Egypt and North Africa, 1900 A.D.–present

  • Egypt and North Africa, 1900 A.D.–present



By the end of the nineteenth century, the whole of North Africa (the Maghrib), from Egypt to Morocco, is in the grip of European colonization. With Algeria and Tunisia now formal French settler colonies and Egypt a British Protectorate, European powers consolidate complete control over the region and its key ports and resources. By World War I, Italy cements its military rule over Libya, and Morocco splits into French Protectorate and Spanish-controlled Tangier. In the 1900s, art schools in Egypt focus on academic, Renaissance-based training; the Orientalist and post-Impressionist imagery of the French settlers overshadows indigenous modernist attempts by Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian artists. European schools and galleries feature romanticized imagery of the local landscape. Following World War I, North Africa is swept by a tide of nationalist and anticolonial movements; artists and intellectuals struggle to define national culture in the face of their particular histories and colonial realities. Debate among Egyptian intellectuals and writers centers on building a secular nation-state based on European models with an emphasis on education, industrialization, and the emancipation of women.

Egypt heralds the first contemporary art movement in the region under Prince Yusuf Kamal, patron of the first School of Fine Arts in 1908. The Egyptian national government supports art institutions and sends graduates of the school, both men and women, to study in Europe, making Egypt a regional nexus for artistic innovation and training. Learning and practicing art as a creative discourse among modern Egyptians finds its purpose at first in the nation’s reformist aspirations; intellectuals and artists are seen as best qualified to define the new features of modern Egypt.

Egypt is now a fertile intellectual hub accelerating the movement for independence, embodied in the newly formed Wafd party and revolutionary artistic movements, epitomized by the 1937 Declaration of the Post-Orientalists issued by leading progressive artists, among them Kamal al-Tilmisani (1917–1972) and Kamal al-Mallakh (1918–1987). It calls for a uniquely Egyptian contemporary art that draws on local influences with freedom to explore international styles. Egyptian art is guided by an intellectual discourse that leads to the formation of several art journals and new groups; among these, the Art and Freedom group led by Ramsis Yunan (1914–1966) is closely associated with André Breton and Diego Rivera, promotes individual artistic freedom, and rejects Fascist art. By the 1950s, Arab nationalism prevails with the popular desire for Arab unity spearheaded by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt’s political prominence peaks after the 1952 revolution that leads to the overthrow of the British-supported monarchy and the 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal. Artists integrate modern artistic language without abandoning their cultural past. In the early 1960s, the contemporary Egyptian art movement is at its peak; government stipends and the opening of several exhibition spaces inside and outside the capital promise a revival of art. Unfortunately, this period is short lived—government control over all art centers and institutions leaves little room for individual initiatives. By the 1990s, emerging alternative venues support an experimental art that is considered part of the international art scene.

In contrast to Egyptian artists, who benefit from the support of a national government and local patronage, modern North African artists are marginalized, receiving limited training or support. The French promote North African self-taught artists’ work in France as the art of an underdeveloped nation. They are more interested in reviving traditional Moroccan crafts. Despite their proximity to Europe, North African artists remain two decades behind in adopting contemporary Western art and techniques. Early works by these artists follow academic styles, adaptations of illumination and miniature painting, or naive art. Without access to modern art institutions, North African artists reject the imposed Orientalist and Neoclassical modes; many move to France, where they adopt the new trends in Abstract Expressionism and other contemporary styles, returning after independence to lead a new international art movement. In the post-independence period, calligraphy emerges within the realm of abstraction in this region, as well as in other Arab countries.

France’s harsh occupation in Algeria is a reflection of its conception of the country as an extension of itself; the French language replaces Arabic in all public schools, and indigenous history and culture are excluded from the curricula. Foreign occupation continues to fuel a growing secular movement for independence. In response to the French settlers’ hard-line racism, artists—both self-taught and French-educated—challenge Algerian art to go beyond imitating Orientalist styles. They adopt a classical Islamic style that is later developed by pioneer artist Muhammad Rasim (1896–1974), who merges Western techniques with Islamic aesthetics and creates a trend in three-dimensional miniature art. However, new Western trends do not reach Algeria until after independence. Algerian artists and writers work for the revolution, raising national consciousness and recording the struggle for independence. In Tunisia, artists are determined to break away from earlier Orientalist styles. They portray realistic imagery of daily life and folk heritage and later develop individual styles that explore elements of local crafts in textiles, glass painting, and ceramics. International influence takes hold in the 1960s and leads to abstraction, first eliminating all indigenous motifs. Later, more individualistic styles develop, borrowing freely from all periods of Tunisia’s rich cultural heritage.

In the 1960s, the Moroccan Casablanca Group trains a new generation of artists to draw on modern art techniques, as well as Islamic art and Moroccan crafts. Their work parallels literary debates on authentic Moroccan identity, a discourse that characterizes the postcolonial period. Moroccan artists’ unique contribution is their interaction with the public through festivals of modern art, which are now annual events that attract African and international artists. In Libya, Italians grant limited autonomy to local cultural institutions and, in contrast to the French, their influence on art is insignificant. Libyan nationalism draws strength from Egypt and the growing intellectual Arab movements, culminating in Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s 1969 coup. Artists are isolated from international art movements; their art is limited to local landscape and architecture.

After the decline of secular Arab nationalism following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, a new open policy toward Western style, economic privatization, and liberalization follows in Egypt. However, the region still suffers from poverty, housing crises, agricultural collapse, and national debt. Economic liberalization similarly creates crises in the rest of North Africa, with a widening gap between rich and poor. This, along with inherited problems from the colonial era, brings about civil war between Islamist parties and government forces in Algeria, repression in Tunisia, the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara, and a rise in Islamic extremists convinced that Islam is the solution to all of these problems.

Beginning in the 1970s, artists collaborate with other Arab artists from western Asia and participate in annual Arab art biennials. At the end of the century, North African art faces unique challenges. In their struggle for independence, artists explore their heritage with a focus on local Berber signs and patterns. Many artists living in the diaspora gain international recognition working in conceptual art and more experimental styles. By the 1980s, Algerian Raï music, traditionally heard in small groups such as weddings, becomes a new genre in world music along with traditional spiritual music from Morocco and Egypt.

Aside from shared religious beliefs, customs, and values, culture unifies North African people with other Arabs living in western Asia. The Arabic language and its expression in literature, music, and the media are shared by all Arabs. In the twentieth century, North African nations face common external challenges such as European colonization, globalization, and postcolonial Western hegemony. Despite censorship imposed by their governments and Islamist movements, North African and Egyptian art remains as resilient as it was to colonial repression. Reimagining national identity and negotiating between the international and local, artists formulate innovations that result in an art that is a reflection of locality within a new global culture.


“Egypt and North Africa, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)