During the first half of the twentieth century, a number of vibrant art hubs flourished in Cairo and beyond. Some eccentric, others more earnest, collectively, they nurtured some of Egypt’s most celebrated modern artists and contributed a spontaneous richness to the burgeoning local art scene.
The art hubs that emerged in Egypt during the early twentieth century were electrifying places where modern movements mixed with history and tradition to produce some of the most exciting art to come out of Egypt. In spite of this, most remain vastly understudied and we can only piece together the origins and development from sporadic individual accounts and personal document collections.
The early hubs appeared organically in Fatimid Cairo and were central to the nascent modern art movement. They were soon followed by more formal or state-sponsored initiatives in different Egyptian cities. Interestingly, while each hub had a different philosophy, the independent and the institutional ones were never in conflict with each other. Each hub maintained its individuality, but collectively they coalesced into a phenomenon that faithfully reflected the social and political contexts of Egypt throughout the twentieth century.
It all started at al-Khurunfish …
The first gathering place for artists in Egypt is said to have been al-Khurunfish Street at the north end of Fatimid Cairo. At the end of the nineteenth century, European artists, painters and Orientalists gravitated towards al-Khurunfish for its charm but they soon found it much too remote and inaccessible to host exhibits. The first exhibition put together by the Orientalist group of al-Khurunfish artists was in 1891 and was ambitiously held at the Khedivial Opera House. At the time, the opera house was frequented by Egyptian royalty and nobility as well as by the foreign community of patrons and collectors who resided in the emerging quartier of Ismailia (now Downtown Cairo). It took nine more years before the artists of al-Khurunfish were able to put on a second exhibit, this time in the shop of the famed antiquarian Nahman on al-Madabegh Street (currently Sherif Street, Downtown Cairo) in 1902. When the Ecole des beaux-arts was eventually established at Darb el-Gamamiz in 1908, many instructors were recruited from the formidable talent pool of al-Khurunfish artists.
A Century of Creativity at La maison des artistes
In 1910, Pierre Beppi-Martin (1869–1954), one of the participants in the 1902 exhibition, discovered the eighteenth-century house that was to become known as La maison des artistes. It soon became the new ‘in’ place for likeminded artists for most of the twentieth century. Located at the entrance of the cobblestoned alley, Darb al-Labbana, in the shadow of the Citadel, La maison des artistes originally belonged to Ali Labib, then passed on to the Awqaf (Endowments) and the Comité de conservation des monuments de l’art arabe which classified it as an Islamic monument (Index 497) and rented it out to tenants. In 2010, a commemorative plaque was placed at its entrance in remembrance of Beppi-Martin who was at the core of the community of artists who eventually came to inhabit the house.
L’atelier hosted exhibits of the works of European artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henry Moore and Auguste Rodin.
In the years following World War I, many changes took place at La maison des artistes. First, Beppi-Martin’s sojourn was interrupted for almost a decade. Upon his return from France in 1922, he was forced to give up living there because of the inconvenience to his new family. He continued to maintain a studio there and was soon joined by emerging Egyptian painters such as Mohamed Naghi (1888–1956) and Ragheb Ayad (1892–1982). By the thirties, La maison des artistes had acquired a bohemian reputation that qualified it for a new title, ‘the Montmartre of Cairo’. Both were communities of artists located in the shadow of dominating monuments, the Sacré-Coeur in Paris and the Citadel at the Muqattam Hills in Cairo. In contrast to Montmartre’s predominant Frenchness however, La maison des artistes housed a mix of Egyptian and resident expatriate (khawagat) artists whose diverse interests ranged from classical, impressionist and modern painting to sculpture, architecture, literature and other forms of free expression. The impressionist artist Sanad Basta (1903–1964) lived there for a while and shared a studio with Labib Tadros (1894–1943) who died tragically young. Mounir Canaan (1919–1999), Raouf Abdel Meguid (1932–1991) and several more artists also stayed there at different times.
