By Emad Abu Ghazi
Translated by Shereen Moussad

Throughout the modern era, the hand of the Egyptian state can be seen in the fine arts, from the construction of national monuments to the sponsorship of art exhibitions. This has brought a wealth of creative output, often reflecting the political leanings of the day, as the state navigated the waters between support and control.


The modern Egyptian state has not been shy in seeking to influence the artistic output of the nation, whether through its own output or through directing and supporting the work of others. On the one hand, the state has occupied public spaces with works of art, projecting its values through icons and imagery. On the other hand, it has sought to promote and organize the fine arts through education, exhibitions, procurement and funding.

The result has been an impressive array of artworks in a wide variety of media. But we are also left with a history that reflects the political inclinations of the day and lingering questions about the fine line between support and intrusion.


Since the earliest days of Egyptian civilization, the state has played a pivotal role in the arts. Art and architecture were among the tools used by those in power to impose their existence and to propagate their vision and ideals. With the onset of the reign of Mohamed Ali Pasha at the start of the nineteenth century and the establishment of the modern Egyptian state, the production of art by the state was influenced by two main concepts: the first was an extension of the influences of the Middle Ages, evident in Islamic Art with Ottoman influences; the second was a leaning towards modernity, evident in works influenced by modern European art.

Perhaps the most prominent architectural achievement during the era of Mohamed Ali Pasha was the Mohamed Ali Mosque at the Citadel, the construction of which began in 1830. Located at the highest point of the mount, the Citadel emphasized the authority of the new state with its dominating presence above the city. This edifice is an example of mosques built in the Ottoman style, which itself was influenced by Byzantine churches dating back to the Middle Ages.

Safiya Zaghloul stands next to her late husband’s unfinished statue in Alexandria. Following the death of nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul, Mukhtar was commissioned by the government to create two monumental sculptures to immortalize the Wafdist national icon, one in Cairo, and the other in Alexandria.
Two succeeding non-Wafd governments stalled the inauguration by requesting changes in the bases and taking the sculptor to court for a breach of contract. Mokhtar died in 1934 before the lawsuit was resolved. The Zaghloul Pasha statues were eventually simultaneously unveiled in both cities on 27 August 1938.



It was common practice during the reign of Mohamed Ali to welcome European artists to paint the portraits of prominent statesmen, including the pasha himself. In this way, the state played a role in introducing modern European art to Egypt, a practice that intensified during the reign of Khedive Ismail (1863–1879).

The urban expansion projects in Cairo and other Egyptian cities in line with European urban planning principles required works of art for decoration. Khedive Ismail commissioned the French sculptor Henri Jacquemart to create four lion statues for the two ends of Qasr al-Nil Bridge, built in 1872 to tie the new district of Ismailia to Gezira. The state also commissioned European sculptors to create statues of the ruling family and other influential statesmen to embellish the city squares. Jacquemart was commissioned to create statues of Soliman Pasha al-Faransawy and Mohamed Bek Laz Oghli for Cairo’s new squares, as well as a statue of Mohamed Ali Pasha in Alexandria. Charles Cordier was commissioned by the khedive to build a sculpture of his father, Ibrahim. The statue was unveiled in 1872 in Ataba Square and was later moved to its current location at Opera Square. A statue for Nubar Pasha was erected at the Shallalat Gardens in Alexandria and sculptor Pietro Canonica’s statue of Khedive Ismail was presented as a gift to Egypt from the Italian community. It was unveiled by King Farouk in 1938 close to Alexandria’s Mansheya Square.

After the Free Officers assumed power in 1952, a new phase of official activity began in the cultural domain in general, including the field of fine arts.

After the 1919 revolution, Egyptian artists entered the scene led by Mahmoud Mokhtar whose sculpture Nahdet Masr united the nation. With this statue, he carved a place for the Egyptian fellaha in a public square, expressing the public sentiment of the time. It was commissioned by popular demand from all segments of society, and a committee headed by the former Prime Minister Hussein Rushdy Pasha was formed to oversee the project. Mokhtar used granite, and the Egyptian Railways Administration bore the cost of transporting the granite from Aswan to Cairo. The state also commissioned Mokhtar to carve two statues of Saad Zaghloul after the latter’s death in 1927.


Since the reign of Khedive Ismail, the state used sculptures to emphasize its presence in public areas. The icons of the state represented by Mohamed Ali Pasha and his sons occupied the main squares. It took nearly half a century and two revolutions for statues of Egyptians who were not of the royal family or the elite class of statesmen to be erected in public places. The first was that of Mostafa Kamel. It was not only the first statue of a public figure from outside the royal family, but also the first to be commissioned by public request, in the form of the committee of the National Party.

Years passed, and the city squares once taken up exclusively with statues of Egyptians of foreign origin, were now being occupied by statues of Egyptians. This began with the statues of Saad Zaghloul in Cairo, Alexandria and Banha, as well as the memorial for the university students martyred in the Youth Revolt of 1935. After the assassination of Ahmed Maher Pasha, his statue was erected facing Galaa Bridge in Cairo.

