Culture

Reflecting on the Nile’s surrealists

BEIRUT: For some years, Sam Bardaouil has been uncomfortable with Egypt’s surrealists – specifically with how they have been remembered. The curator and art historian’s interest in this strain of Nilotic modernism was given more focus in the late 1990s and early 2000s, prompted by Samir Gharib’s study of poet Georges Henein and the visual artists and writers who’d clustered around him in the 1930s and ’40s.

“I felt that Gharib’s book was very important in the sense that it was the first to attempt to retrace the story of this incredible group, but for me it seemed there must be more to this story.”

To flesh out the tale, Bardaouil and Till Fellrath – who together form the curatorial team Art Reoriented – devoted over five years to researching the work of Egypt’s surrealists.

The movement was embodied in Cairo’s Art and Liberty group, which thrived in the complex of late imperialism and nationalism that characterized the period around World War II.

Egypt’s surrealist moment was brief. Henein had corresponded with Andre Breton since the 1930s but a decade later Art and Liberty and Breton’s surrealists had grown apart. Henein declared his withdrawal from the surrealist movement in a sober letter to Breton, penned in 1948.

Bardaouil recounts how his curatorial work on Egypt’s modernists inspired dozens of hours of conversation with colleagues and descendants of Art and Liberty’s artists.

Hours more were devoted to combing through private archives and forgotten boxes in family attics.

In Bardaouil’s words, Art and Liberty advocated “a complex social project” whose central tenets were “unmistakably artistic, yet equally political.”

The creation of art didn’t reflect a position of privilege, but rather a sense of responsibility.

Rejecting what they saw to be an imported academicism endorsed by the colonial state, Art and Liberty’s artists broke from both colonial Britain and the Egyptian bourgeoisie’s conservative morality.

“Art et Liberte rejected the conflation of art and national sentiment,” Bardaouil noted in his talk.

“They also rejected the notion of ‘art for art’s sake,’ whereby pictures had become a platform for the recycling of the same visual allegories and literary metaphors.”

While Art and Liberty’s artists were a cosmopolitan mix of Egyptians and non-Egyptians, Bardaouil credits Kamel el-Telmisany, Ramses Younane and Fouad Kamel with instilling within Egyptian surrealism “the rootedness it needed to take wing within its local cultural milieu.”

Bardaouil’s discovery of unfamiliar works by artists in these years and previously undocumented correspondence among group members and figures in European surrealism led him to question the prevailing narrative of how the movement evolved.

In that narrative, modernism in its various forms (surrealism included) arose in “the West” and was eventually emulated by non-Western artists.

His own findings suggested that Art and Liberty’s artists themselves contributed to the evolution of the form. These findings have recently borne fruit in “Art and Liberty: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948),” an exhibition now up at Paris’ Centre Pompidou, and in Bardaouil’s monograph “Surrealism in Egypt: Modernism and the Art and Liberty Group.”

Bardaouil was back in Beirut recently, where he presented the keynote address at “The Avant-Garde and its Networks,” a scholarly workshop on surrealism in Paris, North Africa and the Middle East, staged by the Orient-Institut Beirut.

He argued that academics have tended to be innocent of the organic relationship that existed between European surrealism and the Art and Liberty group.

“None of the scholarly works that I [knew] at the time were even aware of that fact that there was such a [connection], until a few anthologies of world surrealisms appeared in the 2000s.

“Art and Liberty ... were never into regionalism,” he says.

“They were always [part of an international surrealist] network. Yet you find anthologies that place them within surrealism in North Africa or surrealism in the Arabic-speaking world.”

Bardaouil argues that scholarship must broaden and enrich the surrealist canon.

“We make the same inferences and interpretations [about the canon] because the materials we’re using to provide context – whether it’s an artwork or a document – have been in circulation for the past 50-70 years.”

The context of the canon must be expanded, Bardaouil says, but it’s too simplistic to graft “things from the so-called periphery [onto the existing] canon.

“We try to make sense of [surrealism] in terms of a tradition that doesn’t recognize that there are other points of reference. What we’re trying to do with [our Pompidou] exhibition, and through the theoretical paradigms that I’m constructing, is to suggest that maybe [we should imagine] a completely different canon that doesn’t operate along this ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ binary.

“The idea is to allow for the existence of different points of reference – in terms of the visual art and documentation, the personal narratives and the development of the movement. What we learn from Art et Liberte [is that] centers are constantly in a state of ebb and flow. Paris was a center at one time but the people who made it a center were from all over the place.”

While generational conflict played a role in how Art et Liberte situated itself vis-a-vis Egypt’s artistic mainstream – a conflict evident in the art in many parts of the world at the time – Bardaouil is more interested in locating and defining “a new type of avant-garde.”

“For us the avant-garde was cubism, surrealism and futurism – art movements that broke off with all the traditions from the Enlightenment and the Renaissance, saying, ‘We have failed. We need to find a new language.’

“We inherited this narrative. We don’t think of a realist painting from the ’30s as avant-garde. Now there’s a new movement suggesting that these were the exceptions that proved the rule. Most painters, the ones leading the show, were working in a realist or neorealist style.

“A lot of artists – George Sabbagh, for instance – [formed] a misplaced or discarded generation that was seen as [out of sync] with the avant-garde.

“Our understanding of the avant-garde [sanctions our] discarding mainstream artists’ innovations.

“There are revisionist approaches today that consider the avant-garde not only from the vantage of the contemporary moment but from its context at the time.

“In a sense, the tension we’re talking about today is something we could be projecting because we have seen the avant-garde and the traditionalists as two opposing schools,” he said, adding that “perhaps that tension was less significant for those leading the show than for those in the avant-garde, who were trying to instigate change.”

Bardaouil acknowledges that Art and Liberty’s dissident position appealed to younger generations.

“This was happening in Egypt, in Italy, in France, Germany, Mexico,” he says. “‘Let’s reject nationalism but try to find a local language that makes use of our own heritage.’

“Then, this localist position was adopted by mouthpieces for a later form of nationalism – as happened under Abdel-Nasser.”

“Art and Liberty: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938 -1948)” is up at Centre Pompidou through Jan. 16, 2017. “Surrealism in Egypt: Modernism and the Art and Liberty Group” is published by IB Taurus.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 31, 2016, on page 16.

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