution.

The works of Farouk Hosni, Ahmad Nawar, Farghali Abdel-Hafiz, Abdel-Rahman Al-Nashar, Helmi El-Touni and other renowned artists highlight different styles and techniques.

Small sculptures, created in the 1990s and 2000s, by Mohamad Radwan, Nagui Farid, Ahmad Karaaly, Shaaban Abbas, Said Badr, Hassan Kamel, and others are a reflection of the current and burgeoning generation of the established artists.

We also see recent work by photographers Ayman Lotfy and Bassam Al-Zoghby, painter Emad Abdel-Wahab and illustrator Noha Nagui

"In my opinion, a two-dimensional painting, with a protagonist who occupies the middle of the canvas, can be classified as modern. For other curators, this kind of work is rather contemporary. The limits and the definitions are fragile and vague,” the museum director commented.

He then shares his future plans: "I hope to renew the permanent exhibition every two years. This will allow us to show the museum's collection and to better document it.”

Multiple activities

In addition to the permanent exhibition, a program of activities is planned for the coming months. The Abaad gallery (Dimensions), on the first floor of the museum, will be dedicated to holding meetings and seminars, in the presence of experts and critics, in order to disseminate knowledge about modern Egyptian art.

From time to time, the gallery will also host exhibitions that focus on the journey of a particular artist or on a recurring theme. It will also exhibit more recent work, still from the museum's private collection.

The reproductions of some of the museum's paintings will be on sale in the gift corner, also offering a bunch of small items: t-shirts, pens, alongside other trinkets in remembrance of the museum.

The museum is open every day from 10am to 4pm (except Mondays and Fridays), at the Cairo Opera House grounds. The visitors are required to comply with all precautionary measures as to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

*This article was originally published in Al Ahram Hebdo, in French, 16 December edition. Additional edit: Ahram Online.

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