Egyptian artists know the art of their world well, it's us who don't know it!

As part of our ongoing commitment to the MENA region, we are starting an interview series with Art Historians and Curators who chose to devote their career to the promotion Middle-Eastern and North African art. Our aim is to give their work more visibility and to create links between them as part of a growing network.

Nadia Radwan is inaugurating this series. She obtained her Ph.D. in Art History from Geneva University with a thesis on Egyptian modern art entitled A Renaissance of Fine Arts and Applied Arts in Egypt: 1908 – 1938. She is currently Assistant professor in World Art History at the Institute for Art History /Centre for Global Studies of the University of Bern, Switzerland. She taught Art History at the American University in Dubai where she also experienced curatorship. She is starting a research project about Swiss Orientalism based on Lehnert and Landrock’s photograph and archive collection at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne. Among others, she published several articles on Egyptian modern art[1] and architecture and her book entitled Les modernes d’Egypte will be published by Peter Lang in the of Autumn 2017.

Nadia Radwan, can you tell us how you came to work on Egyptian Modern Art?

No research topic is ever a random choice. I’m Swiss and Egyptian; I grow up in Geneva and studied in what was at that time a very conservative art history department at Geneva University. There, I learned everything according to the Western canon without ever questioning it. While visiting Egypt, I was unable to connect what I was learning to what I was observing. Indeed, the practices I saw – whether Egyptian modernism or crafts and applied arts – did not fit in my curriculum. This is when I started to understand that non-Western modernities had no place in the art history discourse. Nevertheless, despite the fact that there was nothing in the curricula about the Middle-East, not even a course on Islamic Art, I was able to carry on because I had the chance to have a professor, Leïla el-Wakil, who was studying the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy and gave a course on that topic[2]. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult to pursue my objectives. So I decided, for my MA research, to work on Hassan Fathy. This was the first step before I started my Ph.D. on Egyptian modern painters and sculptors in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Of course, the first question was: how to start working when there are hardly any sources nor bibliographies? There were the seminal and important works of Silvia Naef[3] and Nada Shabout[4], but there was not much specifically on Egyptian modern art published in Europe. Of course, there was an important literature on the subject published in Egypt and in Arabic. Despite the significance of these publications, they were rather testimonies than scientific researches. The authors were often Nasser followers with a nationalistic vision of cultural production and practices. Hence I understood that I needed to go to the sources. This is when I started the archival work.

Like you, many researchers underline how difficult it is to find first hand sources when it comes to non-Western countries. How did you start working in archives? What difficulties did you encounter?

NR: The issue was that even the most basic biographical information of some Egyptian artists I was studying had to be verified and were difficult to find, such as dates of birth and death, key moments of their career path, such as the places of training and work. Indeed, circulating into the realm of archives is always tricky. If the Egyptian National Archives (Dar al-Watha’iq) were classified according to the same categories I knew in Europe, Art History was not one of them. There were no files for Egyptian artists and I had to search in different collections: Mohamed Ali Collection, Abdin Collection, Scholarly Grants Collection, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Collection.
There were also the private collections of the family members of the artists. These archives were very rich, but absolutely not classified. Basically, they were in private homes, often scattered in drawers, in uncertain conditions of preservation, but, it’s actually much easier to work with private collections than with public archives and collections. With public art collections, we face the problem of access to the reserves and the absence of cataloguing; obtaining pictures and reproductions is almost impossible – even for my book that will be published soon, some of the illustrations are poor reproductions made with my small and very unprofessional camera.
All researchers in my field are faced with these issues. To work around them, I turned to a multiplicity of resources by including, for instance, the printed press to my corpus, as well as photographs and interviews. Sometimes, one artwork, one object or one photograph was the only available source and that turned my approach into a kind of visual archeology. It’s really the variety of sources that enabled me to connect different material and to build my knowledge. But more importantly perhaps, it enabled me to deconstruct what I learned during my studies, to overcome my orientalist mentality and my father’s intellectual legacy, who is a strong advocate of Nasser. First of all, I had to get rid of those two systems of judgment. And to be very honest, I’m always scared to fall into one or the other again.

