Borrowing from the Past to Speak of the Present

By Yasmine El Rashidi

Egyptian artist Huda Lutfi is considered a pioneer of the movement of bridging past and present through contemporary art, and part of a growing circle of artists appropriating historic texts, symbols and icons into contemporary expressions.

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Cairo-based artist Huda Lutfi has been excavating the bedrock of her city for years. In the public repositories of a metropolis, layered with its own tangible remnants of memory, Lutfi engaged as both archaeologist and archivist, collecting and exploring with the eye and expertise of a cultural and Islamic art historian – her formal training – long before the artefacts found their rebirth as expressions in works of contemporary art. Today, Lutfi’s scholarly research – on Sufism, dream symbolism medieval and modern Coptic and Islamic festivals, women and gender dynamics – permeates her artwork. Her work finds its backbone in collected artefacts – transmuting them into visual metaphors that illuminate an artistry of historical layering as sophisticated in its cultural interpretation as it is in its artistic technique. Lutfi has, in many ways, offered through her works a visual and conceptual continuum from past to present, bringing narrative threads of the city’s story from their previous contexts into a tale pertinent to the present day. She dips into Islamic texts and designs, Sufi writings, Pharaonic iconography, and the ethnic strands that connect the world to the Islamic civilization through her use of Indian, Coptic, Mediterranean, and even Western icons. Evident through it all is the rich bed of knowledge which she taps to create work that is strikingly contemporary in its visual presence, clearly adapted to address audiences of today, and evidently rooted in a culture deep and diverse.

With a PhD in Arab Muslim Cultural History from McGill University and years of experience teaching Arab Muslim Thought and Cultural History at the American University in Cairo, Lutfi is in many ways the mother of this movement that borrows from the past to build in the present – a movement that grapples with both East and West to find a balance and equilibrium of contemporary Arab identity. In a 2001 review in the Cairo Times, critic Richard Woffenden wrote of her show, The New in the Old, ‘In Egypt, many contemporary artists shy away from using their country’s artistic memory in their work for fear of not being modern enough. Conversely some artists fill their canvases with empty mirrors of the past … Standing out from the crowd, Huda Lutfi manages to use the rich annals of history to produce work that is both intelligent, personal and fresh.’ Lutfi first came onto the art scene in the late 1990s, with her exhibition, Woman and Memory, held at the American University in Cairo. It was a theme that would in many ways serve as one of the narrative backbones to her artistic repertoire, recurring in transmuted form and speaking, even in its conceptual absence, of the context in which she works: Egypt and the Middle East, a land so prevalently male. After dozens of solo and group participations around the world since she first stepped into the sphere in 1997, her latest two exhibitions, Zan’it al-Sittat (2008) and Making a Man out of Him (2010), illustrate not just the tendency to the exploration of the self and the other – with their infinite strands – but also the technical skills, conceptual dimensions, and historic forays that Lutfi navigates, examines and explores. In Zan’it al-Sittat, exhibited in Dubai, Lutfi once again offered a journey of exploration into the infinite and shifting paradigms of a cultural landscape. She explored cultural representations of femininity, borrowing the exhibition title from a marketplace in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria where thousands of women in the throes of daily life find themselves in constrained alleyways that make the market – Zan’it al-Sittat – ‘the space where women are squeezed together’.

In the installation, The Perfumed Garden, Lutfi meticulously encloses hand-painted women’s portraits into some 70 vintage perfume bottles gathered from Egyptian flea markets. The conceptual juxtaposition of the work’s title with the visual and metaphorical constraints, offers, once again, the compelling social and political commentary on her cultural context that has distinguished Lutfi’s work from other artistic ruminations, which fall short by tending towards mere personal lamentation. In another installation, portraits of women from diverse walks of life are collaged in a crowded syntax on the surfaces of two feminine legs, then stuck to a cube-like structure. Lutfi draws on the traditional discourse, which calls for women to stay in their homes. The piece is called House Bound. Through myriad pieces – perhaps her biggest exhibition ever by mere quantity – the borrowing from the layers of a cultural history familiar to her is clear. Her last exhibition, Making a Man Out of Him, offered a conceptual departure for Lutfi. She veered from the obvious finger at the feminine, transmuting found objects from the old markets of Cairo into multi-layered vignettes in the narrative of masculinity and the cultural and gender implications underlying the dissemination of global notions of male hegemony. While the impact is very ‘now,’ and the pieces are bold and vivacious in the way only contemporary art can be, the threads of her formal training as a historian find their way, once again, in her use of icons, choice of images, and the hand-written old Arabic texts that scrawl around installations and image-based works. These two exhibits stand at either end of a spectrum of the masculine and feminine, but within them, and between them, and definitely what is to come after, is an infinite sphere of cultural narration that navigates its ways through the many threads that form the historic tapestry that is the Arab Muslim world today.

And it is no surprise, given this depth and equal skill, that Lutfi’s work has been exhibited widely across the Arab world and Europe, both in private galleries and state-sponsored group exhibitions. She is touted as one of the foremost contemporary artists in the region, and she is indisputably artist and historian, archivist and creator. But while the academic foundation has brought to Lutfi’s work a conceptual framework that compels international attention, this academic genesis was also the source of her greatest struggle as an artist and creator. ‘She is perceived, owing to her academic background, as an “intruder”,’ wrote cultural historians Samia Mehrez and Dina Ramadan, in an essay on Lutfi. ‘An outsider artist who did not receive a formal training in Egypt’s art academies.’ Once intruder, now celebrated insider, Lutfi’s continued modest demeanour illuminates a work ethic more about survival than success. In many ways, Lutfi is an artist through-and-through. Her academic grounding and career can be seen as merely a footnote: ‘I started my first collage after a major surgery in 1991,’ says Lutfi. ‘At the time, I wanted to forget the pain, to forget myself. And it was so enjoyable – I would come out of that period of forgetting to find something beautiful …’ Since that morning eighteen years ago, Lutfi juggled two professions, but finally, the day came, last fall, to let one go.

‘After all these years, I am ready to dedicate more time and focus to my visual work … I love the process of creation; the idea, the work itself, the actual manufacture of the idea and becoming immersed in it. I love the thought of waking up in the morning and continuing a piece; of losing myself to it.’ The step out of academia has already made itself visible. Her last exhibition, Making a Man Out of Him, revealed a bolder, more confident, more daring voice. It also offered a reflection of an artist who has settled fully into who she is as both artist and historian, creator and critic. In the works that filled a space in a downtown gallery, a synthesis of past and present merged seamlessly to create a body of work indicating an artist in transformation – taking the past consciously with her, to move forward into the future; speaking with clarity on the necessity of context `and continuum.

Photos courtesy of Huda Lutfi & The Third Line Gallery

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 1, 2010


Arayis (Dolls Series) Detail, 2006

Bounty Dolls Star, 2006

Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses, 2007

If you are not touched by love, 2008

Yasmine El Rashidi

Yasmine El Rashidi

Yasmine El Rashidi is a Cairo-based writer. Formerly the Middle East & Gulf Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, she has also contributed to publications including Monocle, The Washington Post, NY Arts, HALI, Ms, Al-Ahram Weekly, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Newsday. She has collaborated widely with artists and arts entities, and was on the founding team of Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art. She is the author of The Battle for Egypt: Dispatches from the Revolution, and the novel, Chronicle of a Last Summer.