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When Arts Meet Liberty: A Surrealist Exhibit into Egypt's Amazing Art History

The mind-blowing opening of When Arts Meet Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938-1965) at the Palace of Arts, unveils a chapter in Egyptian art history that may remind you of Dali, but is an incredibly contextualised response to post colonial violence in Egypt and the rise of fascism by the Nazis.

Last night marked the opening of a must-see surreal exhibit titled When Arts Become Liberty, an important documentation of the work of Egypt’s surrealist artists in the period between 1938 and 1965. Taking place at the beautiful and culturally rich Palace of Arts, located on the Cairo Opera House grounds, this mind-blowing exhibit sheds light on a variety of artists we didn’t even know existed. Instantly enthralled we reached out to the Cornell University Art Historian and a co-curator, Salah Hassan, for a unique insight into both the exhibit and most importantly the artists that inspired it.

From the moment we entered the Palace of Arts, our jaws dropped to the floor where they would remain until we left the exceptional exhibit. Not only was the strategically redesigned gallery hall an impressive sight, but the rich content emblazoning its walls with an Egyptian voice often forgotten, igniting a myriad thoughts as the story unfolded from room to room. "The show is divided into sections that tell a story. We start with the Art and Liberty Group. We move into the Contemporary Art group, which is a relatively younger generation that coincided with them, and then we enter what we call the After-Life of Surrealism, because many people assume that surrealism died with the Art and Liberty Group movement,’ explains Hassan one of the co-curators.

Ahmed Morsi: Waiting (1970)

Explaining the story from its humbling beginnings, the exhibit has equipped each section with prominently hanging explanation of the evolution of the movement. The story begins December 22nd, 1938 in Cairo, Egypt with a manifesto signed by a group of artists, writers, and journalists titled ‘Long Live Degenerate Art!’, which strongly opposed and mocked the rise of fascism in Europe and the censorship of modern art by the Nazis. Providing further insight Hassan tells us, "This exhibit shows a generation that was responding to the needs of their time. They were responding to global issues like World War I and the rise of fascism."

The release of the manifesto gave rise not only to the modern art movement, but also branched out to surrealism and the Art and Liberty Group (Jam’at al-Fann Wa Al-Hurriyyah) who were most active between the years 1938 and1945. Taking part in this movement were some of Egyptian art history's most cherished contributors including Ramses Younan, Inji Efflatoun, Fouad Kamel, Anwar Kamel, Kamel Telmisany, among others. "If you look at the work of Ramses Younan, you can see a lot of concerns with so many issues that had to do with the disappointment of war, issues of colonisation and dehumanization," Hassan poignantly describes.


Ramses Younan: The Family (1937)

Proving to be just as influential during this time was one of Egypt’s most vocal feminists Inji Efflatoun. According to Hassan, "If you look at the work of Inji Efflatoun, as an artist she was experimenting with surrealism, but at the same time she was concerned with issues that were concerning woman, and even after the Egyptian revolution she was in and out of prison for her beliefs on feminism, socialism and other schools of thought."

Inji Efflatoun: The Girl and The Beast (1941)

Continuing the tour of the exhibit, we entered the Contemporary Group, which had roots in surrealism, but to many will seem like a departure because of the shift in medium from the Art and Liberty group, which blossomed during the same period. Prominently displayed in this room is the photographic works of Van-Leo, who experimented with techniques of solarisation, exposure, sandwiching negatives, producing creatively unique photographs. Each of his photos would have gone viral if Instagram had existed, but despite the lack of technology, he managed to successfully spread awareness of his brilliant work.

Van-Leo (1920-2002)

The further we delved into this gallery, the more stunning it became with our favourite room being the Afterlife of Egyptian Surrealism. Some believe that Egyptian surrealism died with the short-lived Art and Liberty movement, but what this section proved was that surrealism was very much alive in the 60s and well into the 70’s.


Mohamed Riyad Saeed: The Guard

It was during that time that artists Mounir Canaan, Mohamed Riyad Saeed, Ahmed Moustafa, Abdel Hady El Weshahy, and one of our personal favourites Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar rose to fame - although Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar predates the afterlife. Some of our favourite works by this legend were created in the 60’s. "I appreciate how the early works of Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar were completely different than what he created after Nasserism," explains Consultant Architect and Exhibition Designer of the Sharjah Art Foundation Mona El Mousfy.

Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar: The Circus Wagon (1951)


Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar: Man and the Machine (1964) 


Abdel Hady El-Gazzar: Peace (1965)

There is a multitude of pieces through this exhibit that will have Egyptians proud of their artists and their powerful voice at the time. "You have to remember colonisation works in a very ironic way. In a way, it’s about oppression and the exploitation of people, but at the same time, it also creates an exchange of ideas. During the period of British colonisation in Egypt, groups started connecting with each other, [groups that were] anti-war, anti-fascist, anti-colonisation creating alliances across the nation based on thoughts," Hassan believes. It was this coming together during the period of ‘post-colonial violence’ that the talented curator identifies as one of the underlying threads throughout the incredible exhibit.


Mohamed Riyad Saeed: Dreams at the Aqsa Mosque (1973)

After seeing the wealth of breath-taking work, we assumed that the curator must have reached out to private collectors, but in fact, in working closely with the Ministry of Culture, Hassan managed to bring together this well-pieced collection, using artworks that can be found in both the Cairo and Alexandria museums. Explaining how the exhibit came together, Hassan expresses that "part of the challenge of curating an exhibit is having access to the works. In this context, I must thank the Ministry of Culture for really collaborating with us, specifically, the people working in the fine arts sectors like Dr. Khaled Sorour, Ehab Ellaban, Nagla Samir, and president of the Sharjah Art Foundation Sheikha Hoor Bint Sultan Al Qasimi. The Sharjah Art Foundation played a very important role providing support, not just in terms of money, but in organizing, curating, and even redesigning the space to help tell the story and make this project possible."

Working closely together, this group of curators and supporters managed to put together an incredibly interesting exhibit that effortlessly told a story we had no idea took place in Oum el Donia. It was an eye-opening experience to see Egyptian surrealism that is contextualized, documenting an authentic voice that wasn’t a derivative or parody of Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte and deserves its own chapter in the grand global story of Art History.

The opening was completely packed, but the good news, for those who missed it, is that it will be running until October 28th and is definitely worth the visit for all artists and art appreciators. 

Photography by: Ezz El-Masry and Eihab Boraie


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