After the 1952 revolution, many sculptures appeared in public spaces, depicting icons such as Talaat Harb, Mohamed Farid, Ahmed Shawky and Ibn Khaldoun in Cairo and Giza, Ahmed Oraby in Sharqeya and Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad in Aswan.

As well as statues and sculpted reliefs commemorating national occasions and events, such as the October 1973 victory and the reopening of the Suez Canal, the state also sponsored the renovation of the facades of public buildings and their adornment with wall art. In fact, a law was passed obliging any development project of a public building to include the cost of adornment with works of art.

For several years, the only statues commissioned were of Latin American leaders, erected as part of a reciprocal agreement with several Latin American countries. However, in recent years, statues of political and military leaders, artists and literary scholars have started to appear once more in public areas. They include Omar Makram, Field Marshal Abdel Moneim Riad, Om Kolthoum, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz.

A magazine cutting from a 1929 issue of Images where King Fuad is inaugurating the tenth Salon du Caire at the Palace of the Arts (the first headquarters of the Société des amis des beaux-arts at Palais Tigrane Pacha). The king was received by Prince Youssef Kamal, president of the society.



Before 1952, statues erected in public spaces were a point of contention between disciples of fine arts, on the one hand, and the state and political powers on the other, and then between the new state and the old after 1952.

The construction of the Nahdet Masr statue was placed under close scrutiny by the palace and its loyal governments, and work was interrupted several times. After the failure of the first Constitutional Revolt in 1926, and the formation of a coalition government, work on the statue resumed. Mokhtar completed it in the winter of 1927, but King Fouad delayed the unveiling for almost a year. In May 1928, the statue was finally unveiled in Bab al-Hadeed Square, moving in 1955 to its current location close to Cairo University. It was replaced in Bab al-Hadeed by the statue of Ramses II, the first—and for fifty years the only—Egyptian antiquity erected in a public space.

Work on the two statues of Saad Zaghloul was suspended many times, due to the government’s position on the revolution and Zaghloul. Mostafa Kamel’s statue was completed in 1913, but it languished in the Mostafa Kamel School until it was moved to its current location in 1938 during the reign of King Farouk.

After 1952, many statues were moved due to political developments. Those of Nubar Pasha and Khedive Ismail in Alexandria were placed in governorate storage for years before being recently dusted off and relocated. The statue of Soliman Pasha in Cairo was moved from its place in Soliman Pasha Square to the War Museum. It was replaced by Fathi Mahmoud’s statue of the Egyptian economist Talaat Harb and the names of the square and the street were changed accordingly. The statue of de Lesseps in Port Said, at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal, was destroyed in the wake of the Tripartite Aggression in 1956. It was restored recently and stowed at the Suez Canal Authority.


The second role of the state in the fine arts—that of sponsor and planner—also had an early start. In 1892, Khedive Abbas Helmy II bestowed his sponsorship on the Cairo Salon of Photography, held at the Khedivial Theatre. No Egyptian artists participated, but this changed after the opening of the Ecole des beaux-arts. When the Société des amis de l’art organized the Cairo Salon in 1924, Egyptian participation was predominant. The Cairo Salon was sponsored by King Fouad, who inaugurated it himself, and its sessions were sponsored for many years by the Egyptian head of state.

The establishment of the first Ecole des beaux-arts in 1908 was an individual initiative by Prince Youssef Kamal. In 1928, the government stepped in and endorsed fine arts education and the Higher Governmental School of Fine Arts came under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. Soon public universities became the main drivers of the academic pursuit of art education when the Faculty of Fine Arts, three other faculties of arts and the Faculties of Applied Arts and Art Education were successively annexed.

Egypt’s first minister of culture, Tharwat Okasha inaugurating the 1959 Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries.



After the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 and the 1923 constitution, the state took more interest in fine arts, with the ministries of works and education responsible for supervision. In the first phase, the state relied on advisory committees made up of artists and art enthusiasts who laid out plans and suggested policies.

The first of these was the Committee of Fine Arts, formed by ministerial decree in 1924, with the sculptor Mokhtar among its members. The committee recommended that the Ministry of Education take over as supervisor of the arts—which eventually occurred at a later date. During the term of Ali Shamsy Pasha as Minister of Education, a Fine Arts Office was established, reporting to the ministry. All later supervision of fine arts is based on the suggestions of this first advisory committee.

In 1926, a new committee was established by royal decree, tasked with researching projects and methods of teaching fine arts, founding museums, retaining works of art, holding exhibitions and organizing missions. It also recommended a provision for fine arts in the state budget, and called for the creation of a museum for modern art focused on works by the first generation of pioneers and participants in the art missions abroad. As well as holding exhibitions, the Société des amis de l’art played a supporting role in state strategies.

In 1949, the advisory committee materialized once more in a new form, established again by royal decree and headed by Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Bek, the chairman of the Société des amis de l’art. It initiated prizes for artworks and preserved historical sites, natural landscapes and public squares, while supervising the statues and edifices erected. It was also responsible for founding museums and procuring works of art, as well as holding exhibitions and organizing Egypt’s participation in exhibitions abroad. The committee also suggested policies for fine arts education and offered support to art societies. The state, represented by Ali Ayoub Pasha, the minister of education, believed the government was incapable of creating strategies for the fine arts, so the burden of planning and suggesting policies fell on the advisory committee, while the government took the executive role.