Getting rid of academic and family intellectual legacies is anything but easy. By which process did you achieve it?

At one point, to avoid my own traps, I decided to give an important space to the actors’ discourses – artists, critics, gallery owners, collectors…– and I ended up more into discourse analyses than theoretical frameworks. I was criticized for that because, of course, we do have to apply these postcolonial frameworks: ‘World’ Art or ‘Global’ Art is one of them. But for me, the notion itself is in the continuity of the orientalist perspective. Indeed, ‘Global’ Art stigmatize otherness as much as orientalism, but under the theoretical discourse of Globalization. Therefore, in my research, I try to avoid giving to much weight to these discourses. This is a characteristic I see in some of my colleagues’ research too, they focus and value first hand sources. Indeed, sources are so limited regarding the 1920s and 1930s artistic production that when you find something, you want to highlight it. Some of our peers, working on more established research subjects, do not necessarily understand that clarifying a small aspect of an artist’s biography, not only becomes a crucial contribution to this history but also implies a great deal of archival work, a preliminary work you do not need to do for any Picasso or Matisse.
Of course, theoretical frameworks are necessary to conduct our research and to delineate its orientation. But in the case of modernism in the Middle East, they do not suffice. The problem is that researchers who don’t work on primary sources and don’t take into account researches that have been undertaken in the region, published in European languages or in Arabic end up producing work that tends to erase the social, cultural and political differences within a region, which is anything but homogenous. The expression “Modern Art in the Middle East”, it’s brutal if you think of it.
The so-called Revolutions of the Arab Spring were a prime example of this phenomena. Street art practices, in particular, were brought to the fore and instantaneously ‘artified’ – recognized as belonging to a new art practice and not only to a social movement. Numerous academic events, workshops and conferences were held about dissent and visual arts. The Western media was referring to an ‘artistic awakening’, while the Egyptian press used the word ‘Nahda’ (Awakening, Rebirth) to qualify what was interpreted as an ‘emerging art movement’. When you are working on the post-1919 revolution, you know that the ‘Nahda’ has a historical meaning, an ideology and a symbolic value. However, the rapidity by which the international art world and market, the academic field as well as NGO’s, declared the birth of a new art was astonishing.

In the Egyptian case, the reuse of the same terminology is striking and nevertheless it was received as unprecedented.

My colleague Kristen Sheid asked in a provoking way: “How quickly can Arabs fall asleep after such exciting historical moments?” underlining that since one century Arabs experienced a great number of awakening in their history.[5] Thus, I was wandering: how one can say that contemporary artists were coming from nothing? Why the links can’t be made? These artists were already working under Hosni Moubarak and Egyptian artists have been working in studios and creating art since the end of 19th century. Once more, it’s a colonial perspective we are facing; this is what shocked me about the proclamation of this so called ‘awakening’ during the 2011 uprisings. Because, when I say the links with the past exist, I mean to say that they are not only widely visible but widely understood and lived by artists! At the very beginning of the revolution, during the protest of February 28, the well-known sound installation artist Ahmed Bassiouny was killed by the armed forces. A tribute was consequently organized at the Mahmoud Moukhtar museum – Moukhtar is a very famous sculptor of the 1920s –, during the commemoration photographs of Bassiouny and Moukhtar portraits were alternatively screened on the melody of Egyptian patriotic songs. The connection was clear. The past was clear. Egyptian artists know the art history of their country very well, it is us who do not know it!

I would like to follow the theme of knowledge dissemination, by talking about your activities as a professor. You taught at the American University of Dubai and now at the University of Bern. How was your teaching received in those two countries?

