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Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 6.2 (2006) 117-149

Politics by Other Means
Two Egyptian Artists, Gazbia Sirry and Ghada Amer
Chika Okeke-Agulu

This essay reconsiders the work of two artists, Gazbia Sirry and Ghada Amer, who belong to two different generations and who in their work have demonstrated the significance of the voice of women in debates about nation and citizenship, gender politics, and individual subjectivity in Egypt. Sirry (b. 1925), evidently one of the most eminent living painters in Egypt, belongs to the generation whose early work coincided with and was given ideological focus by the Nasserite Revolution with its support of women's causes in the early 1950s; it is a generation that witnessed the strengthening of the Muslim Brotherhood and the consequent fractious debates about proper forms of sociality and the place of religious belief in contemporary life. Amer (b. 1963), since the beginning of the 1990s, dramatically builds on the critical practices of previous Egyptian women artists, secular feminists, and social activists in the sense that she critically challenges contemporary infringement of the modest social and political freedoms that previous generations of Egyptian women have won.

Through Sirry's work it is possible to read, for the most part indirectly, the post-Nasserite political history of Egypt to the present. Although most critics see her use of color as the significant aspect of her painting, this essay argues that despite her achievement as a colorist a more vital part of work is her commitment to social and political commentary of the most sophisticated kind. I want to demonstrate, through a rigorous reading and analysis of her representative work from the early 1950s to the present, that [End Page 117] Sirry is, arguably, one of the best examples of women artists who, along with other Egyptian women since the beginning of the twentieth century, have significantly contributed to the discourse of nationalism, cultural emancipation, gender politics, and individual freedoms within the sovereign, modern state. In other words, this study suggests the ways in which Sirry's work as painter goes beyond its obvious formalist preoccupations and how it is firmly rooted in the rhetoric of Egyptian cultural politics.

Similarly, contemporary critics and art historians have pointed to Amer's involvement in the postfeminist critique of patriarchy, particularly notions about female sexuality, the social economy of pornography, and her subjection of masculinist-painterly gestures of Abstract Expressionism to the tender, complex rigor of women's craftwork (Lundström 2004; Guralnik 2000; Oguibe 2000; Breitz 1998). Missing in most of these analyses, however, are the specific conditions of the relationship between Amer's work and Egyptian modern/contemporary art and social discourse, particularly the well-established tradition of social and political commentary, amply reflected in Sirry's paintings. Although the biographies of the two artists differ—Sirry trained in Paris and returned to her native Cairo, where she still lives, while Amer, a Paris-trained resident of New York, left Cairo as a child, returning there now only occasionally—this essay seeks to show the extent to which their visual politics is framed by and reflects a long-standing history of Egyptian women's activism. Focusing on Sirry's oil paintings and Amer's embroidered canvases, this essay is, necessarily, a reframing of Sirry's work to assert its critical edge within the Egyptian political context and a critique of texts that underacknowledge the import of Egyptian secular feminist discourse and practice in Amer's art.

Backgrounds: The New Woman in Modern Egypt

The role that women have played in the making of modern Egypt has been well documented, and some scholars have suggested the interconnection between the emergence of women in Egypt's public discourse and the beginnings of Egyptian political nationalism (Russell 2004). As Margot Badran has shown, toward the end of the nineteenth century, the political and cultural revitalization of Egypt, after centuries of oppression and subordination, began with the articulation of twin discourses of secular nationalism and Islamic modernism (1995, 4), and...


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