Contemporary Egyptian Art / Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity

Article excerpt

Contemporary Egyptian Art, by Liliane Karnouk. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1995. vii + 132 pages. Notes to p. 130. Index to p. 132. n.p.

Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity, by Wijdan Ali. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. xii + 225 pages. Append. to p. 212. Notes to p. 215. Bibl. to p. 218. Index to p. 225. $59.95.

Reviewed by Mary-Jane Deeb

These two books have a great deal in common: Both focus on 20th-century art in the Middle East, and both are written by women who are painters and artists in their own right. However, Wijdan Ali's study has a historical background, going back to the late 18th century, while Liliane Karnouk's focuses on the second part of the 20th century. Ali looks at the Arab world, Turkey and Iran, whilst Karnouk focuses on Egypt. Ali's study is a general overview of the state of the arts in the 20th century; Kamouk's is a more in-depth analysis of a certain number of contemporary Egyptian painters and sculptors.

The scope of the work of the two authors is quite different. Ali's work is more geographically dispersed and focuses not only on painting, though this is certainly the most significant part of the book, but also on calligraphy. Her goal is twofold: "to trace the development of Western aesthetics and modem painting in the Islamic world and to establish the continuity of Islamic art in the twentieth century through the Calligraphic School of art" (p. xii).

Karnouk's book is a sequel to an earlier study of Egyptian art titled Modern Egyptian Art: The Emergence of a National Style. ' She does not explain clearly, in either work, what it is that she is trying to accomplish, except to record, chronologically, the evolution of art in Egypt. Although, like Ali, she focuses primarily on painting, Karnouk also looks at some of the dramatic sculptures that were created by the likes of Jamal al-Sighini, Muhammad Hajras and Adam Hunayn.

While conceptually different, both books raise the question of what is Islamic art? Karnouk looks at the debate on what is a modern "Islamic approach" to art, which began in 1971 in Baghdad, where the first biennial conference on Arab contemporary art took place. She concludes that "it seems that integration ... [is] the essential common denominator, and that the revival of Islamic art has consisted of seeking to recover the cultural as well as the aesthetic meaning of tawahud' (unity, integration, all in One)" (p. 79).

Ali, on the other hand, whose book is titled Modern Islamic Art, does not really define the concept: "Modern Islamic art is an enigma that carries ambiguous connotations, in both its name and its nature. On the one hand, the term modern conjures up a progressive, up-to-date condition. On the other hand, the word Islamic has overtones of tradition and religion, more relevant to the past than the present" (p. xi). Ali does say that as a "contemporary Islamic artist" (p. …