Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Egyptian Modern Art

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
By Department

The Quest for National Identity
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Egyptians, burdened with centuries of foreign occupation, were united in their aspiration for a modern nation. Thus modern art was an essential visual expression of their national identity and freedom from foreign oppression. It was a manifestation of the contemporaneous intellectual discourse led by secular liberals, among them writers, poets, and artists, male and female. The acceptance of figuration and the introduction of art education in schools were sanctioned by religious scholars. This tolerant attitude toward figurative art was also the outcome of new developments in publishing and photography, as well as the revolutionary establishment of a local cinema industry. Egypt led the Arab world in these fields, although it took a full century before photography was officially recognized as an art form (Van Leo, Self-Portrait).

Modern art was an essential visual expression of their national identity and freedom from foreign oppression.


Cited Works of Art or Images (14)

  • Mahmoud Mukhtar: Egyptian Awakening
  • Salah Abd al Karim: The Horse
  • Abd El Hadi El Gazzar: The Strangers
  • Mahmoud Said: Dervishes
  • Hamid Nada: The Unruly Horse
  • Medhat Shafik: The Silk Road
  • Hassan Fathi: New Gourna Project in Upper Egypt  (West Bank Luxor, Egypt)
  • Ghada Amer, Black Lisa
  • Fathi Hassan, Santa Moderna
  • Moataz Nasr, An Ear of Mud Another of Dough
  • Mona Marzouk, Reconfigured Monuments
  • Van Leo; Self Portrait
  • Munir Canaan; N° 13 et une Flèche
  • Ramsis Yunan; untitled


The first generation of modern Egyptian artists was driven by a renewed appreciation of their national patrimony and the return to ancient pharaonic art detached from any African, Arab, or religious cultural references. In architecture and sculpture, the Neo-Pharaonic style, based on a revival of Egyptian classical art, used modern techniques and influences; in painting, it was apparentin the symbolic references derived from ancient Egypt or rural life. The first graduates from the School of Fine Arts initiated a long tradition of art education that influenced not only Egyptian artists but also other Arab artists (Mahmud Mukhtar, Egypt Awakening; Mahmud Said, Dervishes).

The Neo-Pharaonic phase was soon supplanted by new trends that challenged popular figurative traditions and promoted innovations in style and technique. Artists experimented with new forms of art such as Surrealism, Cubism, Dadaism, and abstraction. They published the first art journals and established the foundations of art criticism and pedagogy. In 1939, members of this generation founded the Art and Freedom group, which identified with the European antifascist resistance and rallied for freedom of expression. They opposed the prevalent view that European art threatened national identity, and called for a modern Egyptian art that melded global concerns and local heritage, encouraging individual rather than traditional collective expression (Ramsis Yunan, Untitled).

The controversy over regionalism versus internationalism was resolved under the leadership of the preeminent art teacher Husayn Yusuf Amin, who proclaimed that art, unfettered by the politics of culture, could shape national identity. In the mid-1940s, Amin's students formed several groups known collectively as the "Rejectionists." They challenged previous romanticized imagery and Western academic styles by exploring the daily realities of poverty and oppression. Artists of the Contemporary Art Group, founded in 1946, were dedicated to the quest for the Egyptian soul. Inspired by folk symbolism, popular traditions, and notions of the collective unconscious, their work is steeped in social realism (cAbd al-Hadi al-Gazzar, The Strangers; Hamid Nada, The Unruly Horse). The Contemporary Art Group promoted modernization, social reform, and collective freedom through art (Gazbia Sirry, The Kite, 2009.166). This freedom was fully assumed by artists who, by the late fifties, were involved in the exploration of Abstract Expressionism in painting, collage, assemblage, and various experimentations in metal sculpture (Munir Canaan, No 13 et une Flèche; Salah cAbd al-Karim, The Horse).

