With a landmark new museum planned for Beirut, Lebanese-Palestinian art collector and patron Ramzi Dalloul has ambitious plans to expand the global reach of modern and contemporary Arab art.
A couple of years ago, the Palestinian-born, London-based artist Laila Shawa put me in contact with a gentleman who, according to Shawa, sought to build an unparalleled collection of works by Arab artists that would surpass all existing collections. When we talked on the phone for the first time, the then 79-year old shared his dream of building a museum to house his vast collection. He wanted to tell the story of the political and social reality of the Arab world—free of bias, censorship or propaganda—using the richness of Arab art as his medium.
Dr Ramzi Dalloul, a Palestinian-born, London-based businessman whose second home is Lebanon, is set on challenging the dominant belief held by the West that the Arab world’s modern day cultural contribution lags behind or is insignificant. He wants to shatter the uninformed belief, or indeed the resentful satisfaction of some, that the region has been too absorbed and deeply marred by independence struggles, ethnic differences, social unrest, oppression, and religious extremism to produce or contribute anything of significance to the global canon of modern and contemporary art. If the 2011 Arab Spring failed to achieve its call for ‘Bread, Freedom and Social Justice’, it certainly shed light on the power of the Arab people. It also triggered a set of questions in the mind of Dalloul: How can we tend to that which unites us, rather than concede to that which tears us apart? How can we protect our fundamental identity against extremism, ignorance and external hostile forces?
While the idea to build a museum for modern and contemporary Arab art is not novel, Dalloul is blessed to be the sole decision-maker—one who does not shy away from pushing the envelope. He intends to build a museum that is uninhibited by the censorship, social taboos, governmental dictates or religious conservatism that shackle many existing institutions—and publications, for that matter—in the region today. And herein lies his power: He can showcase and publish nudes and political works, both of which constitute a defining segment of twentieth-century Arab art by providing a holistic representation of the era not available elsewhere.
Ramzi Dalloul’s 3,500-piece collection will demonstrate the diversity and boldness of creative responses by Arab artists to the complex realities afflicting the region
By tracing over a century of art production, the indefatigable Dalloul seeks to build awareness and pride amongst all Arabs. More importantly, he is determined to help negotiate a firm place for a united Arab world against a destructive narrative of radicalism and internal conflicts by expanding the international reach of Arab art. The establishment of the museum is a symbolic step to change the way we talk about the region. It will complement the laudable undertakings already in place and help shape an impartial understanding of an important aspect of our present-day cultural achievements. By providing a comprehensive survey of visual arts from the entire region—from Morocco to Yemen and everywhere in between—Dalloul’s 3,500-piece collection will demonstrate the diversity and boldness of creative responses by Arab artists to the complex realities afflicting the region. In fact, it will prove that our regional struggles and suffering provide substantial—though at times uncomfortable—material that allows our artists to tower above those from other regions.
In Dalloul’s collection, Egypt plays a fundamental role in shaping the Arab narrative and has a steady budget allocated for acquisitions. Historically known for its culture, avant-garde thinking and religious tolerance, Egypt paved the way for the emergence of fine arts (or fenoon gamila) since the establishment of the Ecole des beaux-arts—the first in the Arab world—in 1908.
The earliest work by an Egyptian artist in the Dalloul collection is Agnès: Portrait à la capeline bleue (ca. 1929) by Georges Sabbagh. Depicting his wife, Agnes Humbert, the painting belongs to the phase of classicism when Egyptian artists applied European academic skills acquired through instruction by foreign artists or studies in Europe to draw on naturalism and transcribe the present. Seven magnificent nudes, characteristic of Sabbagh, singularize the collection.
Mohamed Naghi and Youssef Kamel are among the painters who represent ‘al–rowwad’ (the pioneers) in the collection. This term is used to designate the first generation of Egyptian artists who initiated an authentic Egyptian movement and fostered the cultural ideology of a pluralistic national identity inclusive of ordinary people. Ramzi Dalloul’s collection includes the works Bain des chevaux à Rosette (1950) and Le port de Beyrouth (1954), two paintings by Mahmoud Saïd. Works by Said are the most expensive works by any Egyptian artist.
