Many of the unique pieces of art from Sherwet Shafei’s exceptional private collection are featured for the first time as reproductions in Twentieth-Century Egyptian Art: The Private Collection of Sherwet Shafei, a sumptuous new full-color volume by Mona Abaza recently published by the AUC Press. In an interview, the owner of Cairo's Safar Khan Gallery talked about her love for Egyptian art.
AUC Press: For the exhibition in the Margo Veillon Gallery of Modern Egyptian Art at the AUC Downtown Cultural Center [which was postponed because of the recent events in Egypt], you selected two sculptures and 36 paintings out of your extensive private collection that consists of 270 masterpieces. What were your criteria?
Shafei: I intended to make a collection that represents the most influential artists in Egypt from the whole twentieth century such as Mahmoud Saïd, Ragheb Ayab, Hamed Nada, Effat Naghy, Kamal Khalifa, Youssef Sida, Shaaban Zaky, and Ervand Demirdjian. I include the pioneers, the innovators, orientalists, and foreign painters of Egypt.
AUC Press: Why choose sculptures by Salah Abdel Karem and Kamal Khalifa?
Shafei: They are very important and at the same time very different. Salah Abdel Karem is the only one who did very good sculptures from wrought iron. Kamal Khalifa was very good in post-expressionism and is the most influential artist of that period.
AUC Press: How did you come to love art and become a collector?
Shafei: I began collecting in 1960 and I continue to until now. It is a lifetime work. But it really all started because of my work in television. I used to work for the national Egyptian radio and then later for television. At the time the general director of TV programs appointed me to present a new program about art called "Gawlet El Fonoun." I was the director, the producer, and writer of this program so I had to study a lot about art. I had a meeting with every artist since Mahmoud Saïd and Youssef Kamel, and all the pioneers…. The more I worked in this domain, the more I learned about Egyptian art. Over the years, my horizon in art became so wide. I made a very big archive of modern Egyptian art.
I always wanted to buy some artwork but I didn’t have the means. I was a government employee like my husband. Our salaries were very modest. The first piece of art that I was able to purchase was a painting by Hamed Nada entitled Night and Day. Later I bought the collection of Mahmoud Saïd, the pioneer of modern Egyptian painting. That is how I started acquiring art. I had the eye, the knowledge, I knew what works were important…. At that time fortunately there was not a big demand for Egyptian art so prices were quite reasonable.
AUC Press: Do you have any favorites among Egyptian modern artists?
Shafei: Mahmoud Saïd! There is something that Ramsis Younan, a very important artist and very cultivated person, said: “Magic is renewable every day in Saïd’s work.” This is exactly what I feel when I look at Saïd’s painting La Fille en Rose [oil, 1929] every morning at home when I am taking my coffee. I never get tired of looking at his paintings.
AUC Press: Why is Mona Abaza’s book Twentieth-Century Egyptian Art important?
Shafei: The works of art in this book have been accumulated by a person—I don’t like to talk about myself—who is knowledgeable about art. If I chose something then I chose the best. I am very glad to share it so that everybody can be exposed to modern Egyptian art in the right way. They are very rare pieces that can’t be found anymore. They are great pieces by great artists who were really big contributors because they spent all their life only producing art without getting much in return, in other words, creating art for the love of art. They were dedicated and all their efforts were transmitted to the new generation that came after them.
AUC Press: Today there are a lot of young Egyptian artists coming out of the Faculty of Art, more exhibitions, and more galleries. What do you think of contemporary Egyptian art today? Do you see a lot of new talent?
Shafei: No, unfortunately we saw the best. I am having a really hard time discovering new talents. In the past, there were very strict rules for anyone who wanted to apply to the Faculty of Arts. Applicants needed to have the basics and exhibit certain inner talent. Now they go into the arts according to the grades they get. If they don’t get good grades they go into arts.
Also before, every artist had a message. Your art must carry a message. What is it you want to talk about? The history, the beauty, the Egyptians, the farmers…. In the paintings reproduced for Mona Abaza’s book, you will find a lot of artists dedicating their work to the ordinary working Egyptian—women working, Youssef Sida’s La Blanchisseuse, Ragheb Ayad’s Laboring by the Nile, Mohamed Naghy’s Fellaha…. Ragheb Ayad found the golden triangle, the relation between the man, the animal, and the land of Egypt. This is a prolongation of the ancient Egyptian. If you go into the temples and tombs, you will see that there is always farming and work depicted in pharaonic art.
Today also the technique of the new generation of artists is not as good as before. Not only that, they have a tendency of imitating each other. Creativity has been overshadowed…. But sometimes I do find very good artists that I am launching or already have launched such as Ahmed Kassim and Marwa Adel. I have even launched artists who are not of Egyptian origin like Suad Mardam Bey, a Syrian, Katherine Bakhoum, who is French….
AUC Press: How do you think contemporary Egyptian art is perceived by the larger international art world, and will Mona Abaza’s book enhance this perception?
Shafei: Contemporary art is flourishing everywhere and it is beginning to flourish in Egypt. I think contemporary Egyptian art will eventually reach a wider audience of art lovers. But we cannot work without the basics and this book is the basics for anybody interested in art.
AUC Press: You are in a sense also a pioneer in that you have collected such a unique collection of contemporary Egyptian art. How do you see your role?
Shafei: My role is to continue working. This way I will never stop discovering art. Art satisfies me, it enriches me. Through art, I see life as something very beautiful. Through this book, I got three artists who were completely forgotten—Nahmeya Saad, Shaaban Zaky, and to a certain extent Kamal Khalifa—and brought them back to life. Even if they have passed away a long time ago, they should never be neglected. I went a long way to find them. For Kamal Khalifa, I went to Tanta, back to his place of origin. Shaaban Zaky, I looked for him for eight years until I found him in Helwan. For Nahmeya Saad, I had to go through one of his friends until I finally traced him in Shoubra. I believe that as long as I am living, I should get the best of Egyptian art and put it in the limelight again. Those artists deserve it.
From the mid-1880s to the end of the 1930s, boarding a Nile steamer at Cairo for a three-week voyage up to Aswan and back was just about the most glamorous, exciting, and luxurious vacation in the world.
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