From major collections to intimate, private museums, we discover the best places to explore Egypt’s hidden treasure trove of modern art.
The first museum of contemporary art was the idea of Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil, Egypt’s foremost art collector and patron. As chairman of the Société des amis de l’art, Khalil had acquired several works of art by Egyptian and foreign artists from the first Salon du Caire in 1911 and decided to exhibit them in one of the society’s rooms at Tigrane Pasha’s mansion on Kamel Street. The collection provided the nucleus for Egypt’s first museum of modern art and, after changing venue several times, finally settled in its present location on the grounds of the Cairo Opera House on the island of Zamalek in 1983. Since then, a number of modern art museums have been established around the country including quite a few hidden gems where art lovers can explore the careers of many of the artists featured in this edition.
The Museum of Egyptian Modern Art
Opera House Grounds, Gezira, Zamalek, Cairo
From modest beginnings as Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil’s private collection, the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art is today home to the largest collection of paintings, sculptures, drawings, caricatures and sketches by artists who lived and worked in Egypt from the early twentieth century onwards. The 15,000 exhibits follow the development of the various Egyptian art movements, from the pioneers of the early twentieth century to contemporary artists of the new millennium.
Encompassing the works of more than 1,500 artists, the vast collection stretches over two floors and includes not only the works of internationally celebrated artists, but also those of lesser well-known but equally important ones. Marble and bronze figures by Mahmoud Mokhtar stand next to masterpieces by Mahmoud Saїd, Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar, Ramsès Younan and Inji Efflatoun, to name but a few.
The museum is currently under renovation and only the first floor is accessible to visitors.
The Mahmoud Saїd Museum Complex
6 Mohamed Pasha Said Street, Gianaclis, Alexandria
Home to the largest collection of Mahmoud Saїd’s work, this Italian stone mansion also houses an impressive collection of the works of the Wanly brothers, Seif and Adham.
Saїd’s giant mural titled L’inauguration de l’ouverture du canal de Suez (1946–47) is one of the many priceless masterpieces exhibited at the museum. The collection also includes some of his paintings of local women including Femme aux boucles d’or, Le foulard bleu, and the world-famous Banat Bahari and a series of nudes in addition to portraits of members of the family and friends of this ‘quiet and timid’ former judge. Originally Mahmoud Saїd’s home, the museum also displays Saїd’s easel and his collection of paint brushes, his palettes, camera, and pipe as well as the awards and honorary certificates this pioneering artist received over his lifetime.
Mahmoud Saїd’s artwork takes up the entire ground floor of the museum. The first floor showcases the works of the brothers Seif and Adham Wanly spread out over seven halls. The collection includes seventy-one paintings by Seif spanning the different phases of his career and sixteen by Adham whose work was cut short by his early death.
The centre’s basement holds an interesting collection of the work of other important modern artists including Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar, Marguerite Nakhla, Ahmed Sabry, Ragheb Ayad, Salah Taher, and Gamal el-Segini. A magnificent pharaonic falcon by Adam Henein stands in one corner.
The Museum of Fine Arts at Moharram Bey
6 Menashe Street, The Alexandria Arts Complex, Moharram Bey, Alexandria
Although it wasn’t officially inaugurated until 1954, the story of this museum goes as far back as 1926 when Baron Charles de Menasce volunteered to donate his villa in the Muharram Bey neighbourhood to become a library and museum for the Alexandria municipality. Unfortunately, in 1940, the villa was bombed and largely destroyed before it was ready. After World War II, the land was re-assigned to the Ministry of Health. It took years of persistent pressure in government offices and in the press from art lover Charles Zahar and journalist Kamal el-Mallakh aided by Hussein Sobhy—an art patron who eventually became the head of the Alexandria Municipality—to finally reclaim the land for its original purpose. The building was completed as an art complex and library and today houses a permanent collection of over 1,300 works of art. The museum is also home to the Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries, which was inaugurated in 1955 and continues to this day.
The Mahmoud Mokhtar Museum
5 el-Tahrir Street, Gezira, Zamalek, Cairo
Designed in the style of a pharaonic temple by architect Ramsis Wissa Wassef—whose first love was sculpture—the Mokhtar Museum houses eighty-five bronze, stone, basalt, marble, granite and plaster works by ‘the father of modern Egyptian sculpture’. Inaugurated in 1962 by Tharwat Okasha, who was minister of culture at the time, the museum is divided into halls, each showcasing a different type of material used by the sculptor.
The Egyptian female peasant features prominently in Mokhtar’s best-known works including Nahdet Masr and el-Khamaseen. Mokhtar’s masterpiece, The Jar Bearer, depicting a female peasant carrying a water jar, takes centre stage in the entrance hall of the museum.
The marble room is fully dedicated to Egyptian historical figures ranging from politicians to ancient Egyptian gods. Next is the bronze room, which houses some of his iconic bronze statues, first made of mud then coated with liquid bronze. The room also features eleven unfinished statues each representing one of Egypt’s then eleven directorates.
In the Khamaseen room stands the magnificent statue of el-Khamaseen (The Sandstorm) showing a woman going against a strong wind and symbolising the persistence of the Egyptian people against the British occupation. The rooms also display smaller statues, carvings and large-scale photos of Mokhtar’s two Saad Zaghloul statues which decorate public squares in Cairo and Alexandria.
Some of Mokhtar’s personal belongings—his working overalls, for instance—are displayed in a bright blue room together with newspapers cuttings, caricatures and a collection of vintage photographs of the sculptor working on his projects.
