24 January 2010
Marguerite Nakhla…Legacy of Modern Egyptian Art is a new title on the life and work of leading Egyptian artist Marguerite Nakhla (1908 – 1977). Published last August by St Mark’s Coptic Museum in Canada, it is written in meticulous, simple English by Helene Moussa, a volunteer curator at the museum, with an introduction by Fr Marcos A. Marcos, Protopriest of St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Scarborough, Ontario and president and founder of St Mark’s Coptic Museum.
In 151 pages and with photographs of eye-catching beauty, the book is an extraordinary masterpiece befitting the artist. Nakhla is considered a pioneer of the 20th-century modern Egyptian art movement, and the museum is privileged with having six of her Biblical studies in the Coptic ‘folkloric’ style.
The book cover—designed by Lillian Hanna—consists of a number of small ‘mosaic’ paintings symbolising the diversity of Nakhla’s subjects and style.
The epitome of generosity
Moussa’s acknowledgements are directed to those who so generously gave their time and recollections of Nakhla. Moussa writes: “I was overwhelmed by the reception I received when I first set out in 2004 to find out more about her. They gave me copies of newspaper clipping, several photocopies of catalogues of her exhibitions, and some of the award certificates she had received.
“Dr Kawkab Youssef and Dr Daoud Antoun Daoud, colleagues and friends of Nakhla, gave me several pages of handwritten notes describing what they remembered about her. I feel blessed to have been surrounded by so many talented people who believed in this project.”
In his introduction, Fr Marcos writes: “It took about twenty-five years to gather the initial collection for the St Mark’s Museum, which was blessed by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III on 27 November 1996, and opened to the public on a regular basis in July 1999. The collection has more than doubled since then and includes ancient and neo-Coptic artefacts, such as icons, paintings, textiles, crosses, manuscripts and books, stamps, coins and brass, copper, clay, enamel and wood works, as well as vessels, vestments and objects that tell the story of St Mark’s church in Canada.
“When we were searching for artefacts for our collection, members of our congregation pointed out that in Egypt there was a very well-respected Coptic artist by the name of Marguerite Nakhla, who had painted a series of biblical scenes. As we searched to locate and learn more about her works, we first found [that] her brother, Antoun Nakhla, lived in Montreal. He, in turn, gave us some documents that described her early childhood love for drawing and her career as an artist. He also encouraged us to meet Fr Pierre du Bourguet, the head of the Egyptian Antiquities Department at the Louvre Museum, who would give us an ‘objective’ view as a professional. Fr du Bourguet gave us a copy of a letter (available in our Museum’s archive) that he had written to Nakhla after she had shown him two of her biblical scenes. In this letter, he underlined how she was able to express early Coptic art in modern form.
For public benefit
“With these recommendations we ventured to meet with Nakhla in her Alexandria home, in the Sidi Gaber district, in 1974,” Fr Marcos continued. “We described to her our vision for the Coptic Museum in Canada and explained that, because we were still a small congregation, we could only afford one painting and even then would have to pay for it in instalments over a number of years. She was at first reticent, and then she said that this biblical representation in art started in Egypt in the third century AD and unfortunately died out around the 12th century. She did not want to see these biblical scenes displayed in the privacy of homes; if the art was to continue, the paintings had to be on public display.”
Before Fr Marcos returned to Canada, he paid a second visit to Nakhla and learned that she had prayed over the decision and decided to offer all six biblical scenes to the museum as a gift. Nakhla believed that “the only condition was that they would be displayed in the Museum so people could learn about this art as a genre and learn from its message.”
“Will to learn”
The first chapter, “Modern Egyptian Art: context and expression”, elaborates on the social and cultural climate in Egypt, where Nakhla was born, grew up, and lived as an artist and where, from the early 1900s, three generations of artists sought to create genuinely Egyptian “folkloric” art.
Moussa highlights the social and political environment in Egypt, illustrating how artists of different schools interacted and the role of Egyptian women, especially in the arts. Nakhla, a prolific painter, was recognised as the leading Egyptian female artist between 1925 and 1975.
Since the first Egyptian School of Fine Arts was founded in 1908—financed by Prince Yusuf Kamal—the only prerequisite was the ‘will to learn’. The first graduates were sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar (1891 – 1934), and artists Mohamed Hassan, Ahmed Sabri, and Ragheb Ayaad. From 1920 to 1929 together with Mahmoud Said and Mohamed Nagi, they formed the first generation of modern Egyptian artists. They believed that art, however it was expressed, should concern itself with the historical and social life of the Egyptian community.
The second generation was from 1930 till 1952, when artists were no longer unified by a nationalist movement; they were responding to the upheavals of war in Europe and the cultural influences of international art.
