Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents – Art and Arab Life, a Questionnaire

The publication, Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents (2018), edited by Anneka Lenssen, Sarah Rogers, and Nada Shabout, offers an unprecedented resource for the study of modernism: a compendium of critical art writings by twentieth-century Arab intellectuals and artists. The selection of texts—many of which appear for the first time in English—includes manifestos, essays, transcripts of roundtable discussions, diary entries, letters, and the guest-book comments including those featured here. Traversing empires and nation-states, diasporas and speculative cultural and political federations, the book’s documents bring light to the formation of a global modernism, through debates on originality, public space, spiritualism and art, postcolonial exhibition politics, and Arab nationalism, among many other topics. The collection is framed chronologically, and includes contextualizing commentaries to assist readers in navigating its broad geographic and historical scope. Interspersed throughout the volume are sixteen contemporary essays: writings by scholars on key terms and events as well as personal reflections by modern artists who were themselves active in the histories under consideration. A newly commissioned essay by historian and Arab-studies scholar Ussama Makdisi provides a historical overview of the region’s intertwined political and cultural developments during the twentieth century.

Art and Arab Life, a Questionnaire

Publication al-Adab
Date 1956
Language Arabic

“Where do our arts stand with regard to the consciousness that is blossoming in the Arab nation?” This question was posed in 1956 in a questionnaire on “Art and Arab Life” that was circulated to artists in Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria in a special issue devoted to the arts of the Arab world of the Beirut-based, pan-Arab journal al-Adab, which was established in 1953 as an outlet for politically engaged thought and cultural analysis. The resulting answers reflect a diversity of viewpoints on the status of the arts vis-à-vis burgeoning independent nations, cultural heritage, and historical tradition, as well as on the legacies of colonial artistic influence.

The questionnaire, here represented in full, was excerpted for the 2018 publication Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary DocumentsTo access a PDF of the original roundtable in Arabic and other sources translated for the book, please visit the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran and Turkey (AMCA) website.

Page from al-Adab. January 1956

Art and Us

In presenting this special edition, we are led to ask ourselves about the state of art in the Arab world in this period in which a true awareness is violently impelling us to renew our strength and exploit our potential. There is no doubt that the answer to this question will point to the state of the artistic sense within our being, indicating whether it is healthy or ill, whether it is active or ailing. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the artistic sense of a particular nation is a measure of its quality of life and its ability to create a civilization.

To what extent is this artistic sense healthy within our being?

Upon reviewing the state of contemporary Arab arts—including painting, sculpture, photography, music, singing, dance, theater, and cinema—those who know a bit about culture will find no difficulty in recognizing that those arts collectively inspire a sense of reassurance, and may promise a better future than their current reality.

Without fear of generalizing, we can say that all of these arts suffer, first and foremost, from the fact that they have not found a distinctive personal style, a style that would convey their characteristics. These arts have nearly lost their character, and for this reason, they are on the verge of being exposed as unworthy of immortality.

There may be individual painters who have found a particular style that reflects the integration of a character with clear features. However, they are all a long way from making painting an art with distinctive traits that are the result of inspiration from the geographical environment and social milieus, and from the historical heritage. It is rare that we find in the effects of our painters a focused direction, whether psychological or social. Although there are ties that could bind a number of these painters together to form a group, these ties generally fail to indicate a clear trend, let alone an outlined school. Perhaps the most prominent shortcoming that appears in painting in our region is that many who practice this art form are more likely to incorporate the characteristics of foreign schools of art—at the expense of seeking vibrant and genuine inspiration from the reality of their own lives and the lives of their people. Such painters do not have proper awareness of the issue of content, for if they did, they also would have proper awareness of form. Let any one of us question, upon seeing Surrealist, Cubist, or abstract paintings, the value of the psychological and artistic development that their creators went through before reaching this stage in their production!

We might not be wrong to say the same about our region’s sculpture, which is the brother of its painting. Most works produced in sculpture have, until now, been limited to statues of great, important, and notable figures; rare are the works that are produced by an “idea,” or that depict a “condition,” or denote a “trend.” Rather, in all cases they remain linked to the principle of commerce—a principle that is forever fated to corrupt the artistry of any work that seeks to be artistic. Among the reasons for this—or the results of this—may be the fact that we have yet to have the chance to see exquisite sculptural work that aspires to stand before one of those foreign works carved by nervous, creative fingers through whose veins runs the essence of sacrifice and burning inspiration.

As for instrumental music in our region, it verges on being absent. We cannot find a single Arab musician who has tried to compose a complete piece of music that expresses a thematic unity, such as the well-known classical works that, based in science, enjoy undisputed aesthetic value. It is almost strange that our modern musicians evidence such shortcomings in musical capacity, and that their utmost in composing is to make melodies to accompany the genre of poetic material being sung. As for sung music, it falls into one of two categories: The first is popular music, which may have personal characteristics. However, it is nearly petrified, for it is not developing, and it remains in a primitive state insofar as it is not following a course to becoming art. The second illegitimate form, in its claims to represent a renewal, is dependent on stealing foreign melodies without even attempting to be influenced or enriched by them, or to draw from them.

Whether this music is instrumental or sung, it has created for itself, within the realm of expression, a suffocating framework in which melodies and tunes revolve only around the subject of bemoaned love. This music is guilty of the greatest negligence in attempting to emulate the consciousness that the Arab nation is struggling to bring forth.

In terms of dance, I believe that no country has seen a deterioration like the one that has occurred in our countries. Individual dancing, almost entirely restricted to silly bodily movements based on repetition, shaking, and vibrations, lacks any artistic flair. Indeed, this dancing aims to arouse the senses in a superficial manner incapable of producing any refined pleasure. As for popular group dancing (folkloric dancing), it is virtually nonexistent, and there is not anyone who attributes any artistic value to this dance in its modern form.

