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For scholars, researchers, and students, the al Mawrid archive at NYU Abu Dhabi offers an opportunity for in-depth study and reflection on the variety and range of Arab cultural production and publishing in the twentieth century. The al Mawrid Arab Center for the Study of Art, opened in 2021, with the aim of collecting and digitizing collections of papers of artists and writers on the arts in Arab countries. Among the newly acquired collections is a complete set of the art journal Sawt al-Fannan1 (Voice of the Artist) that appeared from around 1950 to 1951 or 1952 in the final years before the fall of the monarchy.2
The complete set acquired by al Mawrid contains only six volumes, predominantly in Arabic but with increasing numbers of French articles in the later issues. Among those who contributed short articles was Badr Eddin Abou Ghazi, with several short articles on the sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar. Other authors included Aimé Azar, who taught aesthetics at Ain Shams University and wrote exclusively in French with a series of monographs and studies of modern Egyptian artists.
When the journal’s first issue appeared in May 1950, its editor, Sidki El Gabakhangi3 (1910–1992) proclaimed the journal as the first of its kind in Egypt and in the Arab East to promote the sophistication and ideals of art. During the 1930s Gabakhangi studied art in Cairo, Rome, and Florence, and when he returned to Alexandria, he was an active member in various art groups and a writer in the arts. With Gabakhangi at the helm, there was no mistaking the journal’s royalist political alliances as it proclaimed the use of the arts to create a “renaissance worthy of the great Farouq,” the reigning monarch.4 With these stated allegiances, the journal would be confident in avoiding censorship to print on multiple covers including reproductions of nude figures of classical or romantic periods of art. As an added imprimatur, the journal’s first issue began with two articles written by members of the Ministry of Information, which at the time took on duties analogous to those of the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance that was created in 1958 during the Nasser period as a successor to the Ministry of National Guidance formed in 1952 following the Free Officers' Coup.5 The journal’s readers were presumed to be members of the small middle class, who had access to expensive art materials, as well as space and time to pursue the plastic arts.
The journal’s brief life reflects the tenuous conditions confronting a middle class who used the arts to position a cultural milieu and ideology that set them apart from the other main currents of Egyptian social and political life in the late 1940s. These were the years of recovery from the effects of World War II, British occupation, and several waves of cholera and epidemics that swept through Egypt during the war years. The journal was also appearing in an age when print journalism was at its peak and appeared amid the rise and succession of Salafist publications and journals, beginning with Rashid Rida’s Al-Manar (1898–1940), and succeeded by the journals of the Muslim Brothers, the Jaridat al-Ikhwan al-muslimin first issued in 1933, and reissued circa 1946. The first issues of Sawt al-Fannan emerged just a year after Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brothers was assassinated, just as his movement was on the cusp of achieving a Bolshevist-styled push to gain power. Sawt al-Fannan was issued monthly and sold for the price of 10 piastres/qurush, and apparently ceased publication with the collapse of the monarchy. As if in reply, a Brotherhood affiliation rushed out a short-lived journal entitled Sawt al-Sha`ab in December 1952, with a cover picture of General Mohamed Naguib.
Multiple covers of Sawt al-Fannan had images of classical paintings or sculptures and romantic renderings of nude figures, followed by articles on the techniques of rendering the body and face, or landscapes. The journal was targeting a narrow but highly literate readership with its coterie of art connoisseurs and practitioners, in private homes and studios, both men and women. The function of the journal was also indirectly aimed to instruct young women of the middle class on the techniques and styles of modern European art with a focus on romanticism, sitting portraits and still life scenes of domestic interiors, and landscapes. A serial set of selected articles, entitled min qusus `abaqara al-fann (Stories on Art Geniuses) discusses the nineteenth-century French artistic movement from the realism of Courbet to Impressionism, and features among others, Manet, Monet, and Cezanne. An article by Salim Al-Asyuti on Manet rationalized his painting of nude scenes and included black and white full-page reproductions of Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herb (1863) and Olympia (1865). In his discussion of Olympia, Al-Asyuti posits the earlier influence of The Pastoral Concert (1509) as it was then attributed to the sixteenth-century Italian painter Giorgione but is now considered by the Tate Museum to be a work by Titian. Al-Asyuti avoids any contemporary scandals about either the Parisian model who posed for both of Manet’s paintings or the open gestural symbolism in Olympia of prostitution and the juxtaposition of the attending black maid. The author’s views reinforced the upholding of Manet as a genius although now a postmodern and feminist-informed art history regards Manet the artist and Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herb as among the most controversial paintings in modern art.
In the July 1951 issue, the journal briefly covered one of the first exhibitions of Egyptian women artists. This was an exhibition of first-year and diploma students at the ma`had al-funun al-jamila li-l ma’lumat (Institute for Women Teachers of the Fine Arts) that was based in the neighborhood of Bulaq.6 The working class district of Bulaq had earlier drawn the attention of the liberal feminist, Doria Shafik, and her organization, the Bint al-Nil Union.
