- Surrealism in Egypt: Modernism and the Art and Liberty Group by Sam Bardaouil
Sam Bardaouil's Surrealism in Egypt: Modernism and the Art and Liberty Group offers a thorough and rigorously researched volume on the history and artistic practices of the Art and Liberty Group in Egypt. The volume succeeds in reading Egyptian surrealism as a local instantiation of the past century's global forms of modernism that harbored a universal consciousness, deemed by the author as mid-twentieth century "international" sentiment (89). Bardaouil shows that according to one of the group's main figures, Georges Henein, the task of surrealist art was to assert that "in the face of universal human suffering the boundaries of time and place have no choice but to collapse" (94). Situating this artistic practice in the world-historical context of the struggle against fascism and the rise of liberationist politics, Bardaouil rejects employing a postcolonial framework that would delimit the contours of the Art and Liberty Group's artistic practice within Egyptian and Arab modernist studies (31). The task of the volume is, then, to introduce a historical and theoretical framing of the group that does not reduce it to an "isolated incident within a nationally confined reading of Egyptian modernism" (31). In his introduction, Bardaouil asserts that the historicist epistemologies that focus on re-inserting the "so-called Other into the mainstream canon" of the West falls short of the very purview of art practices of the Art and Liberty Group who saw their own actions and art-works as engagements with the global movement of modernism: "instead of picturing them as victims to a marginalizing Western-centrism, it is more adequate to highlight their role as active catalysts who contributed to the evolution and widening up of the formalistic qualities of Surrealism at the time" (32).
Taking up this task of writing a counter-history, chapter sequence is as follows: chapter one presents a "pre-history" of Art and Liberty through practices of collection and exhibition in the colonial context within which the seeds of Egyptian nationalism were sown. The colonial context allowed for the proliferation of bourgeois national myths of a Pharaonic heritage, staged through exhibition practices of the Société des amis de l'art. At the same time, the spread of capitalism generated the counterposition of communism, which found a fertile context in post-World War I Egypt (34–36). It is in this antinationalist and anticapitalist current that Bardaouil locates the Art and Liberty Group's first and second exhibitions, staged against the bourgeois ideals of art at the time. Thus, against the rise of the Effendiyya as bearers of national mythology, the surrealist group "opposed the conflation of art with national sentiment" (47).
Chapter two then proceeds to ground the group's radical politics against a growing "fascism at home" (50). Henein's repulsive image of the rising fascist paramilitary groups as the "tumor-infested backsides" of humanity illustrates, for Bardaouil, the formative influence of the rise of fascism for the manifesto of the Art and Liberty Group, who, as the author argues, did not simply adopt André Breton's Trotskyism and did not serve as an official chapter of FIARI (Fédération Internationale de l'Art Révolutionnaire Indépendant), but had their own local battles to wage with futurism and fascism. Bardaouil shows how F. T. Marinetti and Nelson Morpurgo's fascist politics can be traced to the time spent in Alexandria—which was a direct target of the expansion of the Italian colonial Empire under Mussolini—and to their activities in establishing futurist circles in Cairo. Marinetti was, after all, in Mussolini's delegation to Egypt in 1929 as a representative of the fascist state and the Art and Liberty Group were vocal against his claim that surrealism and avant-garde art practices originated in futurism. Bardaouil shows that the group, from the very beginning, conceived itself to be politically and artistically opposed to futurism, and allied with communism against fascism (66). The first major exhibition...