Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar (1891–1934) is widely viewed as the godfather of modern Egyptian sculpture.
Apart from his artistic success and iconic status as a pioneer in modern Egyptian sculpture, Mukhtar’s trajectory reflects Egypt’s turbulent and dynamic atmosphere from the outset of the 20th century to the interwar period.
Mukhtar exerted a profound influence on successive generations of Egyptian artists. As artist Fadia Badrawi, writes, “[His] short life, just 43 years, belies the tremendous impact he has had on Egypt’s nationalist artistic style and the contemporary sculpture of today.”
He was a core member first generation of modern Egyptian artists who were, according to curator Salwa Mikdadi, “driven by a renewed appreciation of their national patrimony and the return to ancient Pharaonic art detached from any African, Arab, or religious cultural references.” As Mikdadi writes, Mukhtar’s neo-Pharaonic style was based on a revival of Egyptian classical art, using “symbolic references derived from ancient Egypt or rural life.”
The son of fellaheen (farmers) Mukhtar’s opportunity to attend Cairo’s newly-founded School of Fine Arts arose from circumstance and merit: The school, founded in 1908 by Prince Youssef Kamal, provided a fully-funded education for chosen students.
In 1911, Mukhtar won a scholarship to study art in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts. During his stay there, he gained international notoriety for himself and for Egypt, and forged political connections that inspired his involvement in Egypt’s independence movement.
In 1913, his figure Aida became the first work by a modern Egyptian artist to be included in an international exhibition in Paris, making Mukhtar the first Egyptian artist in modern times to exhibit work outside his native country and to receive international recognition.
In Paris, he also met Saad Zaghloul — the iconic leader of Al-Wafd Party who would later lead the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 — and flirted with the prospect of involvement in the party’s independence movement.
Upon his return, Mukhtar championed Egypt’s political independence movement as a part of Al-Wafd, joining writers, poets, artists, and other secular liberals dedicated to constructing a modern Egyptian national identity apart from foreign manipulation.
Mukhtar’s artistic legacy is inseparable from his involvement in the independence movement and his ability to capture and create modern Egyptian identity at a pivotal moment in its formation. The intrinsic connection between Mukhtar’s politics and his art is visible in the primary subjects of his sculptures: political figures associated with the revolution in 1919 and peasant men and women going about their daily tasks.
As curator Nihal Wahby summarizes, “Mahmoud Mukhtar is one of the most important Egyptian artists, if not the most important. Though he was highly influenced by international exposure, his value added was his success in reflecting the Egyptian identity very naturally.”
In accordance with his important role in the formation of Egyptian national consciousness, some of Mukhtar’s most seminal works are displayed in public areas.
Arguably Muktar’s most famous piece, Nahdet Misr (Egypt’s Renaissance) portrays a Sphinx rising and a peasant woman lifting her veil to reveal her face. The piece was commissioned by the Egyptian government after Zaghloul had admired a scale model of the work in Paris. Constructed in neo-Pharaonic style, the monument evokes a sense of stirring from deep within a proud and fabled past.
As Arthur Goldschmidt writes, the work encapsulated the most “significant nationalist events of its creative decade,” including the revolution of 1919, Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922, Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi iconic and symbolic action of removing the veil from her face, and the death of Zaghloul in 1927.
Goldschmidt writes that the statue is viewed “as both historical summary and a prophecy of hope,” a “monumental, authentic and triumphant” symbol of a meeting of Egypt’s past and present. “The awakening gestures of both Sphinx and woman were an embodiment of Egypt’s aspirations for independence and revival through its people rather than through its rulers,” writes Goldschmidt. Initially unveiled in 1928 by King Fouad in Ramses Square, it is now displayed opposite the Cairo University.
Mukhtar commemorated Zaghloul in two other monuments displayed, respectively, in Alexandria in a central square bearing the same name and the other in Cairo at the end of the Qasr El-Nil Bridge.
Cairo’s largest collection of Mukhtar’s works can be found at the Mahmoud Mukhtar Museum, located on Tahrir Street across from Cairo Opera House. The museum which houses 85 bronze, stone and plaster sculptures, was designed by architect Ramses Wissa Wassef. It opened its doors in 1962 but closed for over a decade in 1991 for renovation and remodeling, and re-opened in 2003.
The museum holds many of Mukhtar’s masterpieces, including famous depictions of daily life in rural Egypt such as “The Jar Bearer," "The Farms Guard," “Sheikh Al-Balad,” "On the Nile Banks” and "Returning from the River.”
The museum also houses Mukhtar’s tomb, a must-see for those interested in the pioneers of both modern Egyptian art and the political and historical developments it portrays.
For more information about Mukhtar’s life and works, visit the Mahmoud Mukhtar Museum (5 Al-Tahrir Street, 2735 2519), open daily except Monday, from 10 am–1 pm and 5 pm–9 pm.
Mukhtar’s generation influenced modern Egyptian artists.
Politics and art are deeply connected in his sculptures.