As such, members of the group tackled the issues of their time such as police brutality, dramatically captured by Greek-Egyptian artist Mayo in his 1937 painting Coups de Bâtons (Sticks), and prostitution. Kamel El-Telmisany’s 1940 work Untitled (Wounds) hauntingly depicts women being crucified – by life, by circumstance, by war. Pharaonic imagery was used as government propaganda, so where such elements are used by Art and Liberty artists these appear broken and twisted. An untitled 1939 painting by Ramses Younane depicts the body of a goddess bent at awkward angles, while Ida Kar’s collage-like photographs subvert images of Egyptian temples and icons, with flesh-flecked ribs instead of temple columns and majestic pyramids cupped in the palm of a hand. Elsewhere, Amy Nimr’s vividly hazy paintings depict skeletons submerged in the ocean, reflecting the artist’s grief at the loss of her 10-year-old son in a bomb blast.
By the early 1950s, the group had begun to disband; after the coup in 1952 led by General Nasser some fled into exile for fear of imprisonment. Since then, the Art and Liberty Group has been dismissed as a failed attempt to impose Occidental values on Egyptian art.
Now that conclusion is being reassessed following research by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, curators of the Tate Liverpool show Surrealism in Egypt, who stumbled across the group when preparing another exhibition. What followed was five years of painstaking study, over 200 interviews and a complete recalibration of our understanding, not only of the history of art in Egypt, but of the history of Surrealism and its influence across the world.
The Art and Liberty Group period is arguably one of the Egyptian art scene’s most important chapters. That so little was previously known about it is somewhat tragic. Now, bringing together 115 artworks from 33 private and public collections across 10 countries, Surrealism in Egypt offers an insight into the country’s post-war political and social climate, and bears testament to the great intellectual achievements of one of the most creatively rich periods in modern Egyptian history.