President Gamal Abdel Nasser attending the 1955 Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries.



After the Free Officers assumed power in 1952, a new phase of official activity began in the cultural domain. In late 1952, the Ministry of National Guidance was formed to handle cultural activities and the role of committees and civil societies slowly diminished, as did their role in the public arena in general.

In 1956, the Art Department was founded within the Ministry of National Guidance. At the same time, the General Department of Fine Arts—a development in the administration of fine arts—became part of the Ministry of Education. In 1958, the Ministry of Culture and Guidance was founded, combining all state cultural departments including the Academy of Fine Arts, the General Department of Fine Arts (later the General Organization of Fine Arts), art museums and the Egyptian Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. In 1980, it became the National Centre of Fine Arts, and then the Fine Arts Sector at the start of the new millennium.

Artists, academics and critics were encouraged to contribute to managing the fine arts field through the Committee of Fine Arts at the Supreme Council for Arts and Literature, which was founded in 1956 as an advisory committee to the Cabinet, and then became part of the Ministry of National Culture and Guidance in 1958. Its role was for the most part advisory, and in 1980 it was replaced by the Supreme Council for Culture, with wider authorities and a committee for fine arts among several others.


During the 1970s, there was interest from the state in endorsing works of art, encouraging exhibitions and setting up studios for artists. There was also interest in traditional workmanship and sponsoring talent by providing grants for full-time dedication to art. The committees of the Supreme Council for Arts, Literature and Social Sciences and later those of the National Council of Culture and Art played a pivotal role in providing grants, procuring works of art and representing Egypt in art exhibitions abroad.

The provision of grants to artists is among the state’s most important contributions to the fine arts. Ever since the establishment of the Ministry of Culture more than fifty years ago dozens of artists have benefitted from such grants. In return, the artists provide a work of art or a group of works that are exhibited annually by the Ministry of Culture. Although this system has been criticized in recent years, it is still, in essence, vital to the support of artistic creation, provided there is sufficient transparency and clarity in the regulations, and people conform to the rules. This system has, in fact, enabled the creation of many distinctive works of art.

The state has also supported the fine arts field by acquiring works of art. A sub-committee of the Fine Arts Committee at the Supreme Council continuously visited art exhibitions and procured works of art deemed of value to the state, within an allotted budget.


In the 1960s, many new exhibition halls were established under the Ministry of Culture but they were mostly closed in the 1970s. The state also sponsored exhibitions, the most prominent of which was the General Exhibition, which was similar to the Cairo Salon. The Société des amis de l’art ran the exhibition into the 1980s. The exhibition then stopped for some years, only to return in a new form, and it is still one of the most important exhibitions for Egyptian fine arts.

For many years, the state also organized a Fine Arts Market, which was a way for the general public to buy works of art at reasonable prices, with the aim of propagating art in Egyptian society. The Governorate of Alexandria also organized the Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries in the mid-1950s, which continues until today under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Ministry of Culture also sponsored themed exhibitions, such as the High Dam, Nubia, Work, Art and the Charter, Art and the Battle, and October Victory, among others.

Museums had mixed fortunes during this period. The Museum of Egyptian Modern Art was closed after its historical building was demolished and its collection dispersed until it reopened in its current location at the end of the 1980s. Even so, many national art museums opened during this era, such as the Mokhtar Museum in 1962 followed by the Naghi Museum and the Mahmoud Saїd Museum Complex. The state also founded some local museums, such as the Moorhouse Museum in Port Said in 1959 and the National Mansoura Museum at Dar Ibn Loqman in 1960.


Egypt in the post-1952 era also witnessed the participation of artists in state propaganda, coining slogans, making media appearances and participating in art events. In fact, the current Egyptian flag was designed by the artist Ali Kamel al-Deeb. Artists also participated in recording major events, documenting them and expressing them using various art forms.

In 1959, the Ministry of Culture organized a boat trip on the Dakka to Nubia to document life there before it was flooded by the High Dam. The most prominent Egyptian artists of the time participated, and the outcome was the Nubia Exhibition, held in Cairo and Alexandria in 1962. Similarly, in the early 1960s, the Ministry organized trips for artists to document the building of the High Dam, with associated exhibitions. The Ministry of the High Dam also organized trips for artists to view progress in 1966.


The relationship between the state and the fine arts in Egypt’s modern history ranged from complete dominance up to the end of the reign of Khedive Ismail, to a withdrawal to civil authority in the pseudo-liberal era, then once more with the state dominating the scene in the 1950s and 1960s.

What we need today, after two centuries of modern art, is a balanced relationship between the state and the domain of fine arts, especially since Egyptian art is not only in demand in national and regional markets but also internationally. We need a supportive but non-intrusive state; we need a system for developing the free market; and we need to reinstate the role of civil society without the invasive guardianship of the state.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 8, 2016