Paris and the Présences arabes

David Tresilian , Tuesday 7 May 2024

A new exhibition explores the relationship between modern Arab art and the French capital, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Arab Art


All visitors to Paris this summer will want to visit the Présences arabes exhibition of modern and contemporary Arab art that opened at the Musée d’Art moderne de Paris, the city’s modern art museum, on 5 April.

While modern and contemporary Arab art has a far more secure place in many western countries than was the case only a few decades ago, an exhibition of the scale and reach of this show is an exceptional opportunity for residents and visitors to the French capital alike to enjoy something like a synoptic overview of major trends and developments in the Arab visual arts over the past century.

Significant choices have of course had to be made, and perhaps the resulting mix of works represents more what was available to the curators when putting together the exhibition than what they might have chosen had they been imagining an ideal show. It includes artists from across the Middle East and North Africa whose works are held in institutions across the world, with some of them at least not being in a position to make loans.

Nevertheless, the exhibition that curators Odile Burluraux, Madeleine de Coinet, and Morad Montazami have been able to put together is never less than thought-provoking, presenting a fascinating survey of the modern to contemporary period in Arab art.

It has been produced by the Paris Museum of Modern Art with the support of the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar and the Barjeel Art Foundation in the UAE. Where French collections have proven inadequate – perhaps only the Institut du Monde arabe, also in Paris, has a significant collection of Arab art in France today – the Mathaf and the Barjeel Foundation have jumped in with additional loans or documentation. There is also an excellent catalogue.

The exhibition has a particular emphasis that may make some visitors smile at such an apparently typical, perhaps even comical, piece of gallocentrism, since the focus is not only on Arab art in the modern and post-modern period, but also on the role played by France and Paris in fostering it. It would be too much to say that it suggests that modern Arab art is a result of French cultural influence, possibly even a French invention, but it does point to a kind of midwife’s role being played particularly by Paris.

Many pioneering Arab artists of the generation that started to produce work in the 1920s or before trained in Paris, either at private art schools or at the rather more staid Ecole des Beaux-Arts. At the same time, most if not all of the Arab countries that were then under French cultural influence or colonial rule set up modern art schools on the French model, such that modern art schools, often staffed by French teachers, were set up in Cairo in 1908, Casablanca in  1919, Tunis in 1923, and Baghdad and Beirut in 1936, with these offering training in French and European methods, materials, and genres.

Pioneering Egyptian artists such as Mahmoud Said and Georges Sabbagh, both of whom have pictures in the show, trained in Paris and produced paintings reflecting the training they were given. The pioneering Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar, whose famous sculpture of Egypt’s Renaissance (Nahdat Misr) still stands outside Cairo University today, also trained and worked in Paris. Many of his works were even produced in the city.

The exhibition follows this thread through, arguing that in the same way that Paris functioned as an incubator for artists of other, chiefly European, nationalities in the earlier part of the last century, it did so too for Arab artists. The role played by the city and its art schools, galleries, and collectors in fostering and promoting artists like the Spaniards Pablo Picasso and Jean Miro, the Russians Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, and Wassily Kandinsky, the Romanian Constantin Brancusi, and the Italian Amedeo Modigliani, among many others, now an established part of modern European art history, also took place in the case of Arab artists.

If, for some of these modern European artists, becoming an artist was not something one did at home, but had to do by leaving for Paris, the same thing may have been the case for some of the Arab pioneers. The city hosted a large community of young people from different backgrounds wanting to make careers in the arts and eager for the exposure it could give them. Things became if anything even more attractive with the collapse of the French currency after the First World War, making Paris a notably affordable destination.

There is much in the idea of France and Paris playing their traditional nurturing role with regard to the earlier generations of Arab artists. However, it might be asked whether the exhibition’s focus on this role, though natural for a show held at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, risks distorting the larger picture.

Work by the pioneering Lebanese painter and writer Gibran Khalil Gibran opens the show, perhaps underlining the way in which painters and writers from Syria and Lebanon looked for cultural inspiration towards France and Paris. But it is not mentioned that Paris was at best a stop-over for Gibran, who was on his way to the United States. He and hundreds of thousands of his compatriots made their home there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as part of the mahjar, or emigrant, generations, with none of them being tempted to stay in Paris.

Not all Arab artists looked to Paris as a kind of cultural second home, either at this time or later, and probably a show that wanted to do justice to the range of models that have influenced Arab artists would want to look at the work of the mahjar generations in North and South America, as well as the powerful pull of Soviet cultural influences and the extraordinary cultural flourishing that marked the Soviet Union from the 1920s onwards.

Art on public and political themes, particularly art translating the hopes and ambitions of national independence and decolonisation, may have had less to learn from the traditions of French painting and more to learn from the transformation of the art world in the Soviet Union.

While Paris, the pre-eminent European art capital in the early decades of the last century, exerted a magnetic pull on artists from across the continent and the neighbouring Arab world in the period up until the Second World War, probably the new geopolitical arrangements that followed the War made new generations of Arab artists look increasingly to the US, with New York as the new art capital, and the Soviet Union for ideas and inspiration.


Four parts: The exhibition falls into four main parts and extends from the early to the final decades of the last century. There are also specific emphases within the broadly chronological presentation, focusing on particular artists, art schools, institutions, and exhibitions.