As a space for inspiration and creativity, La maison des artistes also attracted non-painters. After his return from Greece in the sixties, architect Hassan Fathy (1900–1989) resided on the top floor for almost three decades. This space also became his studio and served as the headquarters for his lifelong environmental and academic dream, the short-lived Institute for Appropriate Technology (IFAT). The contemporaneous Arabic novelist Fathi Ghanem (1924–1999), who also lived in the house, found in Hassan Bey—as Hassan Fathy was known—inspiration for his novel al-Gabal (The Mountain) which recounts the difficulties encountered during the construction of the New Gourna village in the mid-forties. Hassan Fathy’s short novel al-Mashrabiya, which was never published in Egypt, was rehearsed on one of the terraces of La maison des artistes—probably exclusively for the benefit of the residents and habitués.
Living in La maison des artistes was a quintessential Orientalist experience. The tenants all competed in collecting traditional furniture and architectural salvage from demolished medieval and Mameluke houses as well as in organizing evening parties of all flavours. Prince Sadrudin Agha Khan even rented a floor there at one time to accommodate guests who fancied a taste of the “Oriental” lifestyle. Yuri Miloslavsky (or simply Milo) who lived there till the 1960s was an Eastern European Jew who taught French for a living. His passion for collecting objets d’art led him to organize an exhibition in the courtyard of La maison des artistes in 1942. A folder of photos left behind by Milo and found in Hassan Fathy’s photographic collection reveals the flamboyant evening parties that were held in the main loggias and courtyards of the house. Some were performances of zikr, others of oriental dancing or guitar and were attended by a veritable who’s who of the Egyptian art and social scene.
Unsurprisingly, the eccentricity and vibrancy of La maison des artistes attracted members of the Egyptian surrealist movement known as al-Fann wal-Hurriya (Art and Liberty) who used the house as their headquarters in the mid-forties. Two of the movement’s prominent members, Ramsès Younan (1913–1966) and the poet Edmond Jabès (1912–1991) also resided at the house. They were often joined by Angelo de Riz who also lived on Darb al-Labbana Alley in a similar traditional house which was later demolished.
As the years went by, many of the residents died or left the house and it gradually lost importance as an art hub. The death knell for this unique space was structural damage caused by the 1992 Cairo earthquake. Twenty-four years later, however, La maison des artistes was restored and reincarnated as Bayt al-Mi‘mar (House of Architecture). Inaugurated by the Minister of Culture in April 2016, today the house serves as a museum and repository for modern Egyptian architecture in a fitting tribute to its colourful past.
In the cosmopolitan coastal city of Alexandria, art hubs similar in model to al-Khurunfish and La maison des artistes never took off in the same way. Instead, Alexandria natives Mohamed Naghi and Gaston Zananiri jointly founded L’atelier d’Alexandrie in the mid-1930s modelled after the Athens Atelier that they had visited together in 1934. Although L’atelier as a word bespeaks singularity, it was composed of a cluster of day-use, non-residential studios dedicated to independent artists. Self-financed and administrated by Alexandria’s wealthy investors and intelligentsia, L’atelier also hosted exhibits of the works of European artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henry Moore and Auguste Rodin. This consolidated its reputation as a cosmopolitan meeting point for Alexandrian and European artists.
With the 1952 revolution, L’atelier was sequestrated and lost its independence. Gradually, the number of European artists who frequented it diminished but the locals remained faithful. Many of them eventually went on to help with the establishment of another type of art hub: The Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries, which was officially established in 1955 by the Alexandria Museum of Fine Arts at Moharram Bey with the close cooperation of L’atelier’s artists.
The Search for Identity at Luxor’s al-Marssam
Yet another art node is credited to the prolific Mohamed Naghi. As World War II unfolded, travel was banned and consequently scholarships and fellowships for Egyptian students in Europe dried up. To fill this gap, Naghi founded al-Marssam (literally the studio or atelier) in the former house of Shaykh Ali Abdel Rassoul almost at the foot of the Colossi of Memnon in al-Gourna village on Luxor’s West Bank. Naghi’s purpose was to move beyond the ‘stones’ visited by tourists and to open the eyes of future artists to their own culture. This concept was immediately endorsed by the enlightened intellectual Taha Hussein, as well as by Abdel Razek al-Sanhoury, who headed Wizaret al-Maʿaref (equivalent to today’s Ministry of Education) at the time.
