A lways closely associated with ancient art and artefacts, Egypt’s vibrant modern art scene is consistently overshadowed by imposing monuments from the past.
The recent record-breaking auction of works by modern Egyptian artist Mahmoud Said has, however, brought the country’s contemporary art scene out of the shadows. Said’s painting “Les Chadoufs” brought in a staggering $2.43 million at an auction in Dubai last April, setting a new record for modern Arab art, and throwing the Arab world’s under-appreciated modern artists into relief.
“Mahmoud Said is widely regarded as a great modern artist who produced high quality work. ‘The Whirling Dervishes’ is an outstanding and iconic piece of work. At the auction, the fact that it came from an important collection and was fresh to the market was a factor in the high sale price — people love to buy work from important collections; to buy a piece of history,” Michael Jeha, Managing Director of Christie’s Middle East, told the Daily News Egypt.
This landmark sale is a belated acknowledgement of Said’s talent and the central role he played in the development of modern art in Egypt. It has sparked a newfound interest in his work and that of other modern Arab masters: other private collections of Said’s work were put up for auction following the sensation in Dubai.
“The Mahmoud Said sale helped to internationalize interest in Arab art and to showcase the quality of works from the region. Many people participated internationally from London, New York, and elsewhere who hadn’t participated in the Arab art market previously and the collector base for similar works is increasing as a result,” Jeha explained.
An aristocrat and trained lawyer born in turn-of-the-century Alexandria, painting was a mere hobby for Said until the age of 50, when, following the death of his father, he quit his law practice to devote himself completely to art. Despite his extensive travels, Said was mostly content to paint the things he observed around him in his hometown of Alexandria.
The sea, Egyptian peasants and common scenes of prayer and festivity adorn the most placid of Said’s canvases. As a modern artist possessed of a sharp mind and sensitive disposition, coming of age during the days of the 1919 revolution and the Egyptian struggle for independence, Said inevitably produced work dealing with edgier subject matter: he painted the future of his country in its peasantry and strong women, influenced by contemporary figures like Safia Zaghloul and Huda Shaarawi and their struggle against British colonialism.
He painted the opening of the Suez Canal and celebrated the lives of average Egyptians unapologetically, pointing to a future that would see a breakdown in class barriers parallel to the elimination of colonial power. He also pushed boundaries with bold nudes — the naked female form being a major political statement in and of itself during that period.
Said’s paintings are extraordinarily full; his subtle use of light and attention to proportion and the geometry of the natural world, along with his almost sculptural forms give his work a contented and peaceful aura, each like a half-hidden smile hinting at his deep connection with his homeland, and his firm belief that its people would soon gain the independence and dignity they carry so naturally in his paintings.
Painting in the Arab world has been an exercise in constant struggle against the tradition of western Orientalist art in its depictions of home. In this respect Said was an iconoclastic and iconic figure in Egyptian art: he led the way for a new generation of painters, free from the physical and psychological bondage of colonialism, to paint their countries and people the way they saw them, without shame or pretence.
In Said’s work, therefore, we have Egypt at its best, most idealistic and most unassuming: a country on the brink of rebirth, whose happiness and abundance overflows from exuberant, satisfying canvases.
The value his paintings have attained since his death in 1964 are a testament to the resonance they still carry as proof of a lost era in Egyptian and Arab history — a bygone moment of idealism, hope and sincere optimism about the future.
One advantage of the low-profile nature of Egypt’s modern art movement is that many of the finest works produced by the country’s artists can still be viewed in museums and galleries in Cairo and Alexandria. Mahmoud Said’s works are displayed in Alexandria at the Mahmoud Said Museum and the Alexandria National Museum. In Cairo, Said’s works are on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art in the Cairo Opera House compound.
The rising interest in modern art from the region could, however, see these works attracting more interest in the near future if Jeha’s predictions come true.
“Over the last five years awareness of and appreciation for Arab art has increased, driven by auctions, new galleries, art fairs and new museums in the region. It is still a young market and there is still a long way to go, but demand and interest has increased steadily and substantially. We have seen a lot more participation in the market from different quarters and an increase in the collector base and I expect to see this continue over the next five to 10 years.”
Said’s work is displayed at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art. Said’s work is displayed at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art.