Theater and cinema are what remain, and they are—outside of Egypt—nearly nonexistent. Within Egypt, the former has made significant headway but it has been unable to reach an artistic level that would satisfy an informed intellectual. We do not need to stop too long to consider cinema, as its value is deteriorating in all aspects. As such, it is no exaggeration to describe the cinema as being in a state of decline.

Now then, I am not painting a bleak picture of art in our region, but rather detailing the reality of the situation. What can we conclude from this review? Is our artistic sense ailing? Or has our ability to produce beautiful works of art disappeared, or at the very least, been reduced?

I myself am not able to answer these questions, for to do so would require that I study the subject more faithfully than I have—despite the fact that I consider this quick overview to be close to the truth, for it represents what many believe to be true, even though they may disagree as to why. 

However, I believe that publishing this special issue on the arts, both Arab and Western, is a broad way of posing the questions: Where do our arts stand in terms of the consciousness that is blossoming in the Arab nation in this period? Is it possible for us to discern from the current state of these arts anything that points us away from pessimism and toward more positive signs about the future, in either the short or long term?

I doubt that the literature of our region, in terms of poetry and the novel at least, finds itself in a better state than that of the plastic arts. In order to experience a civilizational renaissance that is fruitful and productive, we should be provided with this important aspect—the artistic aspect—in the life of every idea. This art must be maintained at a high level to ensure that our artistic sense is alive and well.

—Souheil Idriss

Artists’ Questionnaire: “Art and Arab Life” (1956)

Modern Arab societies have gone through important periods of development and growth, to which numerous factors have contributed—and art has been one of these driving, influential factors. What role has art played in the field of your specialty (painting, music, theater, cinema, etc.) in terms of its impact on Arab society, and in terms of the impact of Arab society on it?

al-Adab posed this question to a group of people working in art in different Arab countries and received from them the following responses:

Response of Mr. Moustafa Farroukh (Lebanon)

If we examine the truth of our artistic production, and its relationship with our reality and our lives, we find that everything connected with culture in the Arab world is unconnected to anything of our reality. We find that chaos, unbelief, and turmoil dominate our reality and that the Arab thinker “lives in one valley” while the rest of the Arab nation lives in another completely.

Art, as one of the elements of culture and guidance, is rarely linked to our current reality. It fumbles about in the chaos of different foreign artistic currents. It is not inspired, whether in small or large part, by personal or national feelings, with the exception of certain phenomena. Most of this art was transferred or copied from foreign arts.

And we can see that art in Lebanon—which we might claim to be more developed than the other Arab countries due to its antiquity as well as for other reasons—is for the most part a copy, an imitation, and a repetition of foreign arts. Rarely does it express its reality, or derive from its surroundings and history or from personal feelings.

I do not wish to narrate events or to disclose certain artistic scandals; this is not my goal. Instead, I will leave this to time and the people’s cultural development, which will guarantee that all of it comes to light.

In sum, the dominant spirit of art in our region is a spirit of commercialism and the endless pursuit of money. Any careful observer will note that the jealousy, animosity, disaffection, and loss of communication between artists all comprise irrefutable evidence of the soundness of this statement. Thus, one does not hope that present-day art will undergo improvement or revival, for art anywhere in the world—and including in Lebanon—must be based on a spirit of love, and an artistic work must be for the sake of art and nothing but that.

As for the state of art in the rest of the Arab countries, it is no better off. Most of this art is based on copying and imitating art movements established in Europe, without making any attempt to deny this or to draw inspiration from the present realities and exigencies of Arab countries. At the same time, the mission of art, as we know, is the truthful expression of the feelings and reality of the nation.

For all these reasons, I am of the opinion that true artists must move away from the idea of commercialism and work solely for the sake of the art. They must seek inspiration from within themselves and from the nature of their countries, clearly after studying the principles and laws of art in proper art schools. Then they must leave behind the idea of commercialism and the acquisition of wealth, for art has never, throughout its long history, been a means of acquiring money and wealth. Finally, the adherents of art in our countries must not let envy permeate their being. Instead, they should possess a beautiful spirit and a good character, for this is the fertile soil in which true art can be established, and from which it can carry out its noble mission.

Response of Mr. Kaiser al-Jamil (Lebanon)

There is no relationship between our current reality and our artistic production. The artist has lived throughout the ages in a world of pleasure, pain, and imagination. He has lived among the people, with legends and the gods of legends. He, like the poet, if shaken by a sudden real event, will resort to symbolism to express his feelings.

Our social reality is not devoid of alluring novelty. If an artist is affected by this novelty, and if it penetrates the depths, he will transform it into a painting or sculpture, or compose it into a poem. However, adherence to reality limits the imagination and results in codification, which the artist’s nature abhors and to which it refuses to submit. I wish to say that the value of the subject of a painting is very insignificant, for the painting is in itself an independent artistic work—it is the world of the artist, in which he gathers his things, orders them, and then bestows on them from his mind and heart what tinges them with this strange hue that is what the tune is to the string, what the scent is to perfume, and what love is to the heart.

Response of Mr. Rachid Wehbe (Lebanon)

It is well known that art is considered the truthful mirror of every people. Indeed, it seeks inspiration from images of its past and its heritage, and it expresses its present and portrays its desires and hopes for the future. As such, art is a symbol of the spirit of that people. It echoes their responses to their environment and times, and in doing so presents a vibrant picture of life over time. If we search in the light of this truth for the relationship between our artistic production and our current reality, we will not find it to be a closely linked relationship. This is because, if we mention certain artistic works that attempt to approach this reality, and its stamping by national traits, we cannot forget that our present artistic production is represented by the theory of “art is for art’s sake,” where art exists in its ivory tower, far from the environment and the people; and literary ideas remain secondary to formal considerations, which center artistic value around the creation of a harmonious composition of volumes, lines, and colors.

