Review: Art et Liberté: Surrealism in Egypt

Fouad Kamel, Nude 1950

Art et Liberté: Surrealism in Egypt
Tate Liverpool, 
until 18th March 2017

Words, Carol Emmas

I thought I knew quite a bit about Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, and the group of surrealists that surrounded them in the late 1930s and 40s. Having read in depth around the subject over a period of many years, to find they were at the forefront of a native Egyptian and European expat internationalism communist movement that was almost written out of history by not being written into it, is a cultural and historical find.

Artistically, the curators; (Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, namely Art Reoriented ) have covered a lot of ground in bringing the subject of Surrealism in Egypt  and the Art and Liberty Group (Art et Liberté –jama’at al-fann wa al-hurriyyah) to us in a visual sense by highlighting how it redefined parts of the surrealist movement. For them, seeing how successfully this radical anti-Fascist collective eventually came together on a wall must have been the icing on the cake.

Perhaps ‘icing’ is not the correct word, as there is nothing frivolous about this exhibition. Unlike the playful aspects of some European surrealism, various strong and complex political themes run through these artworks. There is certainly enough of a complex narrative to put our minds in a spin trying to piece together exactly might have been happening to those who experienced life within the dark underbelly of the alienated social classes. Miller described the country as having many; ‘depressing Egyptian grey days when the world seems to have ended and one senses the preoccupations of this country with death.’

Syphilis was rife in Egypt at the time due to the contingency of WW2 soldiers talking advantage of the various form of local prostitution. Prostitution and the abuse of women is portrayed heavily throughout the artwork by both male, but also female artists such as Inji Efflatoun (who spent the 1950s in prison for her communist views) and Amy Nimr. The Egyptian artists’ realistic portrayal of women was a protestation and backlash to the Parisian erotised form. In contrast, these women emerge from canvases of dark browns, greens and muddied blacks. Most are portrayed as contorted, creatures with hollowed, sunken eyes, cheeks and skin. These were not images to hang on the walls of a colonial mansion to complement the soft furnishings – these were images of social realism. It was reportage through the medium of paint.

This exhibition as a whole throws up as many political and social questions as it tries to answer. The likes of Miller, Penrose and Picasso may have been at the forefront and introduction of the movement and have an empathetic communist bent, but they also came from the social classes the criticism was aimed at. In fact, the Egyptian surrealists make their work look almost twee and indulged in comparison and the curators juxtaposition this nicely. The majority of the Egyptian artists were too from the elite. Yet, they took the surrealist suggestion/style and ran with it as a protest over foreign oppression and in a bid to regain the country’s national identity.

Trying to fathom the political contradictions and complexities of the Egyptian surrealists is to mentally open a can of worms and the first part of the exhibition makes feels like you’re deeply submerged in one. It’s only when you come into the development of the movement into the later manifestation of The Contemporary Art Group do you feel as though you’ve stepped out out of the political minefield into something less hallowed.

One of the other images that stands out is Coups de Bâtons 1937, by Mayo. This is an intense snapshot of an incident highlighting the serious levels of police brutality. Cleverly, there are two images in one; the memory of the people sitting around tables drinking coffee and wine before all hell lets loose. The sedate gentleness of a bright and normal day still exists, but the people have been caught up in a frenzied and brutal police attack. These contrasts seemingly continued to haunt the artist.

This is an article which should span pages and it it has barely touched the surface regarding what this exhibition is about. If you like an exhibition that makes you think around a subject politically and is complex and multi-layered, then this is a must for you.