Surrealism in Egypt: Art et Liberté 1938-48

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“Coup des Bâtons” by Mayo depicts police violence

Surrealism grew out of the Dada movement and the carnage of the First World War. Since then it has been associated with Europe. This, the first comprehensive UK exhibition of African surrealists, seeks to address this imbalance and places Egyptian artists firmly at the heart of surrealism.

Many Egyptian artists were influenced by or had studied in Europe, but the art that evolved throughout the period covered here deals with both universal and profoundly African issues.

Formed into a collective, Art et Liberté, the Egyptian surrealists announced their arrival with their manifesto “Long Live Degenerative Art!” on 22 December 1938. This radical group of artists and writers politically aligned themselves with their European contemporaries and adopted their name in open defiance of the Nazi philosophy, which classed all modernist work as degenerate.

Art et Liberté used culture as a platform for political reform. The exhibition explores the socio-political motivations that drove the collective. Works such as “Coups de Bâtons” by artist Mayo reflect the injustices the group witnessed, this particular piece a comment on police brutality in dispersing trade union demonstrations. British colonial rule is at the forefront of many paintings.

With the advent of the Second World War Egyptian surrealism evolved in ways that European art under Nazi occupation was unable to do. Art et Liberté articulated the horrors of the North African theatre and in particular the war’s effects upon Cairo.

Samir Rafi’s “Nudes” echoes Picasso’s “Guernica” in its depiction of the bombing of Alexandria and the battle of El Alamein, a pivotal episode in the war fought in the Egyptian desert between Rommel’s Africa Korps and Commonwealth troops.

Women had leading roles inside the movement. In particular, the prominence of female artists such as Inji Effiatoun and Amy Nimr documented the war’s impact upon women in Cairo.

Unlike surrealists elsewhere, the group’s treatment of the female body was not framed from a male perspective. Rather than eroticising women’s bodies, they focused on the suffering and objectification of women and how increased poverty and the presence of British soldiers led to a dramatic increase in prostitution. These women are portrayed as lonely, solitary figures against a backdrop of surreal images, their bodies pierced and mutilated.

There are also examples of photography and literature alongside post-war works, and the exhibition explores the development of a new and wholly Egyptian from of surrealism — subjective realism — looking at the juxtaposition of real life objects and the subconscious.

This is an excellent exhibition, and the £10 ticket also gets you entry into the exhibition of British artist John Piper, who played an important role in developing abstract art in Britain.