CAIRO: One hundred years after it was founded, Cairo s School of Fine Arts seeks to train Egypt s artists but has to make do without nude life drawing classes so as not to offend Islam.
It is in this academic hive, sheltered inside a neo-classical villa on the chic island of Zamalek, that 2,500 students come from around the country, with most of the female students these days veiled.
Ever since it was set up by the patron Prince Yussef Kamal in 1908, modeled on European art schools, the great names of Egyptian art have passed through.
The long list started in 1911 with the father of Egyptian sculpture, Mahmoud Mokhtar, and includes the best-known pioneers of modern Egyptian art like Mohamed Hassan, Ahmed Sabri and Ragheb Ayyad.
The school was recognized as a national institute of higher education in 1927.
But the time has gone when you would learn to draw, paint or sculpt the human body and its movement, as in some other parts of the world, facing a nude model.
We no longer have anything but anatomy books and photos, says second year student Ahmed Gamel, 20. But a photo is already someone else s way of looking, and that s not right, we should be forging our own vision.
A naked model would be haram, or forbidden, under Islam.
It just happened, without a decree, in the 70s. There never used to be a problem, says sculpture professor Mohammed Al-Allawi.
Like the dancers at Cairo s Opera House, the models must be covered head-to-toe.
Belly dancing, also considered an art form by some, is in decline in Egypt, with dancers considered sinners by the majority in an increasingly conservative society where Islamists are the main opposition force.
The Islamists began the fight in the name of virtue and against Western values. The government and the school s management followed, says education expert Kamal Mughith.
The devout say that Islam forbids any human representation in art. At the start of the 20th century, theological reformist Mohammed Abdu tried to argue that such a restriction was anachronistic.
Egypt s national pride, its ancient Pharaonic and Hellenistic art, is also abundant with depictions of bare-breasted women.
But, mirroring society s evolution, prudishness also affected the arts. Ten years ago, nudes by the great painter Mahmoud Said, who died in 1964, could not be shown at a retrospective.
We are living a catastrophe, when you think that no one ever used to ask these questions, says art critic Ahmed Fuad Selim.
At the school, students and teachers alike say that the lack of nude models greatly and negatively affects teaching the laws of the body.
There s not just anatomy, art isn t just about drawing the body, says Shayma Magdi, 21, wearing sunglasses and a multicolored headscarf.
Renowned illustrator Makram Henin went to the School of Fine Arts until the early 60s. That was back in the days of the nude model, he says, viewing their disappearance as ridiculous.
But as always with taboos, it backfires, young women from the school now pose nude in front of their fellow students in private apartments, he says.
Gallery owners say that fine arts in Egypt are in decline.
Artists under 30 are neither original nor cultivated when they finish (art school), their work is purely decorative, says Gerard Avedissian of the Villa Grey gallery.
I ask myself what they learn in that school, he laments. -AFP