Designing Tradition
At the other extreme stood the Art and Life Group, whose followers strived for the preservation of arts and crafts traditions and urged artists to explore and advance the crafts in new and innovative ways (Hassan Fathi, New Gourna in Upper Egypt). After the 1952 revolution, artists lost substantial government stipends, as well as elite patronage; artists' groups were disbanded along with all political parties. In the second half of the century, there was a conspicuous absence of venues for the open public debate that had characterized the pre-revolutionary period. In the wake of the Arabs' crushing defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War, artists searched for an aesthetic language drawn from Islamic traditions. They used calligraphy and geometric design to convey spiritual and political messages in decorative or abstract styles, a trend that is known in Arab and some Islamic countries as the Calligraphic School of Art.

Youth Generation
Artists working outside the mainstream, exploring controversial subjects or using unconventional techniques, found themselves isolated, and many emigrated to the West, returning to Egypt almost annually to participate in exhibitions. These artists continue to have a significant impact on local trends (Fathi Hassan, Santa Moderna; Ghada Amer, Black Lisa; Liliane Karnouk, From Time Machine: Ancient Egypt and Contemporary Art). In an effort to revitalize the visual arts, long burdened by government bureaucracy, the Youth Salon was established in the late 1980s to support emerging artists whose work in installation, video, and photography could not survive without institutional support. Three artists from this generation won Egypt's first Venice Biennale award in 1995 (Medhat Shafik, The Silk Road). Still, this support was insufficient and many artists sought international patronage that led to an unprecedented number of exhibitions for Egyptian artists internationally and particularly in Europe. Artists of the 1990s were less concerned with cultural themes, national or regional ideology. The focus of their art, situated as it is in their immediate political and social environment, is more specific and at the same time global in its humanity (Moataz Nasr, An Ear of Mud, Another of Dough; Mona Marzouk, Reconfigured Monuments). The work of this generation challenges the audience to interact with themes drawn from daily life; it both empowers the viewer and demands a response.

Salwa Mikdadi
Independent Curator

Egypt Awakening, 1919–28
Mahmud Mukhtar (Egyptian, 1891&150;1934)
Granite; public monument
Cairo, Egypt

Mukhtar came from a modest background—his parents worked the fields and could not afford to send him to school, so he enrolled in Cairo's School of Fine Arts, which offered a free education to qualified students. He received a government scholarship to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and upon his return to Cairo joined a vast movement of nationalists and intellectuals who struggled for political independence and the emancipation of woman. Mukhtar is considered the first modern Egyptian sculptor to revive the ancient tradition of figurative sculpture, imbuing it with new symbolism. His masterpiece Egypt Awakening, which now stands at the gate of Cairo University, depicts a sphinx rising by the side of a woman throwing off her veil; the monument remains the ultimate symbol of self-determination, freedom, and women's liberation. Mukhtar's work is representative of the Neo-Pharaonic style, based on a stylization of Egyptian classical art filtered through modern techniques and inf The Horse, 1971
Salah cAbd al-Karim (Egyptian, 1925–1988)
Scrap iron and motorcycle parts
Collection of Dr. Mohamed Saiid Farsy

A multifaceted artist and designer, Salah cAbd al-Karim was active in various disciplines and associated with artists from different groups. He made significant contributions to major urban projects like the Cairo Metro and the Cairo Millennium Project, as well as in theatrical set design. As a sculptor, cAbd al-Karim produced a large body of sculptures made of welded scrap metals depicting a range of subjects, from crucifixions to bestiaries. His works are representative of sculpture in the 1960s, when traditional metalsmith crafts and casting techniques were explored and re-utilized. His bestiary series, which includes The Horse, is noted for its aggressive expression, conveyed through the use of sharp metal pieces of machinery recycled to form the characteristic anatomy of each figure. Their primitive violence was inspired by African sculpture, while also reflecting Egypt's expanding industrialization and the tense political climate.

