Egypt has 6000 years of civilization in the Nile valley with incredible paintings, sculptures, and architecture for Egyptian artists to draw upon when they are searching for their roots. Because of Islam’s ban on depicting living creatures, a rich calligraphic tradition developed, enabling artists to overcome the ban by drawing with script. Pictures were not allowed in mosques and other religious buildings, so the focus shifted to a variation in architecture and ornamental decoration.

The Cairo School of Fine Arts, the first modern school of fine arts in Egypt started in 1908 and was modelled on western academies of fine arts. Previously there did not exist any pictorial art made by any Egyptians and anything before it was considered amateur. The teaching staff were mainly from France and Italy. It was at this academy that the first Egyptian modern artists were trained.

The years between independence in 1922 and the 52-revolution were very important for Egyptian society and culture in the expectations and changes that were created. The expectations that were created from 1922 about a new and better society were not
satisfied, which then created the basis for the 52-revolution. Egypt was young and creating a new national identity and its art-scene was an important aspect of its development at this time. Foreign artists settled in Egypt and were employed in important positions in art colleges and Egyptian artists went back to their cultural roots.

1956—1970: Nasserism and Egyptian art

The creation of Israel in 1948 followed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to the presidency played a major role in the transformation of the contemporary art scene in Egypt. Contemporary artists started to express through their work the panarabism Nasser was
trying to put into effect. After the Palestinian cause, the main topic of this era was the Arab unity and contemporary art shifted from Western influence to common Arab culture.

Injy Efflatoun is one of the main artists known for this period. Her canvases spoke about the reality of life in Egypt, depicting workers, protests, and women. Her rebellion led her to prison, where Efflatoun continued painting and was able to capture a raw representation of the plight of women.

1970—2000: Pan-Arabism and Islamism

When Anwar Sedat became president in 1970, he counteracted the nasserists left wing by allowing the coming back of Islamism. Contemporary art began introducing more calligraphy through works depicting Islamic historical events reinforcing the pan-arabism feeling. The regional aspect grew stronger and regional Arab culture became the main source of
inspiration for artists.

A derivative of a Cairo low-to- mid income district during this period, Fathi Afifi’s paintings expose Cairo’s crowded streets and neighborhoods, exposing everyday Cairo life. In his work, Afifi captures the roaming masses travelling through Cairo’s overrun sreets, sidewalks, train stations, factories, and coffeeshops.

George Bahgory, who is referred to as “the grandfather of Egyptian caricature” is one of Egypt’s most renowned artists who also emerged during this period. Bahgory is best known for his figurative style and sarcasm which he developed during thirty years of living in Paris. His Cubist-style paintings induce a sense of nostalgia, referencing Egyptian icons of the era, while promoting pan-arabism, women’s rights, and national reform.

Celebrated for his sculptural work in bronze, wood, clay, and granite, and his abstract paintings, Adam Henein also draws on his Egyptian heritage in renewing ancient techniques that include painting on papyrus sheets with natural pigments and gum Arabic. References to Egypt’s Pharaonic past are alive in his work and are combined with his genius as
a modern artist.

Egyptian artists looking for alternatives during this period were directed towards Surrealism and contributed to creating a market for alternative art. Influenced by mythology, imagination and the subconscious, Ahmed Morsi inhabited his paintings with figures and scenes that are influenced by mythology, imagination, and the subconscious. While largely a prolific artist, Ahmed Morsi is also an accomplished linguist, a poet, translator and art and literary critic.

Since the 52-revolution, the Egyptian authorities paid considerable attention to art and culture and created the Department of Culture which was responsible for the government’s involvement in the arts. The art-scene in Egypt is dominated by public institutions, perhaps as a need to show that the new government after 1952 represented something new and revolutionary. Many colleges of art education were established along with colleges for music, theatre, ballet, opera and films. There is a strong emphasis placed on art as a necessary part of modernization and of the westernization of society in Egypt.