Sharjah retrospective remaps Surrealism history

Sunday 16/10/2016
Kamal Youssef, Reverie, 1986, oil on board, 48 x 34 cm. (Courtesy of the artist)

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.