Mahmud Mukhtar


Egypt Awakening,  Granite Sculpture  ca. 1928









When I was a very young man I visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It is easy to find, part of the grand location that is the Midan Tahrir, the most modern of Cairo’s public squares and certainly the most central to Egypt’s modern personality.  I mean, you got your Hilton, you got your American University, and the museum is right there to store Tutankhamen’s treasures for us until the folks in New York City need to see them again. Very handy, it all is.

The museum in those days was a lot more impressive from the outside than it was inside. This was not because the treasures inside weren’t amazing, but simply because they were mostly left to look out for themselves.  No set designer had got in the middle of things to jazz it up and lend it pop; ordinary long glass cases and simple typed signs were used to display small objects.  I recall lots of windows and sunlight but little artificial lighting.  It felt a lot like being in a large municipal building in America’s Deep South with clackety floors and many rooms, the air warm and thick with the scent of strong wood.  When you looked at King Tut’s stuff and saw all the gold you just thought, huh, well that’s a lot of gold, sure enough.  Gold is actually kind of boring when you get around a lot of it.

You may not have heard this about gold, but turns out it is just metal.

I got the oddest feeling from the guards at the museum that they were kind of embarrassed by the whole thing. Most of the great tombs were robbed long before archaeologists got to them, and I think that while Egyptians are certainly proud of their treasures, they are also a little disappointed that they let such a big one get away. It’s like they are ashamed of having such inefficient grave robbers.  It’s a very American sort of feeling. We have such a fondness for rascals ourselves we’ve made near cults for the Jesse James types, for the Bonnie and Clydes. We made a hero out of the Godfather, for crying out loud. There is just something in our character that loves a duplicitous, murdering bastard.

But that’s beside the point. With all the grandeur of Egypt’s past at my fingertips, none of it impressed me as much as this sculpture which I saw later.  It stands at the gate of Cairo University in Giza and was sculpted by the great Egyptian artist Mahmud Mukhtar between 1919 and 1928, roughly.  I have seen it called Egypt Awakening in most places, but in the picture at Wikipedia Commons it is called Egypt’s Renaissance. Mukhtar was a very forward thinking man for his time. His statue shows not merely an Egypt that embraces its incredible cultural heritage, but one which is ready to march forward into the modern world free with its head held high. His woman is liberating herself from the veil, announcing herself a partner in the world even as she rests an affectionate arm on a heritage that reaches to Cleopatra and beyond. His was a dangerous and heretical stance. There are places in the world today where just making such a sculpture might get you killed. He created this before women’s liberation, before the modernization of women’s roles in Egyptian life.  But he was not a one issue artist. He wanted free determination for every Egyptian citizen, male or female, Muslim or Christian or Jew or Arab or Nubian. He wanted to remind his own people that once they were the keepers of a library so large and fine that the world’s philosophers considered it the fulfillment of a dream just to visit there and study. He wanted to remind his own brothers and sisters that Egyptians did not merely contribute to Western culture, they may well have invented it.

Two titles, and one is a promise. Renaissance means re-birth. To be born again is to start fresh, to start clean. All things are possible.

Today, right now, this minute in Midan Tahrir, or as CNN calls it, Tahrir Square, Mubarak’s thugs fire on the Egyptian people from the rooftops of the Hilton, and the American University, and the Egyptian Museum, and anywhere else they can find a perch. They hurl Molotov cocktails and light protestors on fire. They race through the streets on horseback throwing blows and firing guns. These are the so-called “pro-Mubarak” protestors who all seem very organized and armed in their nondescript clothing.

And yet as of this writing the people remain. They have not yet been driven down or away. And here in America we wait to see exactly what kind of wrong choice we will make about the Middle East this time. But I can guess because, hey, America does love a duplicitous, murdering bastard.

You may not have heard this about duplicitous, murdering bastards, but turns out they’re just human.

Two titles for this sculpture, and one is a promise. The other, Egypt Awakening? Well that’s a threat. If you want to try to negate that threat, you might try doing something to work for peace. I leave you with Mr. Yeats.

“…somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again, but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.”




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14 Responses to Mahmud Mukhtar

  1. Albert Berg says:

    I love the personal experience you bring to this post. I felt almost as if I were transported to that museum through your writing. Thank you for sharing your insights on this wonderful piece of art.

    • foxpudding says:

      Let’s just hope this doesn’t all suddenly go very bad. Thanks for reading.

      • Thank you for publishing your views and experiences and thoughts about Egypt. You have only glanced on the surface. I treasure all the beauty and history of the artifacts in the King Tut exhibit and have been to see it twice.

        And I wonder if there is any way to keep from making unwise decisions about the Middle East. My heart aches for the Egyptian people and all they have gone through and are going through. All American people do not love the guilty traitor.

      • foxpudding says:

        I spent a lot of time in the Middle East when I was young. Do not mistake me; I treasure that experience very much. I think most Americans are on the side of the protesters, and I hope these latest reports of a peaceful resolution come true for everyone’s sake.

  2. Egyptian art is beautiful, I like the cat-like figures in many of the pictures.

  3. Pingback: Hedendaagse kunst uit de Arabische wereld en Iran (verschenen als ingezonden stuk in Kunstbeeld, april 2010) « Mijn hersenspinsels en gedachtekronkels

    • foxpudding says:

      Not sure how to respond to this. It is a link to a wordpress article in Dutch which someone might like to read. It is on point, apparently, so not spam. It translates as “[Contemporary Art from the Arab world and Iran (as a letter to the editor published in Art Picture, April 2010) “My fantasies and twisted thoughts”

      So there you go.

  4. Dear Foxpudding,

    Let me explain to you. This is the text of a letter I send to the Dutch Art Magazine ‘Kunstbeeld’. It is about modern and contemporary art in the Middle East, in the context of the current events.
    In this version I placed a lot of links, almost behind every name I mention. Behind the name ‘Mahmud Mukhtar’ I placed a link to this article on your blog, because I found it very interesting and you have a clear picture of Mukhtar’s monument.
    This summer I am going to translate a series of my articles on contemporary art of the Arab World in English. Also this small contribution. So then you can read it,

    kind regards,
    Floris Schreve

    • foxpudding says:

      Actually, I did read it using Google translate which I found pretty helpful. It is kind of you to explain. If I had done a little more research I’d have realized what a pingback was. You’re the first person to do this, and I of course looked it up after I’d made my comment. Never mind. Thanks again for the kind support, and I look forward to seeing your work.


  5. Pingback: Lezing ‘Moderne en hedendaagse kunst van de Arabische wereld’, 17 mei 2011 « Mijn hersenspinsels en gedachtekronkels

  6. Pingback: Modern and contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa « Mijn hersenspinsels en gedachtekronkels

  7. Her is the English version (the article, a handout of a lecture and references):

    kind regards
    Floris Schreve

  8. Pingback: Modern and contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa « On Global/Local Art

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