The collection also includes Au Bord du Nil, a 1930s bronze sculpture by Mahmoud Mokhtar, Egypt’s renaissance sculptor and the first Egyptian artist to go on a scholarship to Europe. Mokhtar’s work demonstrates the pioneers’ efforts to move away from pure stylistic borrowing and to mould a neo-Pharaonic Egyptian identity with an explicit sense of modernity whereby the female peasant (fellaha) is the central figure in the narrative of Egypt’s modern history, personifying the land of Egypt itself.
Failure to achieve independence from the British and the striking socio-economic disparities between the minuscule westernized elite and the remaining bulk of the population influenced the second generation of Egyptian artists. These themes find resonance in the works of the rebellious artists of the Art and Liberty Group such as Ramsès Younan and Ezéquiel Baroukh, as well as Inji Efflatoun– who was not a member of the group but rather a student while in her late teens of one of its founders, Kamel el-Telmissany. Represented in the collection by outstanding rare works, these three artists disregarded academism and used surrealism to explore the subconscious and to depict the ‘sick’ and ‘oppressive’ society of the 1940s. The short-lived, radical movement, in stark contrast to the pioneering first generation, would have major repercussions on the thinking and artistic styles of the third generation of artists, the Contemporary Art Group, represented in the collection by the stunning Moulid of Dervishes (1951) by Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar and Femme à la fleur (1952) by Samir Rafi.
Independent artists such Seif Wanly, Effat Naghi, Hassan Soliman, Gamal el-Segini, Hamed Abdallah, Hussein Bicar, Mahmoud Moussa and Salah Abdel Kerim add to the amalgamation of styles that strengthen the Egyptian narrative. As the Egyptian collection continues to grow, it provides a comprehensive snapshot of the key movements and prominent artists of the modern era, and in turn advances and complements the collective Arab discourse.
While the collection of works by Egyptian artists is an intellectually coveted and well-timed initiative, it is also Egypt’s missed opportunity. On one hand, it revives the long-forgotten concept of grand scale private patronage at the service of the public that shaped the arts sector in Egypt during the first half of the twentieth century. It also provides long overdue recognition of Egypt’s role as the incubator of a pivotal intellectual movement, el-nahda, and its position as the Arab cultural centre par excellence until the 1960s.
On the other hand, it raises questions as to why the Egyptian Ministry of Culture continues to ignore the unparalleled patrimony that falls under its jurisdiction—much of which is currently in storage—and fails to recognize the potential of this treasure as a means of embracing global culture and advancing diplomatic relations. More distressing though, the choice that Dalloul made to establish his museum in Beirut and not in Cairo confirms that Egypt’s obscure regulations continue to alienate and push away potential investors. The ambiguous legislative framework, the excessive lead times and tariffs on importing and exporting, the fear of artwork confiscation as well as the crippling bureaucracy, constitute the most severe obstacles to setting up a private museum in Egypt. In contrast, Beirut, a city of over one million inhabitants, has been witnessing an impressive flow of cultural programmes in recent years. The opening of several privately-funded museums, a proliferation of non-profit and commercial art spaces and the recent renovation of a number of public museums are all initiatives that will cement an important place for Lebanon as an attractive cultural and touristic hub in the region.
Ramzi Dalloul provides an alternative Arab narrative, reshaping it from one of extremism and oppression to one of creative and intellectual achievements. The planned museum will not just be a celebration of Arab visual memory, but rather, the recognition of our own identity and a reflection on a fragment of the multi-dimensional history of the region. And as his name implies—Ramzi comes from ‘ramz’, which means ‘sign’ or ‘symbol’—one expects the museum to be a symbolic legacy.
All images courtesy of the ‘Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation’.
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Fatenn Mostafa Kanafani is the founder of ArtTalks | Egypt, a leading interdisciplinary, Cairo-based art space dedicated to the management of selected Egyptian artists’ estates in addition to providing exhibition, publication, education and archiving services. She is currently working on her first book on the interface between politics and the visual arts in Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century.