In February 1950, an announcement in Le Progrés Egyptien proposed and later received approval from the Minister of Education that a government public school would be used for providing free education to combat the high rates of illiteracy in the neighborhood.7 The Sawt Al-Fannan issue also covered some exhibitions by male students at the College of Fine Arts in Zamalek. While women graduates would soon gain entry and attend the College of Fine Arts in Zamalek, including Maryam Abdel-Aleem who graduated in 1954, it was a male-only institution from its inception in 1908 and up to circa 1951.
Of the selected images from this exhibition, we find a still-life by Mamdouha Bahir, facial portraits of young women by Soraya Abdel Rassoul, Kawsar Zaki, Hekmat Abdou, and an unattributed painting entitled “Mecanisme des Temps Moderns,” by a first-year student that reflected cubist and expressionist rearrangements of objects, trains, city architecture, and various urban environment symbolism. In other issues, we also find notices of exhibitions by the teachers at this same college, and other reviews of exhibitions by Gazbia Sirry and others as representative of the work of recent graduates of the institute.
In the December 1951 issue, Aimé Azar provided an idealist rationale for the place of women in art.7 In his romantic idealism Azar situates the woman as the pure object or role player for the heart of men. This flame of romance incarnates an ideal artistic vision of the woman and love. Azar uses George Romney’s portraits of society women, including his portraits of Lady Emma Hamilton, the mistress of Lord Nelson, that depict her as a heroic if scandalized figure who endures tragedy as she also embodies ideal beauty and passion. If Lady Hamilton was Romney’s artistic muse, then Sophia Caroline Booth (1798–1875), was the inspiration for Turner. Unlike Hamilton, she was relatively uneducated and first married to a fisherman, and her life was marked by the realities of financial uncertainty and a different series of tragedies. She became Turner’s companion after she was widowed in 1833 when both her son and husband died of cholera. Turner represented Booth in various portraits and in nude sketches and paintings.8 For this meme, Azar draws upon the dramatic paintings of W. Turner, whose Calais Pier, with French Poissards preparing for Sea: an English Packet arriving (1803), depicts the uncertain and tumultuous arrival of a passenger ferry to the port, its dark and stormy clouds whirling above storm-tossed waves against the fragile sails of the ferry.9 A third example given by Azar of prominent British women inspiring modern artists was the shop girl Lizzie Sidal, who became one of the most prominent models for the Pre-Raphaelite artists, Dante Rossetti. It is not apparent from his writing if Azar was aware of the varied social position of these British women models. Nevertheless, Azar would soon produce a number of key monographs on Egyptian women artists, beginning in 1953 with his short book, Femmes peintres d'Egypte.
1 The transliterated title used here is the same as found on the French language back cover of the original issues. The front cover was printed in Arabic.
2 The ending date of the journal remains undetermined. The Arabic Union Catalog lists the dates of publication as 1950–1952 for OCLC 4771378352. The al Mawrid collection begins with the first issue dated May 1950 and ends with the December 1951 issue. Only a partial collection is found at one library in Worldcat. In his encyclopedia of modern Egyptian art, Subhi el-Sharouni describes the volume as continuing for three years.
3 There are various transliterations of the name, I use a version that follows the name of the editor as shown on the inside covers of the journal itself, particularly Volume 4, nos. 18–19, October and November 1951.
4 Subhi al Sharuni, Musu`at al-funun al-jamila al-misriya fi al-qarn al-`ashrin (Encyclopedia of the Egyptian Fine Arts) (Cairo: al-dar al-misriya al-lubnaniya, 2012): 97–98.
5 On the changing roles of the Ministry of Culture, see Jessica Winegar, "Culture is the Solution: The Civilizing Mission of Egypt’s Culture Palaces," Review of Middle East Studies 43, no. 2 (2009): 189–197.
6 This author has previously written about this institute and Menhat Helmy, one of its first graduates. The institute went through several name changes, and it was also referred to as the ma`had al-ali li-ma`lumat al-funun al-jamila or Higher Institute for Women Teachers of the Fine Arts. See, Patrick Kane, “Menhat Helmy and the Emergence of Egyptian Women Art Teachers and Artists in the 1950s,” Arts 11, no. 5 (September 2022): 95, https://doi.org/10.3390/arts11050095.
7 Cynthia Nelson, Doria Shafik: Egyptian Feminist. A Woman Apart. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1996. 163.
8 Aimé Azar, “L’amour pur: source féconde d’inspiration,” Sawt El-Fannan 4, no. 20, (December 1951): 39–43. (in Arabic and French)
9 See the Tate Gallery entry on the Turner sketch, A Sleeping Woman, perhaps Mrs. Booth (circa 1830–40) https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-a-sleeping-woman-perhaps-mrs-booth-r1184330.
10 For details of the painting, see the National Gallery website, Joseph Mallord William Turner | Calais Pier | NG472 | National Gallery, London.
Cite this article as:
Kane, Patrik M. "From the al Mawrid Archives: Sawt al-Fannan Journal." Sawt al-Arsheef, al Mawrid NYUAD (May 2023).