Sharjah retrospective remaps Surrealism history
Sharjah - Egypt’s little-known Surrealist art movement has been placed in the limelight with a major retrospective organised by Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) as the emirate seeks to fashion itself as a premier art destination by vigorously exploring the pioneering role of Arab artists from the 20th-century Modernist period.
The exhibition Kamal Youssef: Egyptian Surrealism’s Time Capsule, at the Sharjah Art Museum, honours the leading Egyptian artist and brings focus on Egyptian Surrealists, said curators SAF Director Hoor al-Qasimi and Cornell University Professor Salah Hassan.
“The Sharjah Art Foundation is expanding the narrative of art history by highlighting the story of the Egyptian Surrealist movement, one of the most avant-garde but least known in early-to-mid 20th-century Egypt,” Hassan said.
“The Egyptian Surrealists have been one of the most active branches of the Surrealists international and its aftermath can be still seen in the contemporary art production in Egypt.”
The Sharjah exhibition is not the only event highlighting Egyptian Surrealism, Qasimi said.
“We are also presenting in Cairo a major touring exhibition that looks at the growth of Surrealism in Egypt and its historic influences,” she said. That show — When Arts Become Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938- 1965) — opened September 28th.
Hassan noted that the early-to-mid 20th-century work by artists of the Egyptian Surrealist movement “has largely been forgotten or not received the kind of critical attention that this most avant-garde of representations of Arab reality deserved”.
After 70 years of prodigious output of paintings and sculptures, Kamal Youssef, an artist and engineer born in Cairo in 1923, continues to be a creative powerhouse.
The Sharjah show is a comprehensive exposition on the life and art of Youssef, who upholds the artistic creed of social liberty and the integrity of each individual, irrespective of class and power, Hassan said.
Youssef, who settled in the United States in 1956 and lives in rural Pennsylvania, started his art journey in high school and participated in an exhibition organised by the Art and Liberty Group in 1939. Instead of going to art school, Youssef, on his father’s advice, studied engineering and later ran a successful construction company.
He was also a founding member of the Contemporary Art Group, which was active in the 1940s. While holding on to the cosmopolitan ethos of the senior group of Surrealists of the Art and Liberty Group, his participation in the Contemporary Art Group was to significantly affect his artistic practice.
As Qasimi and Hassan pointed out, Youssef had a privileged childhood. His early life was divided between school days in Cairo and vacations at his father’s family home in Masjid Al-Khidr on the Nile. It exposed him to the contrast of the comforts of urban living and the suffering of peasants and poor villagers.
Youssef, whose ideas of liberty were at odds with the political reality in Egypt, moved from Cairo to Paris in the early 1950s and then to the United States.
Many of his works from the 1940s to the present are displayed at the Sharjah Art Museum in semi-chronological order but grouped together by recurring themes in his oeuvre, which shows his experimentation with a variety of styles, techniques and media.
His art functions as a time capsule, as the show is titled, because the works encompass and absorb the changes of modernism and postmodernism while evoking political events across three continents. At the same time, the artist remained true to his roots.
The Fish Monger (1940s) is a meditative figure that evokes mythic emotions. In Omada (1952), a resting figure dominates the frame in the foreground but the backdrop of vernacular architecture and the vast plains stretch all around, creating a 360-degree viewing experience.
Roosters, cats and birds — solitary or in close natural proximity with humans — appear in numerous works — displaying an innate resilience that is transcendent.
Through his many works, Youssef has done justice to every setting — Arab, European or American — and expressed his artistic feelings about every significant historical event during and since the 20th century — from the anti-colonial movement in the 1940s, to the rise of Egyptian nationalism, the avant-garde Parisian life, the turbulent American social life in the 1960s, the Palestinian question and the war on terror.
The exhibition is scheduled to run until November 17th, at the Sharjah Arts Museum.