Even though this theory enjoys a great deal of support from international artistic circles, we should nevertheless take into account our specific circumstances, as a people who are building for history, and ensure that we improve the alignment of the pillars onto which our solid edifice will be raised, so that our works present a true picture of what we feel and experience. Art is one of the most prominent of the intellectual aspects that accompany the renaissances of nations. The true artist is the person who lives in his environment, searching and inquiring in order to convey the feelings and impressions that influence him. Art in our region suffers from the foreign influences that nearly divert it from its ideal direction and separate it from our current realities. In many cases, our production comes as if it were another image from those schools whose artistic principles we have borrowed or taken. Drawing from others is necessary to develop our artistic culture, yet there is a major difference between consciously drawing from another’s work and adopting his ideas to the point of becoming lost in his personality, estranged from our context and our environment. Here, in order to successfully navigate this critical stage of our artistic life, we should work to liberate ourselves from all that obstructs our proper nationalist direction, in order to be rid of all foreign influence on our artistic thinking and to establish sound foundations for the independence of our artistic personality. We must search for this personality in our Eastern, Lebanese surroundings, which are full of vibrant, exciting light, as well as in our glorious national heritage and in the subjects that have value for us. We should remember that these surroundings have already enchanted Western artists and served as a source of innovation and inspiration for them. What would be more appropriate for us, as we revive these surroundings, than to draw from them the impetus for an elevated artistic production, consistent with our environmental circumstances—which we sense more fully than anyone else. Let us adopt them as a basis on which we plant the foundations of our artistic renaissance, that very renaissance we are working to bring about. And let us move forward by its light with strength, determination, and faith.

Response of Mr. Fouad Kamel (Egypt)

The art of Mahmoud Said is considered the first stage in the history of modern Egyptian art. He who researches Said’s two paintings zhat al-jada’il al-zhahabeyya [The One with Golden Locks] and ad-da’wa ila as-safar [A Call to Travel] will see in them the logical and emotional development of an artist who wished to link his studies of Western composition—including of light, shadow, and perspective—to the heritage of Coptic and Islamic art, so as to grow with his art in terms of humanism and populism. 

Just prior to 1940, sets of liberated ideas began to be formulated, based on a social awareness built on a material and psychological understanding. The magazine at-Tatawwur [Development] and then al-Majalla al-Jadeeda [The New Magazine] continued to publish these ideas, alongside the activities of the Art and Liberty group, who organized exhibitions of free art. We saw for the first time in modern history a union between art and literature, for the sake of achieving a revolutionary social language. Egypt read the poetry of George Hanin, the stories of Albert Cossery, and the articles of Anwar Kamel, Hussein Yousef Amin, and Yousef al-Afifi. It also saw the images of Ramses Younan, Kamel al-Telmasany, and Fouad Kamel. A revolutionary spirit filled the air, denouncing the facts of this corrupt life. Images and hopes of a new life were crafted out of the symbols of this dream.

Yousef al-Afifi and Hussein Yousef Amin made a significant contribution to the field of art education by developing the “New Awareness” current, and especially when Yousef al-Afifi dedicated himself to establishing the Higher Institute of Art Education for Teachers. A generation, led by Mahmoud Y. el-Bassiouny, Hamdy Khamees, Saad al-Khadim, and Latfy Zakki, completed their studies abroad. They resumed the work of spreading artistic awareness by forming art schools in public education.

The Contemporary Art group, established by Hussein Yousef Amin, drew from Egyptian legend and popular literature as the basis for its philosophy. It also took the tools used in daily life as forms for its artistic composition. Myth emerged for the first time from the literary domain into the realm of form and color. We find in the art of Aj-Jazzar and Hamed Nada a trend that is more compatible in this respect, while we find in the paintings of Samir Rafa’, Ibrahim Massa’ouda, Kamel Yousef, Mahmoud Khalil, and Salem Habashy certain subjective, rational, or poetic traits that are the result of the encounter with world cultures. As for art criticism and its value in defining and creating artistic currents, there was no clearly defined dogmatic criticism prior to the writings, lectures, and discussions of George Hanin, Yousef al-Afifi, Hussein Yousef Amin, Erik de Ghosh, and Cyril de Bou. This criticism and argumentation was only rarely published in the press. Rather, it was circulated within the art community and at private events. These discussions played an important role in forming and developing numerous artistic personalities.

We cannot ignore the importance of the attempts of Ahmed Rassem, who wrote for the first time to the Arab Library about modern Egyptian art in its first stages. We must also note that Rassem was interested in presenting the art of Kamel al-Telmasani in a lengthy article in the al-Ahram newspaper.

It was necessary for critics to emerge to re-create the history of Egyptian art and awaken the youth to its treasures and sources. Philip Darscott wrote and provided general images in which he chronicled and critiqued modern trends, yet he did not adopt a specific viewpoint, in contrast to the critic Aimé Azar, whose book The History of Modern Art in Egypt is comprised of six parts. After establishing a philosophy and objective for the book, Azar gathered together an assortment of modern Egyptian art. We should mention the crime that is committed by the Egyptian press today against these rising generations through its atrocious disregard for art criticism—or its recourse to personalities who are not knowledgeable or studied in either the origins of criticism or providing guidance. Numerous artistic personalities attempt to continue producing art, and they come together or split apart when showing their works. We find Yousef Sayyeda, Taheyya Haleem, Hassan al-Telmasani, Hamed Abdullah, Fathi al-Bakri, Ezzeddin Hamouda, Saleh Yosri, and Walim Ishaq, and yet this is an irresolute and ambiguous continuation.

Since 1953, Egyptian artists have felt the need to establish more vibrant arenas in which to display their developing art. Discussions in some of the newspapers have begun to ask about the role of art in relation to society, and debates have been initiated regarding the methods of realism in art—thereby following the current trend of freethinking that began with the establishment of the Art and Liberty group. Today we see that the Egyptian artist is nearly suffocating in his own art. If he does not set out for new horizons, armed with a progressive awareness of art and science, this artistic generation will be doomed to annihilation, and Egypt will continue to wait for another new generation to hold its dreams in their minds and hearts. These new horizons are the mural arts. And fortunately, the modern Egyptian artist has a long artistic heritage at his disposal, beginning with cave paintings from the prehistoric era and including pharaonic art and the art of churches and mosques. These different images and various materials can well serve as a fertile source for study, revival, and development. The Egyptian artist may be assured that the mural is also found in modern artistic heritage, as in the creations of Mexico’s artists such as [José Clemente] Orozco, [Diego] Rivera, and [Rufino] Tamayo, which occupy government buildings, halls of science, theaters, restaurants, and all the popular institutions. These are tall, broad pages, on which developed, modern artistic principles may be manifested in murals, without slipping into prevalent academic taste.