The Strangers, 1961
cAbd al-Hadi al-Gazzar (Egyptian, 1925–1966)
Oil on cardboard; 45.5 x 38 cm
Collection of Dr. Mohamed Saiid Farsy

Al-Gazzar was a member of the Contemporary Art Group, founded in 1946 by his mentor, the teacher and activist Husayn Yusuf Amin. Dedicated to the quest for an authentic Egyptian voice in contemporary art, the group's orientation evolved from the theoretical legacy of Art and Freedom. The son of a man of religion, al-Gazzar was raised in the impoverished district of Sayeda Zeinab, where he was exposed to exorcism rituals, religious festivals, and other folk traditions. Consequently, the painter was comfortable with mysticism and superstitions, all of which he experienced as an artist who also adhered to the ideology of liberation that dominated the decade. Drawing connections between Surrealism and revolution, al-Gazzar incorporated into his work the local imagery of Egyptian magical practices, where he felt that Egypt's collective identity had been preserved, dormant through centuries of representational prohibition. His unique style of art, which encompassed his own poetry and a wealth of symbolic referen Dervishes, 1927
Mahmud Said (Egyptian, 1897–1964)
Oil on canvas; 97 x 68.5 cm
Collection of Dr. Mohamed Saiid Farsy

Said was a member of the Egyptian elite, a cosmopolitan lawyer who abandoned a successful practice to dedicate himself to art. Essentially a self-taught painter, he had a distinctive style that blended classical and Expressionist influences. He was also a master colorist. He was the first artist to typify the Egyptian character in portraits. His themes drew inspiration from the slow movement of the elements, animals, the gestures of workers and dancers, and ritual performance. However, Said's renown rests on his sensuous depictions of the female body, naked or wrapped in traditional costume. His paintings convey the mood of Alexandria, his hometown, and the anachronism of a conservative lifestyle and cosmopolitan decadence. Along with the painters Muhammad Naghi and Raghib Ayyad, Said contributed to the establishment of a local tradition of canvas painting, and, as a colorist, had immense influence on local painters and illustrators.

The Unruly Horse, 1988
Hamid Nada (Egyptian, 1924–1990)
Oil on canvas; 120 x 110 cm
Collection of Dr. Mohamed Saiid Farsy

Nada was a protégé of teacher and activist Husayn Yusuf Amin, and a member of the Contemporary Art Group based in Cairo. The son of a man of religion, Nada grew up in Baghala, a poor district of the city. His iconography was inspired by the paradox between the impoverishment that he witnessed daily in the back alleys of the capital and the storyteller's folk tales that carried his child's imagination to splendid flights of fantasy. Both became a source of inspiration. This discordance between reality and magic was translated into his own version of Surrealism derived from African art. It was reflected in his compositions where, according to his own cryptic vision, figures are grounded in conventional compositions or suspended on the canvas surface. In a gradual disengagement from social activism, Nada's paintings became joyful illustrations of life energy, often expressed through playful erotic references involving subtle social commentaries.

The Silk Road, 2001
Medhat Shafik (Egyptian, born 1956)
Eight totems of bitumened wood; stirrups of pig iron; crucibles; zinc; white sand; pigment powders; gold leaf; soot; oil bars; refractory clay; mirror; sculpture in bronze; pigmented clothes
Collection of the artist
© Medhat Shafik

Painter, printmaker, sculptor, and set designer, Egyptian-born Medhat Shafik settled in Italy, where he received a degree in painting and set design from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Milan. His work unites the elements of Abstract Expressionism and the symbols and visual references of western Asia and North Africa. Whether sculpted, printed, or painted, Shafik's work interweaves dynamic colors and textures that heighten the viewer's sensory experience. The real and metaphysical journey that Shafik creates is offered up in rich colors of red, silver, and gold. His light-filled symbols derive from his Coptic background, supplemented by Byzantine, Fatimid, Umayyad, cAbbasid, and Persian iconography. Shafik received the Leone d'Oro at the 1995 Venice Biennale.

