Modern Egyptian Art

Norbert Ruebsaat

Modern Egyptian Art by Liliane Karnouk (American University in Cairo Press) and realizes that Egyptian artists, citizens of the world’s oldest country, ask themselves the same questions as do Canadian artists, citizens of one of the world’s youngest countries. In 191, when Karnouk’s survey begins, artists on the Nile, like those on the St. Lawrence or the Fraser or the Yukon, grappled with the question of whether to imitate their European colonial masters or discover indigenous styles. In the 195s, when Nasser’s revolution decolonized Egypt and when Canada had been “given its independence” by the British parliament, artists in both countries were split on the issue; and in the contemporary “postmodern/postcolonial” period, when questions of universalism and localism, multiculturalism and identity politics, along with critiques of Grand Narrative are everywhere in the globalized air, “nomad” Egyptian and Canadian artists such as Karnouk—who for many years divided her time between Cairo, where she grew up, Europe, where she studied art, and B.C., where she now lives as a Canadian citizen—ask themselves not only who on earth but where on earth they are. Karnouk’s text, with profiles of more than seventy artists and lots of great reproductions, brings us up to the 199s; then it describes in a series of thematic chapters how young Egyptian artists, like their Canadian counterparts, use media art, performance, installation and book art, along with sculpture and painting, to grapple with the dislocations and distortions that global media and advertising create and propose to solve, and that art can illuminate but not solve. Residents of our young, imaginary “First World” former colony would do well to study the styles of Egypt, a former “Third World” country-cum-colony that has had fewer technological tools to construct the imaginary but that has, therefore, a better memory. Karnouk reminds us that Egypt was colonized by the Hyksos in 1674 BCE, by the Persians in 525 BCE, by the Greeks in 332 BCE, by the Romans in 5 BCE, by the Arabs in 7, by the Ottomans in 15, by the French in 1778, by the British in 1882, by Soviet advisors in the 195s and by American advisors and media in the 197s. The Egyptians, she says, endured and absorbed these invasions, and turned them into a knack for multicultural identity construction and a suave cosmopolitan art practice—“Egyptianicity,” to use her term. Canada endured British, French, Russian, Spanish, American and other invasions, and has “absorbed” immigrants from all over, and we think we are pretty good at multiculturalism, but we aren’t cosmopolitan or suave. One can find some insights in Karnouk’s excellent passages on “neopharaonism,” which ask who is appropriating (or influencing, or colonizing) whom when neoromantic European artists reconstruct ancient Egypt as colonial art craze, and Egyptian artists borrow idioms to create truth about the most ancient of pasts; and in her chapter on kitsch—“works which do not entail any of the basic criteria of art: the inherent and irreplaceable originality of the fusion of time, place, idea, skill, form and material into an ‘original’ concept.” As examples she cites a modern building “kitschified by sparkling stucco ceilings, a crystal chandelier and plastic plants,” and “Michelangelo’s David as a men’s wear label.” Canadians take heed.

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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