Interview with Fatenn Mostafa-Kanafani for Modern Art and Artist Estates: Ways, Works and Archives Issue – Vol I
I noticed that more and more Western scholars were interested in researching Arab art history but solely from an art point of view rather than looking at the global picture. This is wrong because our region is highly volatile. When you are aware of the background, you can really understand the power of this art and the meaning of these iconic artworks. Another issue is that the media paints the region as one of conflicts, but we are an extremely rich cultural centre, with visual arts being part of this. We are also not weak derivatives of Western art movements; we have our own independent movements.
My objective in researching for a book was to lift the veil on Egyptian modernism and add a sociopolitical element, which in my opinion is essential to understanding where we are. During my research I faced a lot of complexities to access basic primary information, such as documents, catalogues, and publications produced in the 1920s and 1930s. It took seven years to complete my research, because I didn’t want to compromise, especially on primary sources. Arabs are built on Arab oral histories: we like to hear and then we write down. I am not interested in anecdotes, even though it can be fun to add one here and there. I wanted facts and history. I needed to see private and personal archives, heirs and estates. It was a wild adventure. I think Egypt is in an embryonic state, whereby families of important artists are starting to understand that they have to be organised and that there is something called estate management. Countries like Lebanon have very good examples of artist estates, such as Paul Guiragossian’s, which is doing an amazing job. Even in Iraq it is starting to pick up and a lot of effort is being invested by the children or grandchildren of artists. We are not yet there in Egypt.
Approaching various artists’ families 10 years ago, some knew that they had inherited valuable works of art and that their father or their mother had been influential during his or her lifetime. However, most of them did not know how to manage that. I was surprised to see artworks rolled up in a kitchen while people were cooking and very valuable artworks stored behind a table. I see this as a lack of education and interest in art.
Things began improving when heirs started realising that they could make a lot of money out of their inheritances. A number of artists – four or five big Egyptian names – became the usual suspects in the hands of auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Equally important artists were never featured at these same auction houses and hence they didn’t benefit. However, now that the works from the usual suspects have been exhausted, it will happen sooner or later.
Things started to change after the Christie’s auction in Dubai in 2010 when Mahmoud Said sold for over two million dollars. Such prices not only triggered interest from families to make money out of their inheritances but also a lot of interest from academia. Suddenly, scholars from all over the world became interested in writing about Raheb Ayad, for example, even though they had no clue about him and had never set foot in the Middle East. Estates were suddenly bombarded by requests and the whole ecosystem changed.
Another issue among artist estates is that the heirs often consider their parent to be the Picasso of the Middle East. There has to be some kind of reality check, though. I do a lot of valuation work and it requires a lot of effort to explain to them and encourage them to read more.
By going through all these hassles and challenges, I decided to build my own archive. I had had enough of trying to beg people who own private archives to open them to me, thinking that I am a spy while actually I was coming to research. It has been nine years now and I can say with confidence that I have probably the most comprehensive archive relating to Egyptian modernism maybe in the world. It spans from 1950 until 1973, with volume two enlarging the scope from 1936. The archive is well organised and accessible. We are in discussions with the AUC and NYU, to see if they can help us digitise it so it would available online for anybody to access. However, the talks are stalling as both have requested to take the material and act as copyright holders, which I refuse. The alternative is for us to digitise it on our own, which would be costly and take longer.
We are working on finding a translator to translate the book from English to Arabic. The Arabic speaking audience, in Egypt in particular, needs to be present because at least four chapters talk about the socio-political environment, addressing how what we grew up being taught about the liberal era and about Gamal Abdel Nasser being the saviour turned out to false.
Once the book is translated, I am curious to know the reaction. I was surprised and disappointed, for example, to know that the Egyptian Art Institute teaches the history of all the Western art movements from year one to year four but does not teach the history of Egyptian modernism. I was told they only have enough material for one hour. That is unacceptable. I am working on having it included in the curriculum so students can learn things like who are the six important pioneers, what happened in the 19th century, who initiated or when was the first art salon or public exhibition, and what the different movements were. Most students don’t speak English, as a result of the pan-Arabism of Nasser, who Arabised all the schools and asked all the foreigners, even those who were really Egyptian, to leave Egypt. When I met the grandchildren of Ahmed Sabri, who was one of the first Egyptian portraitists and a polyglot, they knew no other languages and were extremely religious. The men wouldn’t even shake my hand.
In general, the market for modern or contemporary art in Egypt is vibrant. There is great interest in acquiring art and in visiting exhibitions. More and more galleries are opening, and this is great news. We are hopefully back to where we used to be in the 1950s. Our contemporary artists fall into two categories: those who are exposed and knowledgeable, and those who have no idea about anything. The latter, of which there are many, are still living in the 1970s. We are suffering from 40 years of very poor education. It will take a very long time. The former are doing a fantastic job of keeping track of what they are doing, and instilling love and passion for art in their children. All these people like Youssef Nasser, Ghada Amel, Youssef Nabil, Wael Shawky and Mahmoud Khaled have experience living outside Egypt and have watched and learned. They are now exhibiting at galleries in our region and abroad.
It is important to document what is happening from a completely unbiased viewpoint for the next generations to read. When I was able to put aside the official documents and Ministry of Education art books, and I went into private archives to read personal letters and leftist magazines that had been banned, I discovered a completely different angle. That’s the danger of having Western scholars write about our art without them having deep knowledge of the socio-economic, religious and economic environment. Our history has to be written as objectively as possible based on facts and unbiased personal ideologies. I couldn’t care less if one movement is better than another. The Arab World has lived through all of this. Your and my challenge is to write the real story, whether we like it or not.
Images courtesy of Fatenn Mostafa-Kanafani.
Fatenn Mostafa-Kanafani is a lecturer and researcher who specialises in twentieth-century Egyptian modernism. She is the author of Modern Art in Egypt: Identity and Independence, 1850-1936. Published by I.B. Tauris / Bloomsbury (July 2020), the book was short-listed for the prestigious Peter Mackenzie Smith Book Prize (in March 2022).
Mostafa-Kanafani contributed to Mahmoud Saïd (Skira, 2017), the first catalog raisonné for a Middle Eastern artist and to Daughters of the Nile: Egyptian Women Changing Their World (Cambridge Scholars, 2016).
She is the founder of ArtTalks | Egypt, one of the leading multi-disciplinary art galleries in the Arab world, that houses one of the most extensive archives on modern Egyptian art and provides management of artists’ estates, academic research, authentication, and exhibitions.
Born in Cairo and raised in Europe, she studied Economics at Webster University in Vienna, Austria, and was a prominent board member of the Executive Committee of Al-Ahram Beverages Company.