New Gourna Project in Upper Egypt (West Bank Luxor, Egypt), 1945
Hassan Fathi (Egyptian, 1900–1989)
Architectural structure
Courtesy of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library, The American University in Cairo

A theorist and architect, Hassan Fathi revived an Egyptian style of adobe architecture as an art form, a style that was later adopted as a primary aesthetic model in the development of contemporary Islamic architecture. Fathi was driven by an intense empathy for the destitute in his quest for construction techniques that were environmentally sustainable and economically viable. The revival and development of adobe architecture, inspired by extant examples of Nubian housing, led him to apply a similar concept to entire villages, such as Gourna and Baris, to which he added his sober and refined aesthetic touch. Fathi reinvented Egyptian architecture through the designs of numerous houses built in Egypt and internationally. All include domes and arches, interlaced shutters, and interior courts. These same features were adopted and disseminated by the work of his students. Along with many artists and craftsmen of his generation, Fathi believed that in developing nations, a modern art must account for specific Black Lisa, 2000
Ghada Amer (Egyptian, born 1963)
Acrylic, embroidery, and del medium on canvas; 72 x 54 in. (183 x 137 cm)
Collection of Nancy and Robert Magoon
Image Courtesy of Deitch Projects, NY

Born in Egypt, Ghada Amer is a New York-based painter who spent her formative years in France. She received a Master's degree in painting from the École des Beaux-Arts in Nice, and her art synthesizes the duality of her identity and upbringing by juxtaposing both Eastern and Western traditions. Amer's oeuvre includes metaphorical installations, symbolic works on textile, and works on paper, although her international reputation rests on her hand-embroidered works on canvas. In these, she takes tracings of women from pornographic magazines who are engaged in auto-erotic acts and delicately and meticulously embroiders the figures in repetitive patterns onto brightly painted canvases. The repetition of the drawings invokes the recurring patterns of women's daily life, a frequent subject in the decorative arts of the East. The loosely trailing threads wave across the canvas, creating an abstraction of images and blurring the lines between sacred and profane. Amer's work takes the viewer on a journey of Santa Moderna, 1998
Fathi Hassan (Egyptian, born 1957)
Acrylic and sand on canvas; 100 x 80 cm
Courtesy of Bencin Art Gallery, Pesaro, Italy
Private Collection of Abbondio Giampaolo-Società Sinfonia

Fathi Hassan is of Nubian origin. The Nubian civilization, Africa's earliest culture, dating back to 3100 B.C., thrived in what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan, a land of harsh desert climates. The Nubians' isolation preserved their traditions, rituals, and ideals. But in the early 1960s, the construction of the High Dam of Aswan caused floods that displaced a large part of the Nubian population and submerged their historical monuments.

Hassan grew up in Cairo and later settled in Italy after enrolling at the Naples Art School. He represented Africa in the 1988 Venice Biennale. In his works, expansive white backgrounds reminiscent of the Sahara set off the dark skin of his Nubian subjects. Sand fixed on the surface of his canvases physically conveys the desert as it fills the forms of water jugs and traces the shapes of conventional symbols. African animals such as camels and elephants roam the works, common patterns adorn them, and calligraphy gives voice to them. Hassan's primordial depi An Ear of Mud, Another of Dough, 2001
Moataz Nasr (Egyptian, born 1961)
2000 ears sculpted from dough and mud, video
Courtesy of the Artist
© Moataz Nasr, 2001

Moataz Nasr is an installation and video artist, painter and sculptor. He belongs to a generation of artists finding a new language for expressing localized realities in an internationalized and future-oriented context. His work explores the political and social climate of Egypt by creating and re-creating objects, visual representations, and symbols which take on new meaning through distortions of time, space, and materials. The subjects range from disjointed reflections of faces in water to sculptures emulating old print blocks, both commentaries on the loss/neglect of culture and humanity.

