When Art Becomes Liberty
The Egyptian Surrealists (1938–1965)
The short-lived Egyptian Surrealist movement is having a popular moment, with three concurrent – and unrelated – exhibitions taking place in Paris, Sharjah, and Cairo. The Cairo iteration, When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938–1965), ran from 28 September through 28 October at the Egyptian Ministry of Culture's Palace of Arts, and was curated by Hoor Al-Qasimi, Salah M. Hassan, Ehab Ellaban, and Nagla Samir. The exhibition featured some 150 artworks by artists such as Mounir Canaan, Inji Efflatoun, Al-Hussein Fawzi, Fouad Kamel, Ibrahim Massouda, Ahmed Morsi, Hamed Nada, Mahmoud Said, Rateb Seddik, Salah Taher, Kamel El-Telmisany, and Amy Nimr, whose works The Birth and Nativité, both from 1925, were the earliest presented.
Before visiting When Art Becomes Liberty, what stood out were the remarkable circumstances under which the Palace of Arts – a state-run institution that gravitates toward self-initiated and uncontested projects – had not only collaborated with the curators of the show by granting both access to and loans from its national art collections, but that it agreed to accommodate this exhibition at all, given its focus on a group of artists who at one point actively antagonized the state. The stakes were high for this home-game of an exhibition: not only would it need to find a sweet spot of self-awareness for having initiated this charged juxtaposition between individuals and institutions, it would also have to navigate the notoriously opaque bureaucracy concerning state-owned art works in the country, and possible hold ups at customs that can take months, if not years for art arriving from outside Egypt. The project also demanded a tactful and tactical engagement with the local public, for whom the Egyptian Surrealists and their art works are more immediate than a historical retrospective may imply.
Yet, as an exhibition, When Art Becomes Liberty had the same visual markers one would expect of any given project at the Palace of Arts: bright lights, white walls, and art works installed in a seemingly arbitrary order, spread throughout the institution's irregular spaces, with its sprawling open floors, tight corridors, boxy rooms, and several different staircases.
Three main conceptual chapters framed the show, starting with the entrance area on the ground floor. Here, works by thethe Art and Liberty Group (the original Egyptian surrealists, ca. 1938–45) were introduced by wall text, with a second panel addressing TheContemporary Art Group, an offshoot founded in 1946, whose works were also on show. (According to the latter text, The Contemporary Art Group, who were heavily influenced by the Egyptian Surrealist movement, shifted away from the conception of an artist's individual freedom championed by the Art and Liberty Group, and moved toward an instrumentalization of art that would shape the identity of Egypt as a modern nation.) The exhibition's third conceptual pillar was located on the third and top floor and focused on what was titled 'Afterlife of Egyptian Surrealism'.
With few exceptions, art works consisted mainly of oil paintings and drawings in ink or pencil, depicting landscapes, portraits, animals, and scenes with people, abstract and surreal works, all in different techniques, sizes, and by different artists, with an eclectic mix of frames, as though plucked from the walls of state museums and collectors' dining rooms and installed as is. These were exhibited in a continuous line that wrapped around the walls of all rooms, implying a seamless transition between works throughout the whole show.
Sub-divisions emerged that were inexplicably given the same visual significance as the three main chapters, both implied and actual. On the next floor, for example, about a third of the exhibition space was surprisingly dedicated to photographer Van Leo, who is well known, but not necessarily for being an Egyptian Surrealist. A wall text, which equal in size to those outlining the history of two distinct movements on the ground floor, admitted that Van Leo's involvement with the group is doubtful but wondered if Van Leo could have been 'a surrealist by accident'. This section was comprised of nine reproductions of the artist's fantastic black and white self-portraits, each in a different costume and make up, and another ten photographs that, as the wall text states, 'capture important events (…) in his own life'. This exhibition-in-an-exhibition stood in no relation to the rest of the project, but pointed to what the main exhibition might have benefitted from, should it have been organized more like this corner of the show, in which the focus was on one person at a time, and where individual relationships both to and with the surrealist movement were addressed through a careful selection of works that articulated the personal motivations of each artist.
Indeed, any correlation between an artist's representation in the exhibition and their significance to Egyptian surrealism remained unaddressed. The exhibited works by Ramsès Younan, for example, spanned more than two decades and were spread out on all floors. These included a delicate pencil drawing of body parts that seem to be melting, cracking, and sprouting feeble roots in a barren landscape in À la Surface du Sable (1938), as well as paintings from Younan's 'Abstraction' phase (1960–66), including Menaces d'orage (1960) and Paysage totémique (1961). Yet, out of his works in the exhibition, Younan's website categorizes only À la Surface du Sable as part of his Art et Liberté phase, along with La Nature Adore le Vide (1944). (The latter was also included in the show and depicts, in oil on canvas, a single nude figure walking away from a white construct, echoing parts of a ribcage or a ship's mast and hull, attached with ropes to twisting, organic-looking chunks of wood and a platform in the shape of a severed foot.)
