How Two Curators Uncovered the Forgotten Story of the Egyptian Surrealists
Your challenge, should you choose to accept it: Curate an exhibition about an art movement that, for the better part of eight decades, has been both forgotten and had its history rewritten by those who came after it. At a time when some have claimed that we’re losing sight of what it really means to be a curator, this was the task that Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, the celebrated curatorial duo who call themselves Art Reoriented, set out to accomplish after coming across Surrealist works by Egyptian artists while researching their 2012 exhibition in Doha, “Tea with Nefertiti: The Making of the Artwork by the Artist, the Museum and the Public.”
Their work on the Nefertiti show had surfaced The Art and Liberty group, a Surrealist collective that established itself in Cairo in 1938 and was active over the following decade, exhibiting and publishing prolifically. The group developed its own style of Surrealism, fusing elements from the international Surrealist canon with an artistic language that had its roots in local issues and sought to present an alternative to the increasingly nationalistic tone of a World War II fascist Egypt.
The curators were intrigued; yet, strangely, there seemed to be very little written on the group, and what did exist was hardly glowing. “The art history that was written internally in Egypt was, 90 percent of the time, written through the lens of post-revolution, post-Nasser Egypt,” explains Bardaouil, referring to Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–70), the second president of Egypt and an icon in the Arab world who is widely credited for the modernization of Egypt. “The Art and Liberty Group was consistently depicted as a failed attempt to bring an Occidental movement into Egypt, which, in turn, failed, as it was alien to the local culture.”
As such, Fellrath says, the group has been something of an urban myth. “We didn’t even know what the visuals looked like,” he says, “or how all the pieces of the puzzle would fit together. It really felt like we were starting from scratch.”
The five years it took to put together the resulting exhibition, “Art et Liberte: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948)” led them through 12 countries, 46 public and private collections, and 200 interviews, and culminated in a showcase that marshals together 130 artworks and more than 150 archival documents. “The whole endeavor was one of an ongoing process of inquiry, of uncovering, excavating, re-learning, highlighting certain thinking processes and bringing it all together to look at objectively,” says Fellrath.
One major treasure trove turned out to be the Egyptian National Archives, where newspapers from the period are stored. As the archive has not yet been digitized, it required a painstaking process of combing through materials page by page. “It took a long time,” admits Bardaouil, “and you have to go back to the central question: what is curating? What is the difference between the buzzword and the actual job? It takes conviction and perseverance and commitment to do proper in-depth research.”
Another challenge was the wide dispersion of materials, a consequence of the geographical spread of the group’s members from the late 1940s onwards. An entire cache of copies of the weekly newspaper La Semaine Egyptienne (published 1926–40), for example, had ended up at a university in Japan.
Perhaps one of the most exciting discoveries of all was the existence of one of the Art and Liberty group’s contemporaries, Kamal Youssef, an artist who turned out to be alive, despite several sources claiming he had departed this mortal coil long ago. Youssef, 93, now lives on an Amish farm outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “He’s still painting every day!” says Bardaouil. “We tracked him down through the most random set of coincidences. It turned out his best friend had been Art and Liberty member Hassan El-Telmisani (1923–87), and Hassan’s grandson’s cousin was in the process of tracking him down—and then along we came.”
Another member of the group, Laurent Marcel Salinas (1913–2010), had emigrated to Long Island City in New York in the 1960s. His estate is now in the care of his nonagenarian friends. The works of Mayo (1905–90), one of the most prominent members of the group, meanwhile, ended up with the children of gallery owners who exhibited his work in Milan in the 1950s. Each discovery led to the next, and Bardaouil and Fellrath spent years forging relationships with those they managed to track down.
“Trust is integral,” explains Bardaouil. “It can take years to build it. What people open up to you about the first year you meet them may be different after you speak to them for a year or two, sometimes three. Only then, perhaps, do they start showing you things they might not have told you about earlier.” One aspect of that trust lies in the fact that, for those involved, these are very personal histories. “These are real stories for a lot of people,” says Fellrath, “it’s not just some art-historical anecdote.”
One such example is Amy Nimr (1907–74). Her work took a darker turn after the death of her 10-year old son Mickey. In 1943, during a trip to the desert on the outskirts of Cairo, Mickey was accidentally killed by a stray bomb while playing with his cousin. Today that cousin, Soraya (daughter of George Antonius, author of The Arab Awakening), still lives in Nimr’s cottage in Normandy, and it was there that she granted the curators access to a painting of that terrible moment—the explosion itself.
“When she took it out for us, she couldn’t even look at it, all these years later,” recalls Bardaouil. This traumatic turning point in Nimr’s life provided crucial information in understanding her work during the Art and Liberty period. “There’s a human being behind a piece of art—whether that means in an individual or a family setting, or even in a city, economic, or political context,” stresses Fellrath. “If you don’t understand that, then I don’t think you can fundamentally understand the artwork. You may feel something when you look at it, but you’re missing out on so much more.”
More discoveries came with the unearthing of a letter, written by Art and Liberty co-founder Georges Henein, in which he speaks frankly about the generation of artists that came after the group, refuting the now-received history that they represented its continuation. For the curators, this one letter was dynamite. “When you find documents like this, when you find evidence of what really happened and how these relationships developed, not only are you putting together a visual arts show, but it comes with the responsibility of correcting a narrative that was never challenged,” says Bardaouil.
And once all the research is done, then comes the problem of how to present it. “What do I do with this content?” asks Bardaouil. “Do I interpret it as a linear history, or is it a lot of different bubbles of thought connecting across various points of history and geography? How do I translate that into a three-dimensional, physical, visual, sensual experience in which I’m navigating the body of an audience in a space and creating moments where they breathe, stop, go ‘wow,’ turn, accelerate, de-accelerate?”
Bardaouil and Fellrath’s reward came the day after the show opened at the Pompidou in Paris on October 19th, when they were surprised with a visit from Ahmed Fuad, the son of King Farouk, the last King of Egypt. “You’ve taken my family album and you’ve put it on the wall!” he exclaimed. “It was extremely emotional,” says Bardaouil. “Here was a group of artists who were essentially revolting against the Egyptian monarchy and everything it stood for, yet he recognized this was his story too. This is history.”