In the installation An Ear of Mud, Another of Dough, the viewer is guided through a corridor to a room buzzing with the sound of flies and a wall covered with 20,000 sculpted ears facing a video of apathetic faces shrugging their shoulders as if to say, "And why should I care?" The installation invokes an Egyptian proverb based on one of the tales of Goha, a wily fool said to have been a court Reconfigured Monuments, 2001
Mona Marzouk (Egyptian, born 1968)
Painted wood sculpture; 175 x 150 x 315 cm
Courtesy Marco Noire Contemporary Art
Gallery of Modern Art, Turin

Mona Marzouk, a painter, sculptor, and installation artist, studied art in Egypt, Germany, and Greece. Her work expands to the size of walls and simultaneously accounts for the details and ornamentation of structures. She incorporates architectural elements from past civilizations, including pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Islamic, and Coptic. These elements are reshaped, re-formed, and reconfigured to create a new language based on contemporary culture. In all of her works, columns, shrines, and temples appear, yet each has unique elements that are echoed in the geometric shapes and strong lines found in her paintings. In the installation Reconfigured Monuments, Marzouk combines sculpture and painting. The structure reconceives architectural influences using foam and wood, while the paintings are dualities of color and resemble cutouts and designs that mirror the particulars of the sculpture. Exploring issues of control and confrontation, Marzouk's use of ordinary material contrasts with the authoritative spiritu Self-Portrait, 1944
Van Leo (Levon Alexander Boyadjian) (Armenian, born Turkey, 1921–2002)
Collection of Van Leo/ Arab Image Foundation

The first photographers in Egypt were Europeans who settled there in the nineteenth century. They were subsequently outdone by immigrant Armenians, who became known as the most accomplished photographers in western Asia. Van Leo was one of them. Fleeing Turkish persecution, Van Leo (born Levon Alexander Boyadjian) arrived in Egypt in 1924 with his family and settled in the Delta town of Zagazig. Three years later, they moved to Cairo, the metropolis in which Van Leo would make his name as the city's master portrait photographer in a career spanning fifty-seven years. He served an affluent sector of Egyptian society and expatriates from mostly Mediterranean countries who resided in Cairo and Alexandria. The consummate photographer-craftsman, Van Leo never had assistants and insisted on doing everything himself—dealing with customers, lighting, enlarging, and retouching.

No 13 et une Flèche, 1955
Munir Canaan (Egyptian, 1919–1999)
Oil on wood; 100 x 110 cm
Collection Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris

Munir Canaan led the Abstract Expressionist group of artists who emerged in Cairo in the late 1950s. Unlike some who adopted this art form following study trips to the United States, Canaan came to it via sign painting and graphic design. In the early 1950s, the boldness of his presentations shocked the Egyptian public—he was among the first artists to feature large exhibitions of abstract works without transforming his materials, instead exploiting their unique properties, as wood was nailed, ink dripped, and paper cut, each brushstroke left to imprint its distinctive mark and each paint its own texture. Furthermore, Cannan constructed his works as series based on the interaction of elements integrated into assemblages, collages, and paintings. This also contributed to the revolution in Egyptian art, where works had always been tied to themes, often dictated by the official cultural line. Canaan is considered the Egyptian artist with the greatest international recognition, and his work still exercis Untitled, 1943
Ramsis Yunan (Egyptian, 1914–1966)
Oil on canvas; 60 x 85 cm
Collection Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris

Ramsis Yunan studied at the School of Fine Arts in Cairo, graduating in 1933, and became a leader among the second generation of modern Egyptian artists who experimented freely and adopted several styles, moving from realistic representation to incorporating elements of the imagination. Yunan's own work developed from Surrealism in the 1940s to full-blown abstraction by the 1960s. As a member of the Society for Artistic Propaganda, which aspired to expand public awareness of modern art, he published one of its most influential documents, Ghayat al-rassam al-asri (The Aim of the Modern Artist). Yunan was the spokesman for the Art and Freedom group, an antifascist organization fighting against the oppression of artists in Nazi Germany. He spoke out on the right of artists to be uninhibited in their creative endeavors. Most importantly, he strove to make Egyptian art part of the international art scene, calling on artists to free themselves from their confinement within local traditions.