A stone’s throw away from the underground station near Qasr El-Nil Bridge is Egypt’s Modern Art Museum on the Opera House grounds, surrounded by green manicured lawns that separate visitors from the bustle of Cairo.
It was not always nestled peacefully in this Zamalek site. The seeds of the idea were first sown by the greatest patron of art in Egypt, Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil. In 1925, Khalil began acquiring artwork by Egyptian artists, forming what became the nucleus of the collection at the museum.
In 1927, he convinced the Palace to form a fine arts advisory committee, answering to the Ministry of Education. The committee recommended that the Cairo Modern Art Museum be established.
In the same year, a small hall of the Fine Art Lovers’ Society in the Tigeran Palace in Ibrahim Pasha Street (now Gomhouria Street) became the first root of the sought after museum. The collection was, indeed, small, yet donations of paintings and sculptures by fine art aficionados were gradually added to it. The holdings were then moved to the site of the old wax museum established by Fouad Abdel-Malik, at the Moussery family seat, on the corner of Fouad (now 26 July Street) and Emad Al-Din (Mohamed Farid) streets. Finally, the collection was housed in a building that proudly carried the name of the "Fine Arts Museum" in Egypt.
During World War II, the headquarters was moved to several palaces with fin de siècle architecture. The genius loci of these headquarters suited the rare items on display. In 1986, the Ministry of Culture stepped in and decided to move the museum to its current headquarters in Gezirah.
The new museum was built in 1936 and designed by renowned Architect Mustafa Fahmy. It took the government five years of extensive work and more than LE 2 million to prepare the building. The building has a rectangular facade, with four columns bounding three large ornamental windows. It has three large rectangular doors; the main entrance, accessible via a ramp and two flights of granite stairs, is flanked by two towers. On either side are two large halls for sculpture exhibitions.
The museum exhibits 400 works, which were shrewdly planned in 2001 with military precision by a group of Egyptian artists. The ground floor is devoted to exhibiting the work of contemporary Egyptian artists starting from 1975 up until now, giving visitors an overview of the state of today’s art scene in Egypt. The rest of the floors were laid out chronologically, starting with the pioneers and ending with the experiments of the up-and-coming artists.
The main entrance and the lobby are nowadays taken over by the paintings of the "Cairo International Biennale," which runs well into February 2011. But the moment you step in, you are given a panorama of art and, most importantly, life in Egypt in the 20th century, immortalized in a number of paintings beginning with "Nile by the Gala’a Bridge" by Mohamed Nagy.
As if he knew that it would be changed beyond recognition, thus opting to paint it as a way to preserve it for posterity, the serene imagery of the "Waterwheel" by Hussein Mohammed Youssef takes you back to the heyday of Egypt and the beautiful countryside.
There is the Heba Enyat painting featuring a farmer reading a paper with his wife behind him carrying an infant representing the 60s with all its hopes and dreams.
Yet, not everything was this positive back then, as portrayed in a sculpture of the political prisoner by Hassan Al-Agati, a realistic piece representing the sinister reality of its time. There is also the "Hunger" painting depicting a skeletal head with empty eyes gawping longingly at a huge can of tinned sardines by Zakariya Al-Zayni, which occupies most of the canvas.
On the first floor, you’re drawn to the famous "Bullfighter" by Adham Wanly with its dark colors and the brooding long face of the fighter and the clear opinion of the painter of the sport, which made him splash the rest of the ring and audience in blood red. Then, you are staring into the compassionate eyes of "Miss H," dressed in all her black chiffon finery and holding a little book — of poetry I am sure — in her long tapered fingers. Then, you discover that it is by Ema Cali Ayyad, the Italian artist and wife of the famous Pioneer Ragheb Ayyad.
I was most taken by Gamal Kamal’s masterful portrait of the great romantic poet Ahmed Rami; all dewy-eyed, disheveled hair and dark look in his eyes in a simple crisp white shirt.
Wandering about on the first floor would bring you to the "Waves" of George Sabbagh, transporting you immediately to the Montazah Corniche in Alexandria, so vivid that it leaves a taste of salt in your mouth and the smell of hot, damp sand all around.
When you turn a corner on the second floor, a total surprise awaits you in the form of oil in canvass titled “Bathers." The painting shows four ladies in long towels and terry turbans of different heights and weights in a private girl talk session, but the shock is in the name of the painter Mustafa Hussein, who is a household name for his famous cartoons and satirical treatment of topical issues. Who knew that Mustafa Hussein had such paintings?
It is astonishing that the rich and turbulent 20th century could be compactly presented in the two-storey building of the Modern Art Museum, giving visitors an insight into the country and its people of those times.
Tickets to the museum are affordable; LE 2 for Egyptians and LE 10 for non-Egyptians.
Cairo Opera House grounds, Gezira, Zamalek, Cairo. Tel: (02) 2736 6665. Open 9 am-3 pm and from 5-9 pm, closed Mondays.
A piece by Salah Yousry.