Mokhtar himself is buried in the museum. His body was moved from the family cemetery to the museum following its inauguration, a death mask was created for him by Anton Haggar and was placed above his tomb.
The Adam Henein Museum ‘A Life of Creativity’
Al-Labeini Street, Harraniyya, Giza
Fully funded by the sculptor himself, the Adam Henein Museum is the first of its kind in Egypt. It features the largest collection of Henein’s work and continues to grow thanks to its prolific founder. The three-storey building currently houses 4,000 sculptures in a variety of materials including bronze, stone, wood, clay and granite, as well as paintings, drawings and sketches. The larger granite sculptures carved during various rounds of the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium can be found in the open-air display in the museum garden.
The Mohamed Naghi Museum
9 Mahmoud el-Guindi Street, Giza
Located in Hadayek al-Ahram (Giza), the museum was initially Naghi’s studio which he built in 1952. Following the death of the artist in 1956, the Ministry of Culture acquired the studio and turned it into a museum inaugurated in 1968 by Tharwat Okasha. The museum houses some 1,200 paintings showcasing Naghi’s outstanding compositions inspired by the large murals of Ancient Egypt and by impressionism, his favourite style of representational art. The collection also includes forty paintings and sketches by Effat Naghi, the artist’s sister. Following a state-of-the art renovation and restoration plan, the museum re-opened in 1991.
The Effat Naghi and Saad al-Khadem Museum
12 al-Karim Street, Saray al-Qubba, Zeytoun, Cairo
In the district of Zeytoun, north-east of Cairo, stands a unique museum dedicated to the artists Effat Naghi and her husband Saad al-Khadem, who is perhaps better known for his unmatched work on Egyptian folklore. The display of almost 200 works of art and pottery show Effat Naghi’s fascination with legend and Egyptian folktales as well as al-Khadem’s extensive research into Egyptian folk art. In addition to the famous Nude by al-Khadem, it also houses the couple’s private library with titles on archaeology, folklore and astrology. The museum was originally their home and they both lived and worked there until their respective deaths, al-Khadem in 1987 and Naghi in 1994. Upon her death, Naghi bequeathed the house to the Egyptian government and it became a museum dedicated to the couple’s memory.
The Inji Efflatoun Museum
Amir Taz Palace, Saliba Street, el-Khalifa, Cairo
The museum holds over sixty paintings and drawings by this exceptionally gifted visual artist and activist who first experimented with surrealism before embracing pointillism. In recognition of Efflatoun’s brilliance, her collection was recently transferred to the fourteenth-century Mameluke house, the Amir Taz Palace, which is a stunning work of art in itself.
The Hassan Heshmat Museum
24, Gharb al-Sharit Street, Ain Shams, Cairo
In 1960, Hassan Heshmat (1920–2006) convinced Tharwat Okasha to turn the artist’s 1,200-metre villa in the Cairo neighbourhood of Ain Shams into a museum of his work with an annexed workshop to serve young artists from the surrounding area. Heshmat was the first Egyptian sculptor to cast miniature porcelain statues, which were very popular in the sixties. In later decades, he began to work on larger sculptures and murals. The museum’s collection encompasses over 200 of the pioneering artist’s sculptures and ceramics.
The Special Collections Museum
The Agricultural Museum Complex, Dokki, Giza
Established in 2004, by Mohamed el-Aqqad who was the head of the Agricultural Museum at the time, this sprawling annex of offices was converted into a museum to house a large portion of the artwork and antiques el-Aqqad found in the Agricultural Museum’s warehouses. In addition to original furniture and objets d’art from the royal palace of princess Fatma Ismaïl, the museum includes works by some of Egypt’s most famous names including pioneers such as Mahmoud Saїd and Youssef Kamel; artists from later generations such as Hosny el-Banani; foreign artists such as Amelia da Forno Casonato; and special galleries for Ali el-Deeb and Hedayet, a Turkish artist who was based in Egypt during the first half of the twentieth century. All the artworks selected for this museum revolve around the subject of agriculture and farming, and of course, the collection would not be complete without one of Mahmoud Mokhtar’s iconic sculptures of Egyptian fellahas.
Egyptian Modern Art Abroad—Key Highlights
Several prominent international museums have acquired works by Egyptian artists as part of their collections. The Barjeel Art Foundation, the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar (Mathaf) and the Jordanian National Gallery of Fine Arts currently house the largest public collections of Egyptian modern art abroad. One of the most significant works of modern Egyptian art abroad is the statue of poet Ahmed Shawky by Gamal el-Segini displayed in the gardens of the Villa Borghese in Rome. The paintings of Marguerite Nakhla adorn St. Mark’s Coptic Museum in Ontario, Canada, Tahia Halim’s work is displayed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and works by Gazbia Sirry can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) and the Modern Art Museum in Stockholm (Sweden). Inji Efflatoun’s works are displayed at the Dresden Museum (Germany), the Pushkin Museum (Russia), the State Museum of Art in Sofia (Bulgaria), the State Museum of Art in Warsaw (Poland) and the Italian Parliament (Italy). Three major works by Hamed Abdallah are part of the Tate Collection (UK), and Adam Henein’s statue Jar Holder is at the Dallas Museum in Texas (US).
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Eva Dadrian is an Emmy Award-winning British-Egyptian independent broadcaster and writer with extensive experience in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. She works as a political risk analyst for Arab Africa Affairs (London/ Cape Town). She also writes in al-Ahram Weekly and al-Ahram Hebdo (Cairo) and covers issues ranging from art and science to environment and religion for the BBC World Service.