I f you have not been to the leafy Maadi home and studio of Margo Veillon on Road 82, nor had the time to visit any of her exhibitions, it’s not too late to enjoy her works of genius.
The late Swiss-Austrian artist by blood and Egyptian by choice was born in Cairo on Feb. 19, 1907 (died 2003) to a middle-class family of an Austrian mother and Swiss merchant father, who was a great traveler. The family first settled in Abassia then moved to Maadi.
When she turned 23, Veillon was sent to Paris to learn classic drawing. It was the heyday of the artistic movements in Paris and she soon rebelled against her classic training and moved to Montparnasse to share a studio with some French and foreign artists.
It was there that she learnt to release herself from academic limitation, spending years in an apprenticeship. But she made a personal and career decision to return to Cairo and stay there.
In her biography she wonders: “Am I condemned to do nothing but sketch?” She explored the Nile and the surrounding deserts through Nubia and into Sudan and Ethiopia. She traveled extensively and her work shows trips to Italy, Greece, Guatemala, Spain, Mexico, Sudan, Ethiopia and Switzerland. But in the 1960s she would spend at least a month a year in London and sometimes New York. She always said that she never traveled for the sake of travel since during her overseas trips she did nothing but draw, paint and take photographs.
Yet, it was in the villages around Maadi that she achieved what she is famous for: the thousand drawings of Egypt of the 1930s. She harvested the verve and movement of daily life in this period starting from festivals all the way to the most ordinary daily farming labor with discipline and passion.
Her mastery was not in her superb skill as an artist but as an analyst who delves into the real secret beauty of Egypt and the world. Veillon lived and worked as an artist in Egypt for nearly a century. She tried her hand at all forms and mediums, had a fully-equipped etching workshop and wondered if she would be reincarnated as a sculptor. She was extremely prolific, holding 78 exhibitions in Egypt and Europe, starting in Cairo in 1928. The last opened at the American University in Cairo on her 96th birthday in February 2003.
A lot has been written about her and her genius, but Mark Linz, head of the AUC Press for more than a decade and who published all her books, summed her up poignantly when he said: “Uniquely creative and determined, and fiercely independent, the artist Margo Veillon for nearly a century chronicled the very essence of Egyptian daily life, as well as the passions of her own artistic life in Egypt from the 1920s into the twenty-first century.”
In order to preserve and promote the artistic legacy of Margo Veillon for future generation in Egypt and abroad, a Margo Veillon Gallery opened at AUC’s Sheikh Rihan Downtown campus. The gallery is part of a cultural center inaugurated in 2009.
The new gallery befits a legend like Margo Veillon. A listed landmark in its own right, the campus palace was built in the 1860s for the Minister of Education Khairy Pasha. The design was in the neo-Mamluke style and has been listed as a historical monument by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. Hence, the restoration of the building was a great challenge. Hesham Abdul Aziz, associate vice president of AUC Downtown, emphasized that an Antiquities Council consultant had to approve every alteration following internationally recognized conservation standards to ensure the preservation of the historic space.
The gallery houses and showcases selections from the permanent Margo Veillon collection of 100 masterpiece paintings and some 5,000 watercolors, drawings and graphics. Most eye-catching of all are the works of art depicting daily life in the Egyptian countryside, the Nile, and the deserts of Nubia, Sudan and Ethiopia. Her “Nocturnes” collection, created during the 1991 Gulf war, is also there. For the die-hard fans of Veillon, there is an archive of the artist’s personal diaries, drawings and sketches, books, collections and photographs.