At the end of the 1930s, a group of avant-garde Egyptian intellectuals rebelled against what they saw as the gradual retreat of their nation into restrictive social customs and despotism. They sought to liberate the Egyptian consciousness by means of artistic freedom and radical political action, creating the Egyptian surrealist movement.
So why do we not find in pre-Islamic poetry any reference to their religious customs [the Jews, the Christians and the polytheists of Quraysh] in the pre-Islamic period? The Quran has verses featuring the Qurayshis’ response and their disputes with Muhammad, but we see no trace of this in pre-Islamic poetry!’
It is with these controversial words that Taha Hussein, the dean of Arabic literature and the figurehead of the Egyptian modernist movement, began his critical inquiry into the linguistic comparison between the Quran and pre-Islamic poetry, which ultimately led to the questioning of the authenticity of the latter. The controversial book Fi al-Shai‘ri al-Jahili (On Pre-Islamic Poetry), published in March 1926, angered the official religious body al-Azhar and was banned. Hussein’s subsequent repentance and forced (albeit temporary) resignation from Cairo University were a significant blow to freedom of thought and reflected the emerging shifts in the public discourse that redefined Egyptian national identity during the 1930s and 1940s.
Until the 1920s, the borrowing of what was useful from the West to modernize Egyptian society was, on the whole, unchallenged. In fact, the ruling and intellectual elite saw in its progressive, scientific and cosmopolitan merits the finest path along which to advance the country. Concurrently, the archaeological discoveries of a glorious ancient civilization confirmed the Pharaonic era as the proud source of Egypt’s national heritage and paved the way for a compounded neo-Pharaonic liberal nationalism. Pioneer artists of the first generation rushed to contribute to the liberal cultural awakening (al-nahda), inspired by their country’s glorious past, using the classic figurative skills they had recently acquired from European instructors.
Gradually, however, Egyptian sentiments would change, following the catastrophic consequences of World War I and the persistent refusal of the European occupiers to grant Egypt its independence. The enlightened West was seen as failing humanity. As a response, various intellectuals, who in the 1920s had championed the virtues of westernizing Egyptian society, shifted considerably by the 1930s and began to call for the revival of Egypt’s Islamic (or Arab) heritage instead, which they considered more suitable for Egyptians.
When Saad Zaghloul died in 1927, having become the symbol of Egyptian liberal nationalism, the weekly journal al-Siyasa opposed building Zaghloul’s Pharaonic-inspired tomb inside a mosque, as figurative elements were in violation of Islam’s religious law. With the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hassan al-Banna in 1928 and the death in 1934 of another nationalist, sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar, Egypt was witnessing the weakening of the liberal nationalist movement. Driven by political games, the Egyptian collective identity was being redefined, moving away from Western modernism towards ‘Cairo is now the capital of the Islamic/Arab world’.
They invited the Egyptian youth to revolt against the supremacy of the old traditions … and advocated an absolute artistic freedom that knew neither nation nor religion.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the Nazis had confiscated over 5,000 works of art from museums and private collections throughout the Reich. These works were deemed modern or degenerate and were considered contaminated by Jewish influences and against the German spirit. The French poet André Breton, the father of surrealism, a global avant-garde social and cultural movement, together with the Mexican artist Diego Rivera and the exiled revolutionist Léon Trotsky, condemned such barbarous acts and called for an international cultural war to salvage the world from fascism and Nazism, which had started to regulate creative and artistic production.
On 22 December 1938, a group of young agitators published and distributed in the streets of Cairo a radical manifesto entitled Vive l’art dégénéré! (Yahya al-Fann al-Monhat!) in both French and Arabic and signed by over thirty intellectuals. Rallied by the French surrealists, they invited the Egyptian youth to revolt against the supremacy of the old traditions under an antagonistic British-ruled monarchy and advocated an absolute artistic freedom that knew neither nation nor religion.
Determined to be important players in the liberation of their country and the world at large, these modern-minded, left-wing activists would formally establish the Art and Liberty Group in January 1939. Headed by l’enfant terrible, the Egyptian-born, Sorbonne-educated Georges Henein (1914–1973), who instigated and fathered Egyptian surrealism, they warned that ‘the fanatical racialist, religious, and nationalistic path that certain individuals wish modern art to follow [in Egypt and Europe] is simply contemptible and ridiculous’.
Along the bumpy road towards liberty, Georges Henein, the quadrilingual son of a diplomat from a wealthy, landowning Coptic family, was accompanied by other like-minded, progressive individuals from more modest backgrounds. Notable among them were Ramsès Younan, one of the most extraordinarily far-sighted artists of the time; artist and writer Kamel el-Telmissany; and brothers Anwar and Fouad Kamel. It was clear to them that the only viable means of transforming the established, rotten social order lay in an absolute ‘jihad for independence and freedom’ that required Egypt to open up to the outside world and liberate itself from anti-modern religious obscurantism.