Today’s insightful critic senses the seeds of this art in the works of Hamed Nada in its latest phase.

The collective dreams of today should push beyond the limits of the frame and the salons, to be rejuvenated and to live under the sun, before the eyes of millions.

Response of Mr. Hamed Abdalla (Egypt)

Art and society simultaneously influence and are influenced by each other. The true artist takes reality as his raw material. He does not convey this reality literally, but rather revives it through his whole living being, “viewing it from within” as he creates it anew as a more vibrant reality. Society is also impacted by art and responds to its inspiration. For this reason, the content of art is the content of life. 

As for the artists who, adhering to pure formalism, imagine that pedantically creating empty forms is art, or the artists who imitate external reality or depict it in an anecdotal manner, considering art to be a means of comprehension and not an actual modality of knowledge, or who create art for the purpose of propaganda in any of its forms—those artists represent superficiality and stagnation in art, for they are only grazing the surface of life.

We note that every phase of society’s development is also a phase of the development of art and all sorts of ways of thinking. We find in Egyptian society’s phases of struggle—in the middle of this century, for example, for the cause of independence—that modern Egyptian representational art has been liberated from the influence of Western art and has been guided to its correct path: connected with its ancient, inherited past, and with the well of the art of the people and their traditions, adopting the principles of the artistic origins of the ancient East without imitating them, in contrast to the artistic origins of the West, which observe the rules of perspective painting, or the personification through the Modèle or Modulation. Those original principles of the West aimed to depict objects as seen by the eye without regard for their truth, and constitute a certain submission to the false appearance of nature—the principle that the contemporary West rejected when it abandoned easel painting for wall painting.

Hamed Abdalla. Lovers.1956. Gouache on crumpled silk and cardboard. 35 x 26 cm. Abdalla Family Collection

Response of Mr. Hamdy Ghaith (Egypt)

I would like us first to agree on the concept of the word theater, which is contained in the question. The theater, as I understand it, is this work or that artistic phenomenon that we see in the Dar al-Ta’lil and that comprises the literary text as well as production and acting in all their elements of movement, gesture, rhythm, music, sound, silence, lighting, and decor. In this way, theater becomes the complete dramatic act, not just the written play—for the written play, as long as it remains such, is not a theatrical act but merely a literary work.

If we understand the word theater in this way, then we are able to say that theater cannot influence nationalist thought, because it is, by nature, a result of this nationalist thinking, meaning, it follows from it rather than precedes it. If theater in Egypt (as opposed to Egyptian theater) has influenced nationalist thinking, this influence is reflected only in the men behind it, in that the producer and the actor have surpassed the playwright. This is because theater in Egypt began through the translation of Western literature. As such, its sole influence is in having established the art form of drama in Egyptian literature. If we wish to speak about theater in terms of the literary text that we call the play, it cannot be said that theater has influenced or been influenced by nationalist thought. This is because nationalist thought is a continuous current that takes on various forms, including the novel, poetry, photography, and plays. It cannot be said that the novel, for example, has influenced nationalist thought or been influenced by it, as the story itself is among the forms of this thought.

Thus, it is not possible to speak about the extent to which Egyptian theater has influenced or been influenced by nationalist thought. However, we can ask whether Egyptian theater has moved in pace with nationalist thought, or lagged behind it.

The nationalist thought contemporaneous to the establishment of Egyptian theater was itself what paved the way for the revolution of 1919. It preached political and social liberation. As for Egyptian theater, we unfortunately have to affirm that it has always lagged behind nationalist thought. In political terms, Egyptian theater did not play the same role as that played by other artistic and literary forms. Theater was never an expression of the Egyptian revolution; rather, it was surprised by it. Theater’s only role was to cry out in the wake of the revolution. The theater was highly insignificant on the battlefield, as the revolution’s events were always greater than it.

As the theater was mired in the melodrama that was translated or composed and that overran the Ramses troupe, Egyptian literature took a different course—a new path blazed by Taha Hussein, al-Mazni, and al-Aqqad. Though romantic theater may have been considered an expression of the middle class, meaning a natural expression of the Egyptian political and social revolution, it was incapable of comprehending this awareness; instead it took melodrama itself as a means of expression, but of what?

Perhaps we know that the melodrama was a theatrical expression of the regret of the collapsing landed gentry and its sense of doom in the face of the revolutionary tide of the middle class. In this way, the theater—represented first and foremost by the work of the Ramses troupe—was reactionary and misleading. This is absolutely clear not only from nationalist novels, but also from the novels that address social problems. We can take as an example of this the issue of women’s liberation, which has pervaded nationalist ideas in Egypt from the beginning of this century. On this issue, Egyptian theater adopted a reactionary position that, expressed in novels such as Zawgatina [Our Wives], asserts that the natural place for women is in the home.

All of this applies to Egyptian theater in the period in which we are living. The theater until now remains unable to adapt to new nationalist thought, for many reasons that cannot be mentioned here. While the realist school emerges in Egyptian literature, theater remains stuck in melodrama and vaudeville. And while Egyptian society is shaken from time to time by political and social uprisings, the theater is always surprised by these uprisings and never joins the calls for such uprisings in anything more than—in the best of cases—a weak voice that is quickly drowned out by these decisive popular movements. This is because the theater dealt with and continues to deal with political and social matters in an unsophisticated manner—rather than undertaking a real analysis and coming to a clear understanding of the truth of these matters in terms of their economic and social aspects, instead of solely within a socially regressive framework.