Hamed Said (1908–2006) was one of the earliest directors of al-Marssam. Salah Taher (1911–2007) was an instructor there at the same time and eventually also became director in 1952. Adam Henein (b. 1929) spent 1953 there and many years later founded the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium. Having spent a season at al-Marssam, Hamed Nada (1924–1990), a second generation Egyptian surrealist, became one of its board members in 1956. The surrealist Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar (1925–1966) spent the season of 1965 there and later joined its teaching faculty.
From 1959 until its closure in 1967, al-Marssam also became the destination of choice for the tafarugh (art sabbatical) fellowship students. This programme was spearheaded by Hamed Said and provided grants for students that allowed them to work full-time on their art. Among many of the tafarugh students who spent an internship at the start of their careers at al-Marssam were Ezzeldin Naguib (b. 1940), Sayed Abdel Rassoul (1917–1995), and Youssef Francis (1934–2001). During the Grands Projets years of the sixties, minister of culture Tharwat Okasha benefitted greatly from the tafarugh youth already based at al-Marssam. They joined and assisted the` delegations that were commissioned to artistically document all aspects of life in Nubia before the construction of the High Dam flooded its richness. Under Hassan Fathy’s supervision, a few tafarugh fellows also documented the vernacular architecture of the town of Nagada, most of which no longer exists.
The Cairo Art Hub Boom
In the second half of the twentieth century, Cairo witnessed the establishment of several flourishing art hubs. The Cairo Atelier was founded in 1953 and immediately became the headquarters for the eponymous Cairo Atelier Society founded by Mohamed Naghi and Ragheb Ayad. Most likely, the Cairo Atelier was founded to counter what was seen as al-Fann wal-Hurriya’s (Art and Liberty’s) wild art ideologies that originated at La maison des artistes where some of its members lived.
By the late fifties, the success of Luxor’s al-Marssam and the glamour of La maison des artistes prompted the Cairo Atelier to convert three more traditional houses into artist studios but it was impossible to replicate the flamboyant, organic atmosphere of La maison des artistes. The first two, al-Mussafirkhana Palace, located on Qasr al-Shawq Alley and burnt down in 1998, and Wikalet al-Ghury, were in Fatimid Cairo, close to al-Khurunfish Street, home to the earliest art hub. Many prominent artists had ateliers at al-Mussafirkhana including Abdel Wahab Morsi, Hamed Nada, Salah Taher, Farghaly Abdel Hafiz and Hassan Soliman. Other such as Ali Dessouki, Hassan Abdel Fattah and Ragheb Iskandar still maintain their duplex studios at Wikalet al-Ghury. For a time, Ezzeldin Naguib even had a studio in both establishments.
Of lesser fame was the Ottoman-styled Manasterly Palace (1851) at the southern tip of Rhoda Island. It became the headquarters for Hamed Said’s (1908–2006) weekly meetings of al-Fann wal-Hayyah (the Art and Life) Group and for its exhibitions. Said’s vernacular private residence in the remote al-Marg district also became an art salon where the intelligentsia and artists of the fifties and sixties gathered in unofficial groups.
In retrospect, the fingerprints of both Pierre Beppi-Martin and Mohamed Naghi are visible throughout the art hub movement. They created spaces that encouraged artists to explore in freedom and greatly enriched Egyptian cultural life at the time. Today, these art hubs have largely been replaced by modern cultural centres and art residency programmes, but no matter how active these new initiatives are, they cannot compare to the originality, spontaneity and sheer exuberance of the twentieth-century art hubs.
Beit al-Mi‘mar (formerly La maison des artistes): 4 Darb al-Labbana Alley, Citadel Square, Fatimid Cairo.
L’atelier d’Alexandrie: 6 Victor Bassili Street, al-Pharaana, al-Azarita, Alexandria.
The Cairo Atelier: 2 Karim al-Dawla Street, off Mahmoud Bassiouny, Downtown Cairo.
Manasterly Palace: At the southern tip of Rhoda Island, Cairo.
Wikalet al-Ghury: Al-Azhar Street, between al-Ghuriya and al-Azhar Mosques, Fatimid Cairo.
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Ola Seif is an art historian, freelance photographer and collector of Egypt-related visuals. In her book (1990) and MA thesis (2005) on the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, she mapped the district and traced its historical development from a residential to a commercial neighbourhood. Her current research interests include the pioneer European photographers in Egypt and Antoine Selim Nahas’s modern architecture in Cairo.