By mobilizing the youth behind the emancipatory message of surrealism, they believed they could salvage the nation from the growing mainstream belief that the earliest efforts to ignore Islam in constructing a modern national identity had failed and that neither the ‘enlightened’ West nor neo-Pharaonic secularism was suitable or successful anymore.
This cultural revolution meant that art could no longer exist merely to ‘decorate walls and palaces’. It could not be at the command of the religious institution or the state or be confined to an era or a geographical space. Rather, it would be used as a means of social change, a universal weapon of resistance to ‘express the shades of misery and the suffering that mankind endures.’
Together until 1947, the group curated extravagant and critically engaged exhibitions in the most unconventional places. They translated Rimbaud, Camus and Kafka into Arabic and published avant-garde periodicals to eradicate ‘the spiritual and material misery inflicted upon an entire people deprived of butter but stuffed by guns’.
Thanks to the intellectual and financial patronage of Georges Henein, the group mounted five controversial exhibitions in Cairo between 1940 and 1945 under the common motto Maʾarad al-Fann al-Hor (Exhibition of Free Art), in which the spirit of provocation was far from absent. Bilingual catalogues were published for each exhibition to get the message out and ensure it was not restricted to the bourgeoisie. They exhibited conceptual works based on Freud’s theories of the subconscious, which were in stark contrast to the ‘appalling flood of academic painting and intellectual dullness’ widely upheld by the Ecole des beaux-arts. Three decades into its founding, the school was showing complacency and passivity, unmoved by the strides taken in Western art movements and unconcerned by the global artistic response to fascism and Nazism.
By fighting through art—how it is conceived, displayed and ‘marketed’—the Art and Liberty Group exposed the misery of the ordinary people, who suffered from corruption, injustice, poverty and oppression, using the very weapon of the elite. Describing the onslaught of reaction to the first exhibition, Henein wrote: ‘Didn’t I tell you that the exhibition would be a brilliant artistic earthquake? The bourgeois cannot get over it!’
Uncompromising, Art and Liberty mocked the ‘superficial and insincere’ artistic establishment and refused to be part of an authoritarian environment that only sought to please the aristocracy. Many of the first generation of artists, in the eyes of these young agitators, were ‘slaves’ as they became complacent, submissive and conservative. The words of Kamel el-Telmissany, a multi-disciplinary artist who used his visual and cinematographic art for the service of society, might help illustrate the gap between the mainstream artistic discourse and the group’s proposed new order of disturbing the status quo: ‘Art will not be a tool for pleasure of people, to bring joy to their idle minds. Cheerfulness is far from humanism and life that keeps crashing every day.’
The group’s anachronistic ideology, which mandated the dismissal of neo-classical image-making and originated from ‘soulless’ sources, such as Western socialist ideologies and vanguard art movements, seemed to be irreconcilable with the nascent, classic Egyptian fine arts at the turn of the twentieth century and with growing mainstream conservative thinking. Leading journalists and intellectuals tore the exhibitions apart, preferring to see the art as chaotic, blasphemous and in denial of the Egyptian identity: ‘an infestation of modern Egyptian culture by European surrealism.’
Their monthly militant Arabic magazine, al-Tatawwur, was described as ‘a publication dedicated to bring about the collapse of the pillars of the social and legal establishment’, which led to its periodic suspensions.
The environment soon became hostile to the group. Perceived as a threat to national security, the group was ultimately dismantled in 1945 by the Egyptian police and the British military authorities. A year later, Ramsès Younan was briefly imprisoned.
Seventy years ago, the Art and Liberty Group appeared as an island of hope at a time when Egypt suffered from a crisis of orientation, torn between decadent nationalism and modernity. By offering a way out of the political, moral and spiritual labyrinth in which the country was trapped, the Art and Liberty Group disturbed and championed intellectual progress. They may not have succeeded in liberating Egypt—it was a movement for the masses deprived of masses—but they were certainly ‘good at dealing a death blow to academism’.
The introduction of surrealism in Egypt paved the way for a more socially engaged art that went beyond mere beautification and aesthetics, as demonstrated by the spectacular development brought forth by the third generation of modern Egyptian artists. Despite the mistaken belief in today’s Egypt that the group’s endeavour was ‘meagre’ or lost, their critical writings are a timeless point of reference that takes an uncanny significance within today’s socio-political Arab discourse.
Sadly, it is disconcerting that the Art and Liberty Group has not grabbed the attention of more Egyptian intellectuals, artists and political activists. It is probable that, had the twenty-first-century Tahrir Square youth been familiar with the experience of Art and Liberty, they might have learnt a thing or two, and their ill-fated attempt at social justice might have broken Karl Marx’s dictum: ‘History repeats itself, first as a tragedy then as farce.’
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Fatenn Mostafa Kanafani is the founder of ArtTalks | Egypt, a leading interdisciplinary, Cairo-based art space dedicated to the management of selected Egyptian artists’ estates in addition to providing exhibition, publication, education and archiving services. She is currently working on her first book on the interface between politics and the visual arts in Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century.