The lack of contextualization appeared to be a running issue in this exhibition. In the case of Abdel Hadi Al Gazzar, whose works formed another pillar of the show, glaring omissions were made regarding the backstory of various pieces presented. Aside from The Circus Wagon and The Past, the Present and the Future (both 1951), which drew influence from the magical and religious in Gazzar's Cairene neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab, both versions of his The Popular Chorus (1948 & 1952) were installed next to one another. They each show a line of nine people facing the viewer, one of them naked but trying to cover up, a few empty bowls, and a clay jug on the ground in front of them. Although one of the most well-known titles in the show – the first version got its maker and his mentor arrested – there was unfortunately no explanation for visitors who aren't privy to the details of the backstory. Likewise, Mohamed Riad Saied's large oil paintings from the 1970s, in which Salvador Dalí's influence is unmistakable, were given a room to themselves in the farthest corner of the Palace but without any explanation for the isolation.
As the exhibition went on, it became increasingly difficult to follow the project's focus from the layout and selection. There was certainly quantity, and surely many hours of research, negotiations, and restorations that happened behind the scenes; but none of this seemed to translate in the exhibition space, where artworks appeared thoroughly indifferent to one another. This may have to do with how the exhibition's frame fails to engage with the complexity of political evolution that exists between the works. Even if many of the artists in the exhibition changed their worldviews multiple times, such shifts cannot also be applied retroactively to their earlier Egyptian Surrealist works so as to flatten their complicated oeuvres to the most agreeable elements. Denying these works their political backdrop in an exhibition that aimed to tell their story and explain their trajectory risks reducing them to mere ornaments.
In this sense, viewers could take from the exhibition what they brought to it – as little or as much as this may be – because the fundamental questions posed by the project remained unaddressed: Who are the Egyptian Surrealists by name and by contribution to the movement, and what are their stories? How much of their practice was devoted to the movement, and why? How many works in the exhibition actually represented Egyptian Surrealism and what of the artists who were not included in the Cairo exhibition? And why was there no attempt at interaction with the audience made through a conceived public programme? Such questions point to an issue surrounding the curatorial framework itself.
Indeed, even if there was one room dedicated to archives and documentation, with a wall text that sought to position the display within Egypt's wider socio-political context, the overcrowded display cases and un-translated, context-less documents, became merely stuff; it did not give a sense of how much work the researchers and curators had invested thus far. This may have been resolved by the inclusion of a comprehensive timeline on the wall to help situate the original research, beginning with 'The Cairo School in Cairo' in 1908 and ending with the 'Passing of Georges Henein in Paris' in 1973.
But the timeline of the exhibition did not stop there. Its final chapter, 'Afterlife of Egyptian Surrealism', presented on the top floor of the exhibition space, explored the movement's influence on artists of later generations 'beyond the 60s through the 70s'. This section included Abdel Hady El-Wechahi's 1986 polyester sculpture Outlook, Kamal Youssef's wooden sculpture Pregnant Daughter (1991), and Samir Rafi's oil-on-plywood Triptych (1992), which ends the show's actual timeline (excluding posters in the archive room from as recently as 2012). Also presented was Gazzar's obsessively detailed ink drawings, such as Man and the Machine (1964), which offers stylistic references behind the famous oil paintings the artist made in 1962 and 1965 respectively: The Charter (1962) and Peace (1965), both equally saturated with color, symbolism, and patriotic devotion, also included in this section. (Gazzar became an ardent Nasserite and finished the painting only a few months before his untimely death at age 40 in 1966. Peace is also the banner picture on the Egyptian Ministry of Culture's website.) Yet, again, it was difficult to contextualize these works and their relevance to the exhibition frame.
This exhibition was the second part of a three-part project that began with a conference hosted by the American University in Cairo in November 2015 (a collective effort by the Sharjah Art Foundation, the AUC and Cornell University titled The Egyptian Surrealists in Global Perspective), with a series of publications forming the final component. And while admirable in its ambition, this exhibition - and the project it is attached to - cannot be lauded merely for its own assertiveness, given what is at stake. Could this show serve as the velvet rope that decides who is in and who is out of a movement undergoing a process of canonization? Indeed, who is legitimizing whom with this project? Are the artworks experiencing mainstream success because art history is being written around them, or are the works granting the project legitimacy in its own writing? With this newfound interest, it will be interesting to follow the Egyptian Surrealists as they circulate in the market.
 It is worth noting, there were no Xeroxes to leaf through, and because what was visible was un-translated, language skills in English, French and Arabic were required.