Finally, I wish to say that Egyptian theater has not been born yet, even if many signs indicate that its birth is not far off.

*Mr. Ghaith restricted his response to Arab theater in Egypt, due to its connection to his particular experience and his depiction of the general characteristics of theater in other Arab countries.

Response of Mr. Khalil al-Masry (Egypt)

Many researchers differ in their views of the arts in general, and of music in particular. Some say that art leads to renaissances. Others assert that art follows renaissances or, more clearly put, that art is a depiction of these renaissances, and that true art gives us a true picture. Since our views of this picture may differ, we may think of it as a point of origin, one that influences and guides society. Yet the meticulous researcher does not overlook the fact that this so-called true picture is merely a copy of the original, which is society. As such, art is but a chronicler of history, not an instigator of renaissances. If we accept this position, we find that Arab art has been able to depict the renaissances of its peoples and, with its limited or local capabilities, to give us a true picture of their prevalent anxiety. Arab music was influenced by Turkish music when the Turks had a say in the rule of our country, and it was influenced by the Western music that was present among us when we looked to the West and moved toward it. However, Arab music did not become completely devoted to the West, nor did it lose its identity and its ancient civilization. Rather, this influence embellished and enhanced Arab music, and moved it toward becoming a global art.

However, many factors existed in Arab countries that led to the decline of the arts, two of which are extremely important and thus worthy of mention: 

Most funders in these countries are not from these countries.
These countries were struggling under the yoke of foreign occupation.

These two factors caused feelings of inadequacy among the Arab people and divided them into two groups, which moved in opposite directions. The first looked to the West, believed that Egypt was capable of rising to its level, and demanded the highest degree of freedom possible. The second was oriented toward the East, struggled to admit its own inadequacy, and clung to the flimsy threads of its Eastern identity—it called for conserving this identity by imposing strict censorship.

Despite this there is significant evidence today that Arab music is responding to and being influenced by the renaissances of the people. However, I disagree with those who say that Arab music is the creator and inspiration behind this reawakening.

Response of Mr. Maher Ra’ef (Egypt)

The West came before the East in revolting against men of religion—not religious teachings—who, without good intentions, appointed themselves the protectors and advocates of religion, after placing stumbling blocks on the road to the progress of civilization for so long. The impact of this was that the West made great strides in the fields of science, discovery, and invention, which with the East has been unable to keep pace. The West thus extended its authority over the East and launched a siege to prevent it from progressing, and even to block it from freedom. This became clearer than ever in art in general and particularly in the plastic arts, which are the topic of this discussion.

If art is the equal of science in the field of human progress, then we attempt to understand the truth of our external reality through science and to probe the depths of our internal reality through art. The two are linked in a way that reveals the extent of the importance of art to human life and the extent of its influence in the field of human progress.

The East, led by Egypt, has attempted to awaken from its ignorance and to cast off the effects of the political occupation and the foreign monopoly on Eastern thought and taste. By the East, I mean the Arab East. The effect of this revolution against this occupation and monopoly emerged in the field of plastic arts. And if it was right for us to keep pace with the West’s scientific progress and to take from the West its latest inventions, we do not have the least right to keep pace with the West in terms of its art, for art has a nation from which it must spring forth. And it has traditions, customs, and norms associated with a group of people who define its form and subject, and even the direction of its development. Those who attempt this not only carry within themselves the tools of their own destruction and the obliteration of their identity, they also help the West to directly or indirectly solidify its hold on the East.

Currently in Egypt, there are those doing all they can to embrace artistic trends to liberate Egyptian art from its slavery to foreign art, and even from a return to ancient Egyptian art—despite the fact that others claim the latter would return originality to Egyptian art. Yet this is not in accordance with the social environment, which defines the general image of art, even if the geographical environment is the same in both cases.

These modern trends have succeeded. In art, more or less, those embracing them have achieved their objective through their dedication to the principle upon which these ideas are based and through their keenness to expose themselves to modern global culture, which is necessary for the contemporary artist to be successful in realizing his mission. That he shares in abundance in addressing subjects related to social life in Egypt, with a view permeated by the logic of modern thought.

If the Egyptian public as a whole does not appreciate works of modern art, it is because these works are not as familiar to them as the thousand varieties of art presented to them by foreign artists and by teaching professors who took art from the institutes of Europe and circulated it, or worked to circulate it, in our region.

Response of Mr. Jewad Selim (Iraq)

In any time or place, all important and good artistic production is a mirror that reflects the reality in which it exists. How we perceive this product—whether it is truly human, and how it can be a genuine and powerful expression—all this is related to the freedom of the artist to express his surroundings. This is simultaneously an intellectual freedom and an economic one. There are hundreds of “shoulds” and “musts” that are repeatedly mentioned in our newspapers and magazines, and in most cases the writer is attempting to express his own superiority or the nobleness of his ideas, trying to extricate the artist from his stupefaction or backwardness. This generally indicates the presence of old commonplaces in new molds. Most authors who are agitated with lofty human ideas are quick to offer guidance to writers or artists, even when they themselves do not know or intentionally forget the contents of museums and books, and all the art that humanity has produced that restores our trust in humanity’s goodness.

Jewad Selim. Baghdadiat. 1956. Mixed media on board, 98.5 x 169 cm. Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha

Response of Mr. Hafidh al-Droubi (Iraq)

Our reality suffers in its appearance, but not in its essence, from the dominance of European character. Our way of life has taken on affectation in order to fit with European life. Local dress is on the verge of being swept aside by European styles as we leave the countryside and move to the cities. Moreover, there is a great contradiction between our core equilibrium as Eastern people and these almost completely false and affected appearances. This is in terms of our reality. In terms of art, the problem is different, for art in our region suffers from Western domination in both its essence and its external forms. In other words, the contradiction mentioned above is nearly nonexistent, for art in our region is in fact Western in its entirety. The reason for this goes back to the fact that painters, and Iraqi painters in particular, had their artistic beginnings and studies in Europe and in the style of European schools, and as such their views of things became that of a Western person. In addition, there was a dark period that cut us off from our heritage—whether ancient or Islamic civilizations—following which Iraqi artists opened their eyes and saw nothing but mature European art before them. As for our civilizational heritage, it remained concealed until only recently, when museums were established. As for local art, it is extremely simple in impression, so much so that is difficult to use it as any kind of basis. Another thing is that the local art market is invaded by an artistic culture with a European art affect, whether in in inquiry or in outline. We have barely any access to authentic Eastern art—such as Indian, Chinese, and Japanese art—despite the fact that the West has also been influenced by it, and despite its maturity and importance.