In Dubai, my students came from all over the Middle East, Iran, Pakistan, Central and South Asia and my assignment was ironically to teach them Western art history. Ethically, it was not easy and I often wondered how to position myself. What was I to do? Teach them the canon with the handbook that was given to me by the institution? Starting with Greco-Roman antiquity? For me, it was out of the question. I tried to find key topics that could interest them. Actually, religion or nudes were not that much of an issue and I realized that I had a lot to learn from their reading of images. For instance, my female students were pointing out to gender issues in some very famous masterpieces that I had never noticed. As an art historian, your eye is so used to certain images that you do not even look at them anymore. That was very interesting, but overall, the canon was difficult to deal with. I needed to deconstruct it. Of course, to a certain extent, I had to follow the curricula that was imposed upon me, but at the same time, I tried to modify it by introducing Islamic art and architecture or, for instance, by replacing the examples of European churches by Middle-Eastern ones, with which they were quite familiar. They actually know a history, which European students are completely unaware of. As for the contemporary period, I was showing them works by Middle Eastern, Iranian, Pakistani or Indian artists they could see in the galleries in Dubai or at the Sharjah Art Biennale, and I encouraged them to work on objects from their country of origin. We also debated about the upcoming so-called ‘Global Museums’ in Abu Dhabi and it was interesting to hear what the construction of such institution as the Louvre or the Guggenheim meant to them. I believe it was during that time that I became most aware of the limits of my discipline.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s any easier here in Bern, where inversely, I have to teach what we call ‘Global’ or ‘World’ Art History to Western students. The first challenge is that the ‘Global’ label doesn’t really have a ground level, it’s not locally rooted. For that very reason, I have to confess that I often have doubts about what it really means. Indeed nobody ever told me what ‘Global Art’ is, I have never followed any course on the subject. Of course, I am being a bit provocative but there is some truth in this. The first course I gave in Bern was about contemporary art in the Middle-East. It was quite challenging because the students did not have any prerequisites about the context. I tried to work around this issue by addressing the topic through key ideas, such as orientalism, ornament… The second challenge I face in my teaching is the lack of literature. If one gives a course on Duchamp, one will have an entire library on the subject, but on the Middle-East, depending on the topic, the reference list will fit on a single page. It is sometimes difficult for the students to find the appropriate readings, when they write their papers or do an in-class presentation. The third challenge is that I have to supervise the researches or dissertations of students that are working on extremely diverse topics in different regions of the world. While I’m absolutely not a specialist of Brazil or Mexico, I’m expected to have the capacity to follow students working in these fields.
Thus, I learnt a lot through my position at the expense of concentrating on my research field, a difficulty that is not always understood. My colleagues working in the field of Medieval Art, for instance, will never be expected to supervise a thesis on contemporary art; but the ‘World Arts’ gap has to be filled somehow and therefore I often find myself outside of my comfort zone due to my labelling as a ‘World’ or ‘Global’ art historian. Anyway, it’s the only title under which I can fit in, as a historian of Egyptian modernism. Nevertheless, I have to recognize that the field is very enriching and gives me a lot of freedom. I have the liberty to embrace a multitude of social, cultural and political issues and even if I sometimes have the feeling that I’m doing more politics than art history, it’s a great challenge!

Annabelle Boissier, April 17, 2017

[1] See: Nadia Radwan (2016). “Dal Cairo a Roma. Visual Arts and Transcultural Interactions Between Egypt and Italy”. Asiatische Studien / Etudes asiatiques AS/EA, 70(4), pp. 1094-1114. :; Nadia Radwan (2017) « Between Diana and Isis: Egypt’s ‘Renaissance’ and the Neo-Pharaonic Style (1920s‒1930s) », in: Mercedes Volait et Emmanuelle Perrin (dirs.), Dialogues artistiques avec les passés de l’Égypte, Paris, InVisu (CNRS-INHA) (« Actes de colloques »), 2017:
[2] Leïla el-Wakil, Hassan Fathy dans son temps, Paris ; Gollion, Infolio, 2013.
[3] Silvia Naef, À la recherche d’une modernité arabe. L’évolution des arts plastiques en Égypte, au Liban et en Irak, Genève, Slatkine, 1996
[4] Nada Shabout, Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics, Gainesville, University of Florida Press, 2007
[5] Kirsten Scheid, “On Arabs and the Art Awakening: Warnings from a Narcoleptic Population », Jadaliyya, 31 August 2012: