The Custodian: Our Region, Our Story. Interview with Fatenn Mostafa Kanafani.

This article appeared in The Custodian Issue #66 and was dedicated to the Dalloul Art Foundation and its custodian Basel Dalloul in which we covered the foundation’s mission, influence and importance in championing and safeguarding Arab art for generations to come.

Rima Nasser: You are an expert in twentieth-century Egyptian modernism. Could you share your thoughts on the legacy of custodianship and the importance of preserving modern Egyptian art for future generations?

Fatenn Mostafa: Every owner of an artwork is a custodian. The degree might vary in terms of the collection size or the type of entity (private versus institutional, small versus large), but the work, once in the hands of a “collector,” falls into the custodianship of the new owner – to appreciate it, protect it, display it, and pass it on to the next generation.

If we zoom in on modern Egyptian art, there is an unprecedented growing awareness of the importance of preserving works of art for future generations. For decades, the Egyptian collector base had shrunk post-1952 revolution, and consequently, works began to be scattered across the world. We are slowly seeing the number of collectors – and serious ones at that – growing rapidly. We are also slowly able to identify the location of many important works that had left the country post-1952. That’s on the private level.

On the institutional level, we witnessed decades of negligence on the part of museums in terms of protection, restoration, display, and storage, to name a few. Thankfully, the efforts spearheaded by private commercial and non-profit entities over the past fifteen years have led to a “reawakening” of the importance of art as both a soft power, but also as a national wealth. Although still limited financially, museum directors under the authority of the Ministry of Culture are curating exhibitions celebrating 20th-century Egyptian art, and that includes “un-dusting” works that had been stored for decades. Finally, the public can see gems that were buried in the warehouses. Finally, heirs of artists’ estates are gradually – though at a slower pace – realizing the value of proper estate management to protect what they inherited and “rebuild” the legacy of their father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, or relative.

We are working very closely with several families to manage their estates, including archiving, properly accounting for, storing, restoring, and valuation of the works etc… This is an immense job, especially since I am particularly interested in managing estates of the “forgotten” Egyptian modernists. Egypt has far more than the usual suspects and I am always in awe of what gems I discover. Our next steps are exhibiting and producing monographs for these artists.

RN: The Mahmoud Saïd catalogue raisonné and Daughters of the Nile are projects you’ve contributed to, highlighting the importance of middle eastern art and Egyptian women in changing their world. How does custodianship play a role in preserving these narratives and artists’ legacies?

FM: The book Daughters of the Nile is very close to my heart and an important testimony of the role of Egyptian women in making a difference across various business fields. Egypt has always been and remains a place where women have demonstrated gender parity. While in the West they are still negotiating a place for women artists for example, in Egypt, women artists participated since the first Salon du Caire in 1923.

Ordinary women were also the subjects of the majority of Mahmoud Saïd’s paintings and the fellaha (Egyptian peasant) was the symbol of independence and modernity during the first half of the 20th century, as exemplified by the Nahdit Misr sculpture by Mahmoud Mokhtar. In my contribution to the catalogue raisonné, I dubbed Mahmoud Saïd ‘The Oriental Lord’, stressing his wish to look at Egypt and Egyptians through a utopian lens, where women are queens and men are ancient Egyptian Pharaohs.

RN: You are also the founder of Artalks | Egypt, which houses extensive archives on modern Egyptian art. How does your experience in managing artists’ estates and conducting academic research intersect with the custodianship mission, and what impact does it have on art preservation?

FM: Excellent question. In my view, preserving archives is as important as preserving artworks. It is the heart and soul of our story or rather our stories. I am addicted to researching and understanding our history to present it in the most objective and impartial way in my books. To do so, archives including primary documents, handwritten notes, and press materials from various sources provide me with a clearer picture of what the mindset was at a certain specific point in time and how it evolved, changed, or was buried in the years after.

Learning history in school will always be a partial presentation of facts, as history is written and rewritten to fit certain agendas – whatever school system you were raised in (Western, local, private, public). Take for example the 1973 war. At school in the French system, I grew up being taught that we lost the war. Then, I would go home, and my parents would tell me that we did actually win the war.

Since 2009, I have been building an archive on Modern Egyptian art and modern Egypt at large starting from the 19th century. I ‘travel’ the world and invest in building that archive to better understand the conditions under which artists, cultural practitioners, and intellectuals worked. I must say that there was a period during the 20th century when Egyptian intellectuals take my breath away with their thinking and writings. I am infatuated, for example, with the writings of Georges Henein, Louis Awad, and Salama Moussa Salama to name a few.

RN: In your view, how can custodians like the Dalloul Art Foundation further support and collaborate with experts, artists, and institutions to enhance the understanding and appreciation of modern Egyptian art?

FM: Custodians like the Dalloul Art Foundation create an extraordinary Arab dialogue that will keep expanding as they invite more artists to the conversation. Naturally, the choice of works is personal and is shaped by the owners of these foundations. Each has a theme or a message close to their heart and you can see that transpire from the works they acquire.

If you ask me what I wish to see more of, I will say that I would like to see more collaboration with the foundations on both the scholarly level and the selection of artworks. As they establish themselves as influential ‘spokespersons’ of Arab art – displaying and loaning works for example – it is important that they reach out more to local experts in the respective countries. This would enable them to have more research done and proper due diligence prior to the acquisition, become more selective and avoid counterfeits.

Similarly, when they decide to streamline the collection, it is important they get outside advice on what should go and what should stay. Some of the works that are now being sold by both large private collectors and foundations should not be sold randomly.

When the Museum of Modern Art in New York decided to buy an important work by a seminal Egyptian woman artist, they contacted us for advice. We worked together on digging deep into the artist’s trajectory, which enabled the MOMA team to decide on which period of the artist’s life they were particularly interested in. Our work entailed much more than just sourcing the work. It was a whole navigation process and a team effort.

RN: Arttalks | Egypt is known for its contributions to the art world. Could you share the nature of your relationship with Dr. Basel Dalloul and how this collaboration impacts the field of art preservation and promotion?’

FM: I met Basel in a meeting with the chairman of Al Ahram Beverages Company, Mr. Ahmed Zayat, in the late 1990s. Basel was a business entrepreneur pioneering internet satellite in Egypt and I was the CEO of Gianaclis Vineyards for Beverages (a daughter company of Al Ahram Beverages Company). So, both Basel and I at the time were wearing different hats. Fast forward to the art world. Since then, we have worked together on several acquisitions of Modern and Contemporary Egyptian art. Basel has a very sharp eye and business mind. Combine the two and you can see the steps taken to turn a mega private collection into a full-fledged professional institution with a team. I am confident that the legacy of Dr. Ramzi and the future of the Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation (DAF) are in very good hands.

RN: As someone deeply involved in art and research, could you share any specific projects or initiatives where you believe custodianship has had a transformative impact on preserving and promoting art?

FM: The Barjeel Art Foundation under the leadership of Mr. Sultan Al Qassemi immediately comes to mind. As the ‘father’ of this foundation, Sultan wears many hats that complement one another and offers a comprehensive model.

For example, teaching Middle Eastern art in prestigious schools around the world is a significant step to putting Arab art on the global map. Beside loaning works and running exhibitions on an international and institutional scale, Sultan breeds a new generation of international students who, thanks to the knowledge they acquire, will be advocates of our region, our artists, our story. Even if they don’t end up being curators or collectors, this academic knowledge will make a difference in the long term.

Another fundamental ‘business’ model comes to mind: foundations and private collectors who generously agree to loan works from their collections to local, regional, and international institutions and museums. A decade ago, this was very rare. Now, there is a better understanding of the value of doing so – for both the history of the work, the value of the collection, and for Arab art as part and parcel of the global canon of art.


About Fatenn Mostafa Kanafani

Fatenn Mostafa-Kanafani is a lecturer and researcher who specialises in 20th 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 shortlisted for the prestigious Peter Mackenzie Smith Book Prize in March 2022. Mostafa-Kanafani contributed to Mahmoud Saïd (Skira, 2017), the first catalogue raisonné for a Middle Eastern artist and to Daughters of the Nile: Egyptian Women Changing Their World (Cambridge Scholars, 2016).

Caption featured image: Fatenn Mostafa-Kanafani

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