The first part of the exhibition, looking at the years between 1908 and 1937 and labelled “Cultural Renaissance and Western Influence,” sets out many of the themes of the larger show. Perhaps aware of the possibly unfamiliar nature of the material to some French and European audiences, the curators have provided timelines to introduce each of its four sections, with the first pointing not only to some of the events taking place in the arts in the Arab countries at the time, notably the development of modern art schools and museums, but also to the wider political and societal context.

The first Congrès Arabe was held in Paris in 1913, for example, aiming to put pressure on the then Ottoman regime to allow the greater use of Arabic in the Empire’s Arab territories and even some measure of independence, followed by the foundation of the Etoile Nord-Africaine in the city in 1926, the first organised group aiming for Algerian independence from French colonial rule.

Egyptian artist Georges Sabbagh arrived in Paris in 1910 to follow an artistic training, followed by Mahmoud Said in 1920. Mahmoud Mukhtar arrived in the city in 1911. At the same time, the Lebanese writer Negib Azoury published his Le Réveil de la nation arabe in Paris in 1905, the Syrian writer Abdel-Rahman al-Kawakibi published his Oum al-Qura, a powerful indictment of Ottoman maladministration and the case for Arab self-determination in Cairo in 1902, and Gibran published his more romantic Al-Arwah Al-Mutamarrida (Rebellious Spirits) in New York in 1906.

Copies of these books are on show in the exhibition, the overall effect being to place the art of the time, which often explored themes of national awakening and identity, against a wider background. The 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition, an official celebration of the then French Empire, became an opportunity for artists and others to protest against French colonial rule, while the 1937 Exposition des Arts et Techniques, the 1937 World Fair, saw the Egyptian pavilion connecting the country’s ancient past to its modern development.

This was notably the case in the contribution of Les Larmes d’Isis (Tears of Isis), a painting that Egyptian artist Mohamed Naghi, director of the Fine Arts School in Cairo and a former pupil of the French impressionist painter Claude Monet, made to the show.

The exhibition’s second section, titled “Farewell Orientalism” and looking at the work of the Arab artistic avant-gardes between 1937 and 1956, widens the lens and considers work by Egyptian, Iraqi, Lebanese, and Syrian artists. The first section pointed to what it called the “paradox of the indigenous artist,” trained in Western art techniques, including those associated with Western orientalism, while at the same time wanting to undermine or reject them, and this theme of the growing self-discovery of Arab artists, and, with it, a growing multiplicity of styles, is a feature of the exhibition’s second part.

A prominent role is given to the Art and Liberty Group, an Egyptian reworking of French (and international) Surrealism founded in Cairo in the 1930s and itself the subject of a memorable exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 2016. However, there are also considerations of the careers and early contributions of individual artists such as the Egyptian painters Hamed Abdalla, exhibiting at the prestigious Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris in 1950 and represented in the exhibition by a magnificent painting entitled Conscience de soi (1956), Sami Rafi, Ramses Younan, a prominent member of the Art and Liberty Group, Fouad Kamal, Abdel-Hadi al-Gazzar, represented in the exhibition by his Le Cirque Populaire (1956), lent by the Paris Institut du Monde arabe, Seif Wanly, and pioneering women artists Amy Nimr and Inji Afflatoun.

Iraqi artists such as Jawad Selim, Shakir Hassan al-Said, and Faiq Hassan are represented in the exhibition’s third section, entitled “Decolonisation,” as are artists from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The guide to the selection considers those who either studied in Paris – there is a subsection entitled the Ecole de Paris arabe or the Arab School of Paris – or who moved there to work.

A significant part of this section of the exhibition looks at artistic and other responses to the Algerian War of Independence and includes not only works by Algerian artists Mohammed Khadda and M’Hamed Issiakhem, who studied in Paris in the 1950s, but also the political background represented by political posters from the time as well as significant documents such as the Manifeste des 121, an open letter signed by many French writers opposing the Algerian War.

The final section of the exhibition, “From the Palestinian Cause to the ‘Apocalypse Arabe’,” the name of a poem by the Lebanese artist Etel Adnan, looks at Arab art produced in Paris in the 1970s and 1980s and often relating to the Palestinian Cause or to the political instability then felt to be afflicting parts of the Arab region.

Events chosen as context for this part of the exhibition include former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s official visit to Paris in 1975 (he was vice-president at the time), Egyptian singer Umm Kulthoum’s benefit concert at the Olympia Hall in Paris in 1967 in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 War, and the First Pan-Arab Biennale held in Baghdad in 1974.

There are memorable works by Egyptian artist Gazbia Sirry (The Children of the War, 1967), Syrian video artist Hala Alabdallah (video testimonies by Syrian exiles), and Lebanese photographer Fouad al-Khoury, who is showing a compilation of images showing the devastation of the Lebanese Civil War and photographs of Arab writers and others who have either made Paris their home in recent years or have spent time in the city.

They include the Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery, the Syrian poet Adonis, the Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam, the Algerian novelist Assia Djebar, the Palestinian writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, the Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih, and the Algerian writer Rachid Boudjedra.

Présences arabes. Art moderne et décolonisation, Paris 1908-1988, Musée d’Art moderne de Paris, until 25 August.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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