Islamic Studies Modern and Contemporary Egyptian Art
Alex Dika Seggerman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0291


During the course of the 20th century, Egypt transformed from a British-occupied province of the Ottoman Empire into a powerful nation-state and leader of both pan-Arabism and the Non-Aligned Movement. In 2011, protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square erupted as part of the “Arab Spring,” drawing global attention to Egypt, its people’s cry for freedom, and its visual culture of dissent. Throughout the modern period, Egypt’s ancient history of pyramids, pharaohs, and mummies has long enchanted locals as well as visitors from around the globe. Today, Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country and Africa’s second-largest economy. Moreover, Egypt is multi-confessional. It is majority Muslim and home to the thousand-year-old Al-Azhar University, a principal hub of Sunni Muslim scholarship, yet it also has a substantial Coptic Christian minority of 10 percent. Modern Egypt is a center of Arabic-language cultural production, particularly film and television, but also including music, literature, and the fine arts. Most histories of modern art in Egypt start with the 1908 founding of the School of Fine Arts in Cairo. The school was established alongside the local nationalist elite’s broader push for higher education in Egypt at the turn of the 20th century. The school is still in operation today as Kulīat al-Funūn al-Gamīla as part of Egypt’s larger university system. Many of Cairo’s most prominent artists attended or taught at the school. Throughout the 20th century, Cairo and the coastal city of Alexandria were home to active art scenes, with schools, studios, galleries, exhibits, criticism groups, and museums. Especially from the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 through the Free Officer’s Revolution in 1952, Egypt was a regional hub for commerce and travel, and the country was accessible to many nationalities due to rule under the Ottoman Empire from 1517 to 1914 and the British occupation from 1882 to 1956. Thus, Egyptian artists easily circulated in a Mediterranean milieu and were very knowledgeable about art movements across the region. Artists often studied abroad in Europe (and, later, the United States) and participated in global exhibitions like the Venice and São Paulo Biennials. The early graduates of the School of Fine Arts in the 1910s and 1920s blended their training in French academic techniques with Egyptian imagery in order to participate in nationalist visual culture that called for self-rule. For instance, sculptor Mahmoud Moukhtar (b. 1891–d. 1934) worked in a neo-pharaonic style, incorporating nationalist imagery with the approach of the European “Return to Order” movement. In the late 1930s, Surrealism came to Egypt, and the “Art and Liberty Group” was formed under a fiery young poet named Georges Henien (b. 1914–d. 1973). After World War II, a new generation of artists, like Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar (b. 1925–d. 1966) and Inji Efflatoun (b. 1924–d. 1989) took the lessons of Surrealism, moving away from academic styles and advocating for social justice for workers, the poor, and women. After the crushing Naksa defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War, the powerful nationalist movement waned, and the following decades of infitah (“opening”) under President Anwar Sadat (r. 1970–1981) and subsequently global investment capitalism under President Hosni Mubarak (r. 1981–2011) weakened state institutions. Alongside an ever-globalizing art world, boundaries between local and diaspora artists continue to dissolve, with artists like Huda Lutfi (b. 1948), Ghada Amer (b. 1963), and Wael Shawky (b. 1971) gaining prominence on the global stage. (Note on transliteration: Arabic authors, titles, and publishing houses in citations have been transliterated according to the Library of Congress transliteration system to facilitate locating these texts in libraries. Publishing location (most often Cairo) has been written in English, though occasionally library databases will list Cairo in transliterated script as “al-Qāhira.” In the textual annotations, every effort has been made to write the names of artists and critics in the way in which they rendered their names in Latin letters during their lifetimes. These transliterations often do not match, for example, Inzhī Aflāṭūn [LOC transliteration] and Inji Efflatoun [artist transliteration] refer to the same person.)

General Overviews

General Overviews of modern Egyptian art are split here into three sections. The first section, Arabic Surveys, includes Arabic texts published in Egypt. The second section, Non-Arabic Surveys, includes works in English and French published locally as well as with Euro-American presses. The third section, Overviews of Arab and African Art, including Egypt, lists surveys with a wider geographical scope that includes Egypt. Notably, Egypt falls into both categories of modern Middle Eastern art as well as modern African art.

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