Today, we feel intense pain at this move away from local reality and national character. Most of us attempt and endeavor to establish an art that represents this reality, that influences it and is influenced by it, and each of us seeks to achieve it according to his specific point of view. Some deal with line and composition, attempting through them to claim something of the Assyrian and Sumerian spirit, yet they remain European nevertheless. Yet these artists try—always, they try.

Others continuously call for a specifically Iraqi art, yet they themselves have not found such a character. One of the Europeans who said that “dusty colors are of an Iraqi character” may have been mistaken, for Iraq is never dusty. And these are our colors. And this is our sun.

There are artists who consider their attempts to be Iraqi art, even as they follow the direction of the modern European school, and the French school in particular. This is because France had a major educational influence on these artists.

As for me personally, despite the fact that I continually endeavor to paint Iraqi subjects, on the basis of my upbringing in a purely Iraqi context, I continue to think of the work of European painters when picking up the brush and painting. As such, I continue to consider myself to be playing the role of attempting to establish a modern Iraqi school. Even though I have at times proceeded along the lines of the ancient Iraqi way, these were an imitation and nothing more.

As for how this relationship should be: we believe it should be a close relationship. Artistic tendencies are not subject to logical controls, but rather to the circumstances surrounding the art, the abovementioned factors, and other factors. These current schools will endeavor to create a sound, strong connection with reality, which continues to develop, and to strive to find its particular character.

Hafidh al-Droubi. A Girl, Beautifying. Medium and size unknown. This image is derived from the January 1956 issue of al-Adab

Response of Mr. Ismaeil al-Sheikhly (Iraq)

For a long time, the Arab world has lagged behind the rest of the world in scientific progress as well as in social and political spheres. The inevitable result is a backwardness that is reflected in our social reality and that has led to a backwardness in thought, literature, and art.

The Arab world has been isolated from the rest of the world and thus rarely influenced by the intellectual currents that affect our times. The Baghdad school of painting under Abbasid rule deserves mention, although it ended with the Abbasid era. Al-Wasiti was one of the most prominent painters of this period. Yet throughout the last fifty years, the experience from which Iraq and the other Arab countries have suffered due to their contact with the civilized world—and to its innovations in the fields of science, industry, and thought—has led them to “borrow” from it. I doubt whether this assimilation of Western intellectual and artistic currents is deep and true, as our regressive reality is different from the natural, progressive reality of the West. For example, the appearance of Cubism in the Western world is justified, as it is an artistic form that evolved from previous artistic forms. We can say the same about the other artistic schools in the West. The Cubist trends in our country, however, fail to represent a genuine reality not only in terms of the type of production, but also in terms of our present historical circumstances. Owing to this, the artistic movement in Iraq has yet to acquire distinguishing characteristics and a clear identity in either form or content. The truth is that the artistic movement in our country represents nothing but confusion and turbulence resulting from the underdevelopment of the Iraqi identity in terms of expressing its condition, environment, and historical circumstances.

However, Iraq is on the verge of making major social, economic, and cultural progress, which will surely impact the production of our artists. Iraqi artists must seek inspiration from this new life, yet imbue it with their own particular Iraqi character. In my opinion, Iraqi artists should work toward establishing a connection to the public, for the purpose of developing the artistic taste of its people. This will not happen unless artists channel public concerns and feelings, through the expression of public and private subjects directly related to daily life, and unless the public acknowledges its own reality. However, at present this production carries no more than the purpose we envisage for it, which is only the development of artistic taste, a sense of beauty, and the artistic feelings of the public. The natural relationship between the artist and his audience will undoubtedly influence both the quality of artistic production and the public’s taste. Indeed, one of these factors will affect the other until art takes on an authentic form or many authentic forms that express the needs of the people and are simultaneously understood by them.

Ismail al-Sheikhly. Landscape. 1956. Oil on board, 60 x 91 cm

Response of Mr. Atta Sabri (Iraq)

Artistic production and reality have been interrelated since time immemorial. The first humans expressed the shape of animals due to their dire need for those animals and in order to cast away the dangers posed by them. Later came arts that expressed the ancient civilizations, such as in China, followed by those in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. In Mesopotamia, art represented power, might, and the conquests that were undertaken, such as the Lion of Babylon, the winged lion, and the reliefs that represent the kings of Assyria and others in their wars and conquests.

If we move on to thirteenth-century Baghdad and its famous artistic school, we see that the painter [Yehia bin Mahmoud al-Wasiti], in his illustrations of the Maqamat of al-Hariri, held today in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, in Paris, realistically depicted views of human social life in the form of large drawings that remind us of wall reliefs. He depicted thirteenth-century Arabs in mosques, in the desert or field, in libraries, or in inns. Another famous manuscript, Kalila wa Dimnah, was painted by other artists to express their social circumstances and events through pictures of animals.

Moving ahead to Europe, particularly the age of the Renaissance in Italy and other countries, we see the artistic productions of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci in paintings such as The Last Supperby Leonardo, The Resurrection by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, as well as his great sculptures of Moses and David, and Raphael’s many paintings of the Virgin and Christ. Then came [Francisco de] Goya in Spain, who expressed in his paintings the atrocities of the French and their occupation, as well as the scandals of war.

