Art and Liberty in Egypt, Today and Yesterday

Continued neglect for the heritage of the Egyptian Surrealist movement, despite a resurgence in interest abroad, raises questions about the politics of culture in Egypt.

Untitled, c. 1943, by Ramses Younan. Musée de l’Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris. Younan family/Nabil Boutros/

Suddenly, Egypt’s cultural pages are filled with articles extolling the legacy of the Egyptian Surrealist movement, affirming its “Egyptianness” and the imperative of recognizing its heritage. A welcomed initiative, even if it has arrived sixty years too late and is unlikely to yield any interest from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.

Since its inception, the ministry marginalized and rejected what have come to be known as the Egyptian Surrealists, a group of artists and writers who established the Art and Liberty Group in 1937. The culture ministry was founded during the age of the Free Officers, who overthrew the monarchy in 1952, for many reasons, among them to combat and eradicate the heritage and ideas of the Surrealist movement, exile its creators, and erase its history. Throughout the past half-century, the ministry succeeded in doing just that.

Surrealism was never a movement aligned with nationalistic, militaristic, or fascist ideas. Its creators defended individual freedom and the concept of international citizenship. They warned against fascism—the offspring of exuberant feelings of patriotism and Arab nationalism. Likewise, the Surrealists were part of a linguistically, culturally, and ideologically diverse Egypt that existed before July 1952, and had no place afterwards in the Free Officers’ state.

The resurgent interest in Surrealism results from a cutthroat race underway between the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Sharjah Biennale in the United Arab Emirates. The two are competing to present the heritage of the Egyptian Surrealist movement to the world. The first exhibition is organized by Sam Bardaouil and will be inaugurated this September in the Centre Pompidou in the French capital. Bardaouil has spent more than three years with a team of researchers collecting the cultural heritage of the movement’s artists, writers, and poets, which is scattered between Egypt and Europe.

The Paris exhibition, which will probably be the most comprehensive, could not possibly be organized without the loan of Surrealist paintings, many of which are held in ministry storehouses suffering from neglect and disregard. That is why, in November, a French delegation visited Egyptian Minister of Culture Helmy El-Namnam. The latter agreed quite readily for the works to travel in the company of restorers and a hired crew from the ministry, without any material compensation. There was neither an agreement imposing an Egyptian partnership nor even minimum guarantees to exhibit the show in Egypt.

After being displayed in Paris, the “Egyptian Surrealists” will tour several cities in Europe, without ever reaching Cairo. Their artworks will return to the culture ministry’s storehouses, concealed in oblivion, while everyone forgets the photograph of the minister with the visiting French delegation and his celebration of Surrealism.

Surrealism ended with the ascent of the Free Officers in July 1952. In this fascist climate, the state established the Ministry of Culture, which never offered any form of appreciation for the Surrealists’ work. The tale of the artist Ramses Younan explains the historic relationship between the Ministry of Culture and the Surrealist movement. Facing the state’s restrictions on the public sphere, Younan applied for a research grant from the ministry. The committee’s jury, including Abbas Al-Aqqad and Oum Kalthoum, believed that the canvases of Ramses Younan—which had been displayed in the most famous Paris galleries since the forties—were not works of art. Rather, Oum Kalthoum said to him that he did not know how to paint. Younan, in the end, applied as a translator and obtained a grant to translate books.

At the turn of the millennium, Paula Henein—granddaughter of the poet Ahmed Shawky and wife of Georges Henein, founder of the Surrealist movement in Egypt—died. Their heirs offered to donate Georges Henein’s library to the ministry, but did not receive any response. So they donated it to the French Cultural Center in Mounira, where the library of the Surrealist movement’s instigator remains.

With the international interest in reintroducing the Egyptian Surrealists this year, the culture ministry’s reaction has not gone beyond souvenir photos with visiting French and Emirati officials who arrive to make agreements with the ministry.

The Sharjah Art Foundation—which has become one of the most important institutions concerned with modern and contemporary art in the region, only rivaled by the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar—has also entered the fray in search of Egyptian Surrealism’s heritage. They selected for this task Salah M. Hassan, director of the Institute of Comparative Modernities at Cornell University. He is working to prepare an exhibition titled, “When Arts Become Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists,” scheduled to launch in Sharjah at the beginning 2017, part of which will be displayed in Egypt later on. Sharjah additionally organized a three-day research conference about the history of the Egyptian Surrealist movement this past November at the American University in Cairo.

But why is an Emirati cultural organization concerned with the reconsideration of an Egyptian movement? The answer was found in the remarks of Hoor Al-Qassemi, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation. She explained that the conference and the exhibition are part of the foundation’s enormous project to document Arab art movements, “so as to construct a vision for a future richer in creative accomplishments and expressive energy, a future we all share in sketching the features of, and in enriching and deepening our human potential, outside of narrow concepts and affiliations.”

Of course, there is no room for new affiliations in the art markets in Dubai and Doha. The historical and artistic archive in these countries is limited, and their modernization projects new. Thus, they are striving to turn their museums and projects into repositories. Sometimes, these museums reflect a hypothetical image of an imaginary Arab identity. At other times, they cling to a vague universality with undefined features.

In this context and in the world of free markets, the Ministry of Culture appears to be a shepherd who can’t be bothered to tend his flock. So it is better for the livestock to be managed by those who know its value and are capable of taking care of it.

The locked museums and storehouses of the ministry have been emptied of their treasures, and are to be exhibited in Paris, Dubai, and Doha. Egyptian heritage has no place in Egypt. The minister is thrilled to have his photo op with a foreign delegation, while the French and Gulf Arabs compete over displaying Egyptian culture and history. French cultural financiers want to link the movement’s history to the colonial period and its accomplishments. Our Arab brothers want to redefine it as an Arab movement in order to conceal the black hole in their own national identity. Amid all this, the ministry has merely assumed the role of storeroom keeper and broker, providing international and Arab curators the opportunity to haul our heritage out of Egypt and exhibit it abroad.

This article was originally published in Akhbar Al-Adab and is translated from the Arabic by Cairo Review Contributing Editor Jonathan Guyer.

Ahmed Naji is a journalist for the weekly literary review Akhbar Al-Adab. He is the author of two novels, Rogers and The Use of Life, and co-founder of the art research network MHWLN. On February 20, he was sentenced to two years in prison for “public indecency,” for an extract of his second novel republished in Akhbar Al-Adab. He is the recipient of the 2016 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award from PEN America.