Art historian Lilian Karnouk, names the third generation (1952 to the present) the “folk artists”. Artists in this period initially withdrew from the ideological debates of the two preceding generations. They believed that a modern national art would emerge if they adapted their national and historic heritage to the current context.
Passion for drawing
In childhood Nakhla had a passion for drawing and painting. At six, she decorated her letters to her young friends with flowers and other motifs of her own creation. At 14 she was painting country scenes on any paper she could find, even on cardboard. She drew portraits of her friends, and by her early teens had received several school awards.
In 1934 she graduated from the School of Fine Arts in Cairo. Against all the odds she was determined to continue her studies in Paris, where she received a scholarship to study under the renowned Professor Sabatté. Perhaps out of modesty or a sense of humour, her early paintings were signed symbolically by a date palm—a play on the words of the name ‘Nakhla’, which means ‘date palm’ in Arabic.
Nakhla went on to teach art in Cairo. Among her students were Bedour Latif, Sophie Habib, and Sophie Wissa Wassef.
Moussa wrote, “I have been able to reproduce eighty of her works that can be found in museums, private collections, at the St Mary Church in Zamalek, and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo. It is no wonder that Le Journal d’Egypte stated, “She was one of Egypt’s best known and remarkable painters…from 1937 to 1975.”
Her painting On the way to the Tuesday market is one of several scenes that remind us of how 20th-century Egyptian artists have made use of Egyptian life, of the women wrapped in black mellayas and the colours of the landscape.
Paintings not icons
Moussa says the six paintings may not always correctly reflect the biblical story or the dogmas of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Each painting relates to folk culture or the biblical story or theme, capturing traditional and environmental details. The six paintings are Miracle of the great catch; The Last Supper; Judas; Jesus among the teachers in the temple; The Wise and the foolish Virgins; and Baptism of Christ. In Miracle of the great catch, which illustrates the miracle at sea (Luke 5:1-11; Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1: 16-20), the crowd in the painting can be identified as the fish in the net, and Jesus appears to be “speaking” to the assembled crowd beyond the boat. The white birds and the one bird with a fish in its beak explain that Nakhla was an Alexandrine. Nakhla, however, did not paint the sky blue but yellow ochre, a colour sometimes used instead of gold leaf in icons to symbolise the Light of God.
Not so easily noticed is the blue line that seems to bind Jesus Christ to the disciples. This line is noticeable in some of Nakhla’s other biblical scenes such as Jesus among the teachers in the temple. This scene (from Luke 2:41-52) depicts the moment when St Mary and St Joseph find Jesus in the temple. One sees the different responses: the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple listening to and conversing with his elders. St Mary and St Joseph are standing outside the temple window with facial expressions of relief and concern at having found Him.
Women in the life of Christ
“Women in the life of Christ” are twelve icons hanging in St Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Zamalek, Cairo. Moussa uses references from the Holy Bible and the Coptic Synexarian to discover the individual and collective themes of this set of 12 narrative icons. The findings of this analysis reveal many other examples of this unique artist and deeply spiritual woman.
There is a chronology to the theme of Nakhla’s narrative icons, starting with The Presentation of Mary to the Temple and ending with The Apparition of Jesus to the Women.
The other icons are The Annunication; Mary Visits Elizabeth depicted in warm colours with Mary and Elizabeth warmly holding each other; Presentation of Jesus to the Temple; Wedding at Cana; Jesus and the Woman from Samaria; The Widow’s Son with the fruitless tree behind indicating lifelessness; The Haemorrhaging Woman; The Woman With Ointment; and The Crucifixion.
Colours that sing
The chapter “Colours that Sung” is written by Carolyn M. Ramzy, a doctoral student in ethnomusicology who completed her master’s thesis on the role of Coptic non-liturgical taratil “folk” hymns.
Nakhla once told an interviewer: “Colour is not only to please the eye, but to draw out spirituality.” It is no surprise, then, to find that many of the symbols, metaphors, and colours she evoked as a folkloric artist are literally sung in the folk genre known as taratil among Egyptian Copts. Moussa cites several of these in various contexts, making a rich, warm addition to the book.
Date harvesting is a familiar sight to many living in the countryside and one that Nakhla captures with a beautiful candidness. Tall palms ripe with fruit line the background of Date Harvest, while men gingerly climb them and drop the dates into a basket. Dates are among one of the many metaphors used to praise the strength, purity, and resilience of Coptic martyrs of the past in Coptic folk culture. Nakhla cites the words of the children’s folk chorus Ya Balah Lounak Ahmar: “Dates, your colour is red like the martyrs’ blood; your heart is white like their hearts, and your stone is solid like their faith.” The song is closely linked to the celebration of Nayrouz the New Year of the Coptic calendar of the Martyrs, celebrated on 11 September of each year.
Marguerite Nakhla left us a rich legacy of artistic achievement that will ceaselessly work as inspiration for years to come.