Smart Art

By Norbert Ruebsaat | June 8, 2006

Liliane Karnouk, Modern Egyptian Art, 1919-2003 (American University of Cairo Press, 274 p., /U.S. $39.50, 2005)

It seems ironic that the authoritative history of modern Egyptian art should be written on the West Coast of Canada until you discover while reading Modern Egyptian Art (American University of Cairo Press) that Egyptian artists, citizens of the world’s oldest country, ask themselves the same questions as do Canadian artists, citizens of one of the world’s youngest countries.

In 1910, when Vancouver resident Liliane Karnouk’s survey begins, artists on the Nile, like those on the St. Lawrence or the Fraser or the Yukon, wondered if they should imitate their European colonial masters or discover indigenous styles; in the 1950s, when Nasser’s Revolution decolonized Egypt and when Canada had been “given its independence” by the British parliament, artists in both countries split on the question of whether to produce a “national” art or ally themselves with transnational modernist trends; and in the contemporary “pomo/pocol” period, when questions of universalism/localism, multiculturalism/identity politics and critiques of Grand Narrative are everywhere in the globalized (not-yet-privatized) air, “nomad” Egyptian and Canadian artists—like Karnouk herself, who moved for many years between Cairo, where she grew up, Europe, where she studied art, and B.C., where she now lives—ask themselves not only who on earth but where on earth (or in the media) they are.

Karnouk’s text, accompanied by many reproductions, profiles over 70 artists, and brings us up to the 1990s; it then breaks into a series of thematic chapters which tell how young Egyptian artists, like their Canadian counterparts, use media art, performance, installation, book art, along with sculpture and painting to address the dislocations and distortions that global media and advertising create and propose mysteriously to solve, and that art can illuminate but not solve—and it is wise for residents of a young, imaginary “First World” former colony to look at the styles of an old former “Third World” country-cum-colony that has had fewer technological tools to construct the imaginary and has, as a result, a better memory. Even young Egyptian artists, it seems, have memories.

Karnouk reminds us that Egypt was colonized by the Hyksos in 1674 BC, by the Persians in 525 BC, by the Greeks in 332 BC, by the Romans in 50 BC, by the Arabs in 700 AD, by the Ottomans in 1500 AD, by the French in 1778 AD, by the British in 1882 AD, by Soviet advisors in the 1950s and by American-cum-global advisors and media in the 1970s. These invasions were endured, internalized, absorbed, reconstructed and turned by Egyptians, according to Karnouk, into a knack for multicultural identity construction and a suave cosmopolitan art practice, two ideas which she draws together in the term “Egyptianicity”. Canada endured British, French, Russian, Spanish and American invasions (not to mention previous Beringian ones), and has “absorbed” immigrants from all over, and we imagine ourselves to be pretty good at multiculturalism, but we aren’t cosmopolitan or suave. Why? Maybe we should read this book and find out.

Excellent and smartly opinionated passages are those on “neopharaonism” which asks who is appropriating/influencing/colonizing whom when neoromantic European artists reconstruct ancient Egypt as colonial art craze and Egyptian artists borrow their idioms to create truth about the most ancient of pasts, and the chapter on kitsch—which Karnouk baldly describes as “works which do not entail any of the basic criteria of art: the inherent and irreplaceable originality of the fusion of time, place, idea, skill, form and material into an ‘original’ concept.” As examples she cites a modern building “kitschified by sparkling stucco ceilings, a crystal chandelier and plastic plants,” and “Michelangelo’s David as a men’s wear label.” Canadians take heed, then order the book—one for yourself, one for your library, school, department, etc.

June 7 2006

634 words


  • Norbert Ruebsaat

    Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.

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