Cairo

View of “When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938–1965),” 2016. Foreground: Abdel Hady El-Weshahy, Man of the Twentieth Century, n.d. Background, from left: Ahmed Morsi, Adam and Eve, 1959; Ahmed Morsi, Artist in Alexandria, 1989; Ahmed Morsi, Elegy of El-Gazzar, 1968.

View of “When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938–1965),” 2016. Foreground: Abdel Hady El-Weshahy, Man of the Twentieth Century, n.d. Background, from left: Ahmed Morsi, Adam and Eve, 1959; Ahmed Morsi, Artist in Alexandria, 1989; Ahmed Morsi, Elegy of El-Gazzar, 1968.

“When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938–1965)”

Palace of Arts

View of “When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938–1965),” 2016. Foreground: Abdel Hady El-Weshahy, Man of the Twentieth Century, n.d. Background, from left: Ahmed Morsi, Adam and Eve, 1959; Ahmed Morsi, Artist in Alexandria, 1989; Ahmed Morsi, Elegy of El-Gazzar, 1968.

ON DECEMBER 22, 1938, nearly two years after the Nazi Party organized its infamous “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich, a motley group of writers, literary critics, lawyers, and artists based in Cairo published their historic manifesto, “Long Live Degenerate Art.” Throwing their weight behind beleaguered European modernists who were being “abused and trampled underfoot” by forces of the “new Middle Ages,” this group not only aligned themselves with global antifascism, they proclaimed their faith in the primacy of individual freedom against the onslaught of nationalism in interwar Europe. This, in sum, was the official calling card of the Art and Liberty group. Recognized for its internationalist rhetoric and its identification with André Breton’s Surrealist movement, the group—as a major exhibition this past fall at the Palace of Arts in Cairo, curated by Hoor Al-Qasimi, Salah M. Hassan, Ehab Ellaban, and Nagla Samir, demonstrated—was the first truly modernist art movement in Egypt.

Despite its 1938 manifesto, Art and Liberty didn’t mount their first exhibition until February 1940; by 1945 the collective had virtually ceased to exist. It was supplanted the following year by the newly formed Contemporary Art Group, led by the artist and teacher Hussein Youssef Amin. This latter organization, critical of Art and Liberty’s foreign orientation at the expense of ideas and concerns specific to Egypt, was also well represented in “When Art Becomes Liberty.” In this sense, the show—with more than twenty-five artists, 172 artworks, and numerous photographs and archival materials—was groundbreaking, providing one of the most comprehensive and concise accounts of mid-twentieth-century Egyptian modernism, with Surrealism as its connecting thread.

Installed across the venue’s three floors and many galleries, the exhibition had three main sections. The first, dedicated to Art and Liberty, featured key works by that group’s leading members and their contemporaries. Clearly, these artists played fast and loose with painting styles developed by their European counterparts. So while Ramsès Younan’s Nature Loves a Vacuum, 1944, which shows a biomorphic construction in the foreground of a barren landscape with a diminutive naked figure in the distance, is clearly in conversation with Salvador Dalí’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936, Kamel El-Telmissany’s Untitled (Seated Nude), 1941, depicting a naked woman with a large metal peg driven into her lap, her right fingers severed, comes across as a more wickedly imagined and savagely painted Georges Rouault. Among the more enigmatic paintings here was Inji Efflatoun’s The Girl and the Beast, 1941, in which tentacular rocks and plants seem to compete with a large airborne raptor for a terrified, partially naked girl trapped high up on a mountainside. Efflatoun’s work shows the reaching influence of Art and Liberty’s Surrealist bent, advocated by the artists and writers gathered around the author Georges Henein, the movement’s most ardent advocate in Egypt.

The second section, devoted to the Contemporary Art Group, included such gems as Kamal Youssef’s Key Holder, 1952, as well as Samir Rafi’s The Family and Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar’s Man and Cat, both 1956. This group, unlike Art and Liberty, looked to Egyptian subject matter and motifs, convinced that progressive artists ought to direct their work toward the making of a distinctly Egyptian aesthetic by mining its diverse cultural and artistic traditions and by focusing on the Egyptian folk. The third section, which narrated what the curators called the “Afterlife of Egyptian Surrealism,” in fact showed that while the Surrealist movement in Egypt might have been a 1940s thing, it only reached full elaboration as an artistic phenomenon in the ’60s and ’70s through the art of El-Gazzar, Mohamed Riyad Saeed, and Ahmed Moustafa—who is better known for his subsequent work as a leader of what the art historian Iftikhar Dadi has called transnational calligraphic modernism.

One of the thrills of this show was a semiseparate section dedicated to the photography of the Armenian-Egyptian Van Leo (born Leon Boyadjian), who, it is said, admired van Gogh so much that he changed his name to sound like that of the Dutch painter. A master (if underacknowledged) of the multicharacter self-portrait, reminiscent of the French photographer Claude Cahun, Van Leo used new photographic techniques favored by Surrealists and modernists to imagine himself as diverse, fictive Hollywood characters. But he never directly identified with the Egyptian Surrealist movement of his time. His inclusion in this exhibition thus furthered the idea that modernist art and literature of midcentury Egypt was permeated by a Surrealist imagination, notwithstanding the intense rivalries and aesthetic-ideological claims of emergent artist groups and unique artists such as Van Leo and Efflatoun.

Interspersed among the main sections were several cabinet displays of diverse publications and unpublished documents that illuminated what the curators called the “irreducibly plural and fully global” world in which the Egyptian Surrealist movement and elite culture thrived. It is quite apt, then, that it took a lead curator from Sudan (Hassan) and collaboration between the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, the American University in Cairo, and the Sharjah Art Foundation to realize this historic exhibition about the Egyptian version of Surrealism in a Cairo cultural institution.

And while it’s easy to understand why Surrealism, with its rhetoric of boundless freedom, offered Egyptians a counterargument against midcentury fascism and nationalism, I left “When Art Becomes Liberty” wondering why the country’s leading artists, decades later, still saw in Surrealism a vocabulary for rethinking representation. Perhaps, as this exhibition suggested, given Egypt’s multiple Pharaonic, Coptic, and Islamic heritages, its competing Arabic and Ottoman traditions, and its fraught French and British colonial legacies, Surrealism’s aesthetic of radically illogical juxtapositions was the natural choice for Egyptian modernists of equally radical diversity.

Chika Okeke-Agulu is an associate professor of African and African-Diaspora art history at Princeton University.