When We Were Modern

Egyptian surrealism: a case-study in global modernity 

Like ghosts at a séance, the surrealists of Egypt are back. Long marginalized by the elders of Egyptian art history, this hodgepodge crew has been the subject of a phalanx of talks, books and at least two exhibitions of late. The spotlight is ‘timely’ to be sure, not least as parts of the Arab world sink while pundits and politicians deem its inhabitants ahistorical, anti-intellectual, savage. Say it: ‘Egyptian surrealists’. It’s a thrilling prospect – sexy, even, in all its supple, Technicolor modernity.

Egypt, of course, wasn’t the only stage for surrealism’s extra-European engagement (there’s Martinique, Mexico, Haiti). Yet, the Orient has long held pride of place in the surrealist imagination. Early French surrealist writings celebrate the East as a foil to a sclerotic, rational West. André Breton frequently invoked the Occident’s other as surrealist muse, writing in 1924: ‘Orient lovely bird of prey and innocence / I implore you from the depths of the kingdom of shadows! Inspire me!’

Surrealism’s chief protagonist in Egypt was Georges Henein, a bespectacled, suit-wearing mondain of mixed Coptic Egyptian and Italian heritage. A poet, Henein struck up a correspondence with Breton in 1935, engaging him on the vexing question of how to reconcile surrealism with Marxism. (A conundrum that was never satisfactorily resolved, as it happens.) Not long after, in 1938, Henein and 37 others produced a call-to-arms they named ‘Long Live Degenerate Art!’ Christening themselves Art and Liberty, they allied with their European artist counterparts who confronted a ‘new Middle Ages’ as war clouds gathered in their midst. Inspired by Alfred Jarry, the Comte de Lautréamont and Arthur Rimbaud, the workings of the subconscious and the magic of dada, Art and Liberty’s writing – captured across at least three periodicals – railed against fascism, capitalism and colonialism. Not unlike surrealists elsewhere, their target was a society that was unjust for workers and women, and a cultural establishment that was steeped in academicism and narrow nationalism. Between 1940 and 1945, they organized five exhibitions, mostly of a baffling disposition. Members engaged in spontaneous drawing and clairvoyance sessions; they wore gas masks and were spotted with pisspots full of flowers.

Importantly, Art and Liberty’s members were as cosmopolitan as Egypt was at the time, and included Greeks, Armenians, Italians. Women, too, were front and centre: amongst them, the painters Amy Nimr and Inji Efflatoun (the latter went to prison for her communist bona fides) and the photographers Hassia and Ida Kar. Lee Miller – who spent a season in Cairo married to a posh, fez-wearing Egyptian – makes a cameo. As does
her lover, Roland Penrose.

Not everyone was keen on this newfangled mode of expression. Art and Liberty’s manifesto was banned from several Egyptian newspapers. A charged back-and-forth in the newspaper Al Risala, in 1939, reveals one critic declaiming: ‘The so-called Art and Liberty group perceived liberty only as chaos that fits in with neither norm nor law. Moreover, complying with Western art and its blinders is not considered liberty at all – it is, in fact, a blind enslavement.’ In response, the painter Kamel El Telmissany wrote: ‘Art does not have a particular country, my friend.’

And yet, the current vogue for Egyptian surrealism has inspired grumbling in some corners. Why focus on such a short-lived movement? Weren’t these ‘misfits’ – to use Miller’s term – out of touch, Francophone elites? Is it even surrealism when the group’s members embraced so many practices that could hardly be defined as such? Cynics point out that the brouhaha is a ploy: like explorers to a new land, dealers and curators are, after all, always in search of new territories. There is, too, scepticism around Egyptian surrealism’s current patrons, which, for the most part, have been Gulf institutions. (Reflecting on this last, following a conference on the subject sponsored by the Sharjah Art Foundation, the Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji observed: ‘Our Arab brothers want to redefine it as an Arab movement in order to conceal the black hole in their own national identity.’) Others, meanwhile, don’t like the art (dark, angsty, histrionic).

This should be said: however stylish or politically expedient it might be to celebrate Art and Liberty today (all those women!), the group was no Parisian transplant on the Nile. Their's was an art of pastiche: embracing Egyptian folklore, dissecting the uses and abuses of Pharaonic history by the Egyptian state and others, and espousing freedom in relation to the local politics of the time. It has had multiple legacies, from the works of the subsequent Contemporary Art Group (1946–ongoing) to the writings of Albert Cossery, Egypt’s ‘bard of laziness’, who penned listless novels from the Hotel La Louisiane in Paris. In this way, the group offers up a case study of global modernity, taking root in Egypt and spiraling outward in every which way. Let a thousand PhD theses be written! Here’s El Temissany, again: ‘We want a culture that is in concert with the rest of the world.’ Then, and now, that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.

Main image: Ramsès Younane, Untitled, 1939. Courtesy: Collection de S. Exc. Sh. Hassan M. A. Al Thani, Doha; photograph: Haitham Shehab

Negar Azimi a writer and senior editor of Bidoun, based in New York, USA.

Issue 187

First published in Issue 187

May 2017

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