International Exhibit Documents Egyptian Surrealist Movement

Van-Leo self-portrait behind a glass shield in his home, Copyright the Rare Books and Special Collections Library, The American University in Cairo
Van-Leo self-portrait behind a glass shield in his home, Copyright the Rare Books and Special Collections Library, The American University in Cairo

AUC, in collaboration, with the Sharjah Art Foundation and the Ministry of Culture’s Fine Arts Sector, is co-organizing an international exhibition that brings together more than 150 works focusing on the evolution of the Egyptian surrealist movement and practice between the 1930s to the 1960s.

The exhibition, When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938-1965), is opening in Egypt today for one month at the Palace of the Arts and will then begin an international tour that will culminate in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates in November 2017. “This is the first major exhibition to examine and display the works of writers and art groups that were active during this important cultural movement,” said Nagla Samir, associate professor of practice in the Department of the Arts. “Showcasing the work of Egyptian surrealists within the proper context and among a caliber of highly recognized surrealist veterans is the perfect way to reach out to the surrealist culture community in Egypt and worldwide.”

Focusing on the evolution of the Egyptian surrealist movement and practice between the 1930s to 1960s, the exhibition documents a period of modernism in Egypt and its global interconnectedness during the 20th century. Works displayed include substantial loans from Egyptian public and private collections that have never been seen or exhibited outside of the country. 

AUC’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library (RBSCL) will exhibit a selection of 30 photos from the photographic collection of Van-Leo (1920-2002), a leading portrait photographer who lived and practiced in Cairo during the 1940s until the turn of the century. At the turn of the century, he donated his collection to the RBSCL, including his personal studio equipment, documents and entire photography collection, which comprises around 15,000 photos and 250,000 negatives. The RBSCL worked closely with Van Leo for several years and organized an exhibit for him and later handled his being granted the Prince Claus Foundation award that led to a series of exhibits and a publication.

“The collection is rich with portraits of Cairene residents, whether locals, different ethnic groups or visitors such as entertainers, soldiers and officers from WWII,” said Ola Seif, curator of photography collections at the RBSCL. “Van-Leo’s collection enables researchers to better understand aspects of black and white studio photography during the mid-20th century, where such practices are now outmoded and replaced by digital technology.”

Van-Leo enrolled at AUC in the 1940s not knowing what he would pursue as a career. He dropped out of college and, a decade later, discovered his passion for the arts, which led him to focus on a career in photography. “One of the reasons he donated his collection to AUC’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library was to render them available for study by future generations of photographers,” added Seif. “Ironically, today his work is being studied and taught all over the world.”

Alongside the Van-Leo photographic collection, a range of archival material will be displayed, including a collection of papers presented at the 2015 Egyptian Surrealists in Global Perspective conference, which was organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation in collaboration with the Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell University and the Visual Cultures program at AUC. “Displaying some of the research papers adds newly revealed aspects of the Egyptian surrealist movement and practice that we didn’t know before,” said Samir.

Additionally, prints of surrealist journals that were originally published in the 1940s titled Al–Tatuwur and The Other Text will also be exhibited. “Archival documents like surrealist group journals have an indirect connection that ties Van-Leo to Egyptian surrealists beyond common documentation,” noted Samir. “Although Van-Leo did not join surrealist active groups in Cairo, his work –– especially self-portraits –– reflect an original surrealist tendency.”