If we move forward to today’s era, we find that the chaos, decadence, confusion, moral collapse, and apathy that followed the two [world] wars have had a major impact on artists. We find them defeated by reality and moving in different, confused directions. Their artistic production was in ebb and flood, until artists in some domains arrived at Social Realism and began to assert their social and political opinions in murals that gave expression to the working class, peasants, and others. This is what happened in Mexico at the hands of the artist [Diego] Rivera and others.

Here we see that the state entered the field and supported and directed artists, or imposed its will on them, so that these artists give voice to their society or political regime, either directly or indirectly. Whereas [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, with his regime known as the “New Deal,” moved to encourage artists materially and morally and left the field open to them with complete freedom of artistic production, the dictatorships prior to World War II imposed restrictions and conditions on the kinds of art permitted.

As for today in Iraq, following a long period of stagnation, we have embarked on a new and blessed artistic movement, initiated about a quarter of a century ago with our deceased artist Abdul Qadir al-Rassam, the “artist of Tigris and Baghdad,” who captured peaceful views of the landscape in his oil paintings. Then, after 1930, artistic missions began to go to Europe at the behest of the Iraqi Ministry of Education, and returned to their homeland after lengthy study in a new mold and with a European character. These new Iraqi artists, and their students after them, began to look to Europe as a source of revelation and inspiration for their artistic paintings and even their subjects, which became Leda and the Swan, flowers, landscapes, etc. They forgot all but a very little of their surroundings and the environment in which they lived.

Others then emerged who conducted their artistic experiments in the manner of the European artists who were prominent between the two wars, with distinguishing circumstances and causes. They began, in painting their pictures and images, to adopt the schools and methods of Cubism, Surrealism, or abstraction, regardless of the reasons that led European artists to use such modes of expression in their own paintings. As such, they imitated [Pablo] Picasso and others in order to be “modernized” painters. The truth is that we today are facing social, economic, and political problems and circumstances and going through new developments that differ completely from those of European artists.

We noticed that the exhibition of Indian art held in Baghdad three years ago bore a distinctly Indian character, and was tending toward the formation of a modern Indian school. Undoubtedly, that had a pronounced effect on the psyches of Iraqi artists and on a majority of those who visited this exhibition, thus prompting Iraqi artists to think about new and prospective ways to arrive at an Iraqi artistic school, or create a local character, or to form a style that represents Baghdad. Yet this cannot be attained in a single day, or even in a year. Rather, writers, literary figures, and artists must unite to establish the solutions and capacities for attaining a local character, with connection to the international artistic movement.

The new generation in Iraq today has begun to appreciate art in a very encouraging manner for this goal. For we must present more art exhibitions, with facilitation from the Ministry of Education via the Institute of Fine Arts, so as to connect with foreign countries and bring art exhibitions to Iraq, whether of the old works by their masters and schools or of the contemporary. And I think it is incumbent for artists to work to create an artistic and literary magazine to consolidate a public of readers who are thirsty for arts and literature.

Iraq today is going through the birth of a comprehensive architectural and industrial movement. As such, our architects must open the field to painters and sculptors to create murals and bas-relief sculptures on the walls of these buildings, and particularly government buildings, so as to be completely integrated. On the other hand, attention must be paid to commercial art, so that it can meet the needs of the country’s industrial production for images, advertisements, and other commercial art forms. Art must also be used for social purposes, such as social services and other uses. The new and expansive squares and open areas to be created upon completion of Baghdad’s city planning will be among the best arenas for sculptors in our country to erect monumental statues, which will become a Ka’aba for visitors and for excursionists who seek an escape from the people or fill their free time, just as in the squares of Rome, Paris, and London.

Our artistic production should be a true expression of our current reality. It must reflect the pains of the people as well as their joys, in social and popular subjects. The artist faces an open field, for these subjects have not been addressed previously. Art today is moving toward a kind of new realism, by which it is possible to record daily life in our country in tremendous, expressive paintings.

Response of Mr. Fateh al-Moudarres (Syria)

The Arab arts have suffered through a long period of decline, from painting to styles of buildings, from metal engraving to textiles, and even popular traditions of dress and song. In addition, a permanent religious opposition, combined with the shallowness of the scientific culture, and the lack of genuine, constructive attempts by Arab governments to revive popular Arab heritage—all this has led to the obliteration of what remained of a distinctive artistic heritage.

Along with all these urgent ailments, European imperialism arrived to spread distortion and poverty and poisoned relations between the remaining religious sects so as to politicize them. All this destroyed the last remaining bastion of Arab art in the East, and it remains in ruins.

If we wish to define a character for any Arab artistic production, or if we wish to find a link between any such production and our reality, we will fail. If a European critic today were to view any painting by an Arab painter, he would not find anything but a Turkish fez, the face of a dome, an ancient minaret, a strangely designed water pipe in a carnival of cafés, or a piece of embroidery from a worn-out Shiraz carpet!

The modern concept of contemporary realist Arab art is difficult to define, as the nonexistence of inherited artistic features has, to a great extent, rendered our Arab artistic production weak in terms of its identity. Indeed, the contemporary art of each state in the world is based on substantial inheritances. In India, we see in the paintings of modern artists clear references to the ancient Indian artistic heritage. The same is true of modern China, as well as Japan. We see in the exhibitions of all the nations an originality and differentiation that indicate that this painting is Indian or that painting is Chinese or Finnish. However, the painting created in the Arab East has no identity, for its character is lost, its originality erased, and it consists of a distorted, mixed-up imitation of the European schools. We can thus assert, for all the preceding reasons, that Arab artistic production has no relationship at all with our reality or our renaissance.

In order to bless contemporary Arab taste with a truly Arab art that interprets its reality and its social struggle on all fronts, we must begin a new “renaissance” era—meaning an era based on the rebirth of ancient Arab art, grafted to current modern concepts, in a light rich in distinctive color and inherited, authentic designs.

The reasons for the chaos to be found in the exhibitions held in Cairo, Alexandria, Beirut, Damascus, Aleppo, and Baghdad have become clear: There is no close coordination between governments and painters, sculptors, musicians, architects, and authors. Nor is there even a sense that this collaboration is lacking.

Come with me: Stand next to me before an Arab painting, and let us assume that its creator has called it an Arabic name meaning “Awakening” or “Revolution” or “Protest.” What would you find in this painting? You would not find anything except a carnival of influences, firstly because the artist has no personal style. You would not find any colors from the East, nor would you find that authentic effort to highlight originality in the orientation of the design and the subject as a whole. Perhaps the reason for this goes back to the fact that Arab history is not studied, on one hand, and on the other to the dearth of understanding of common artistic schools. Thus, painters, sculptors, musicians, and architects are unable to establish a distinctive character by which they might define their place in the ranks of universal art.

The development of the artistic understanding of a contemporary people is not incompatible with the inherited ancient values that have a unique character. If you were to take even the most contemporary of schools, such as Surrealism, and if you as an artist fervently cling to your Arab nationalism, you would be able to render an original expression from your lines. And even if you were an advocate of the abstract or the nonobjective schools, you would be able to maintain a distinctive Arab character. This matter is inevitable for modern architects who insist on taking from the style of Le Corbusier! Indeed, if Le Corbusier had been Eastern or Arab, he would have given his school a distinctive character, while still observing the latest requirements of the age, because comprehending character requires it, and national pride as well!

I visited Europe this year, and found a unique character in every country I visited. When the steamer docked us back on Syrian shores, the absurd hodgepodge became apparent in the buildings, the music, and all signs of life—even in people’s faces! The East appeared before me as if it had been hit by a hydrogen bomb! How, then, can we respond to the original question: Does contemporary Arab artistic production have a connection to our reality—apart from what we have said in the preceding lines?

Our situation is disgraceful, our values cheap, and our confidence nonexistent. As such, our distinctive Arab identity is also absent. If we have been allowed to stand among the many nations, it is only because we have not yet died out completely.

Look: This man is Chinese, that one is Siamese; this man is Filipino, that one is French—and who do we have here? Tell me, by God, who is this strange creation who wears a fez on his head and on top of that a hat, and below them a tie, and on his shoulders an overcoat, and over that an abaya, and on his feet crepe-soled shoes. He speaks in a language that is neither Arabic nor Chinese nor Siamese, nor anything recognizable—his language does not even resemble the language of the birds! Now look at his face, and you will not even find distinctive Eastern features in it! After all this, how does your stomach accept and digest the painting the Arab holds in his hands, as if he were a beggar holding out an empty bowl, begging for the peoples’ sympathy before they judge him with sweeping verdicts, but not daring to reveal it! How do we accept to call this a painting? Such an Arab, when standing among the ranks of nations, should bow his head in shame.

We can lie to ourselves, but the matter is different in the eyes of others, who must see us as we truly are—who must see that our pride in our distinctive values has ceased to exist.

If we wish to have a modern Arab art, we must initiate an era of rebirth for all that has become extinct. We must build it up and graft to it what we will, according to what the old outlines will accept in terms of new turns and appearances. As I say this, regret fills my heart, because the matter applies to my own work as well!

Fateh al-Moudarres. Ranch Girls. 1965. Oil on canvas. 50 x 70 cm. 1965. Jalanbo Collection

Response of Mr. Munir Sulayman (Syria)

The question about art and its link to our Arab reality is frequently repeated, and the people respond to it with a host of different answers. The most important of these answers is that the greatest purpose of art is to express the features of life in its various aspects. In all Arab countries, art remains far from this. If you were to see a painting that represents a landscape or face or still life, you would feel that there is a dense veil blocking you from seeing the truth of these objects or separating you and the life that pulses within each of them.

The important thing in painting is that people see in every canvas something of themselves, something of their hopes and dreams for life. Even more, the artist seeks to depict through his painting the life that is lived by the people, as well as the hopes that stir in his heart and in theirs. The artist succeeds to the extent that he expresses these dreams and makes them speak in his painting with a power to affect the people, even influencing the simple souls among them who have not had the good fortune to enjoy a culture of art.

The function of art, whatever its color and whatever its form, is to serve life. A beautiful painting—whether of a river, or the breast or legs of a beautiful woman, or the shoulders of a man of great stature, or his arm—is beautiful because it suits its organic function, and its concept is nothing but the elevated rendering of our many needs. Indeed, it is the perpetual extension of these needs, meaning that the concept distills the future of these powerful, unrestrained needs and makes it evident, just as the flower and the fruit condense the tree, promulgate it, and extend its life into immortality.

Yet this eternal truth remains unfamiliar to artists in all the Arab countries. For this reason, we cannot claim that there is art in the Arab countries, and we will remain far from it so long as artists are distantly removed from the essence and secret of art, and even from its fundamental components.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Related Content

Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents – On the Concept of Painting and the Plastic Language

In Morocco in the mid-1960s, the National School of Fine Arts in Casablanca offered a new cohort of avant-garde thinkers—including artists Farid Belkahia, Mohammed Chebaa, and Mohammed Melehi—a platform for developing new models of decolonized, integrated artistic practice. Such an agenda is set forth in this position statement written by Chebaa on the occasion of the three-person Belkahia, Chebaa, and Melehi exhibition at the Mohammed V Theatre gallery in Rabat.

Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents – The Crystalist Manifesto

The publication, Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents (2018), edited by Anneka Lenssen, Sarah Rogers, and Nada Shabout, offers an unprecedented resource for the study of modernism: a compendium of critical art writings by twentieth-century Arab intellectuals and artists. The selection of texts—many of which appear for the first time in English—includes manifestos, essays, transcripts of roundtable discussions, diary entries, letters, and the guest-book comments including those featured here.

Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents – Visitors’ impressions of the 1933 Palestine Pavilion at the First National Arab Fair

The texts below are entries taken from the 1933 guest book from the first solo exhibition of the work of Zulfa al-Sa‘di (1905–1988), a young Palestinian female artist, held in the Palestine Pavilion at the First National Arab Fair, organized in Jerusalem under the auspices of the Supreme Muslim Council.