March is the month of women. The 8th day of the month is International Women’s Day while the 16th marks Egyptian Woman’s Day. And to crown the month, Mother’s Day comes on 21 March. In honour of women, Watani International is printing a series of articles on them throughout the month. Over the last decade there has been much interest on the part of artists and critics in the art and creativity of Mahmoud Mukhtar who pioneered modern sculpture in Egypt. Now, more than 70 years after his death, and just as it seemed there was nothing more to be learnt about Mukhtar, attention is being addressed to one of the most important and effective elements in his work, ‘woman’.
Woman was at the core of Mukhtar’s work; she was his muse.
Mukhtar captured the essence of the simple woman. His celebrated limestone sculpture, Khamaseen—these are the hot, ill winds of dust and sand which storm over Egypt a few times every spring, and by far represent the most-hated weather in Egypt—depicts a peasant woman with her garments blown by the rough winds. The Cheese seller carries her cheese in a basket on her shoulders and looks as though she is bearing the entire world in that basket. Mukhtar presented the happiness of women on their way home from the Nile, and a captivating scene of a young country woman with a shining, innocent face returning from the market. He portrayed a young woman’s shyness as she meets a man in his Meeting the man
Mukhtar shows the mayor’s wife in her high social position, the woman enjoying a siesta, the sorrow of the country woman in Sadness, feminine beauty in Towards the lover. The clothes of the rural woman were for Mukhtar not an ornamental element, but a main component in his statues.
Most outstanding of all is his masterpiece Nahdet Masr or The Awakening of Egypt, in which he shows the peasant woman who awakens the Sphinx from his deep repose, which is how Mukhtar expresses his belief in the importance of her role in society. The statue today stands proudly in the square overlooking the Nile and leading to Cairo University’s main campus, lending its name to the square; Midan Nahdet Masr.
“Sculpture” and “Mukhtar”
Two faces of one coin
The ingenious forerunner of sculpture in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century, Mahmoud Mukhtar (1891 – 1934) was born in the Delta village of Tanbara where his talent showed early on; he made small shapes of clay depicting scenes he saw around him. In 1908 he enrolled and studied sculpture at the then newly-opened School of Fine Arts in Cairo, and in 1911 moved to Paris where he had been granted a scholarship.
The early 20th century was a time when the Egyptian national movement was at its height, and Egypt was seeking to define a modern frame of reference for its cultural identity. The awakening greatly inspired Mukhtar, leading him to turn to the rich ancient Egyptian art and sculpture for the creation of specifically Egyptian works of art.
Mukhtar was still living in Paris when the 1919 nationalist revolution broke out in Egypt. With the clamour of the crowds echoing in his mind, Mukhtar conceived the most important work of his career, The Awakening of Egypt or Nahdet Masr.
Returning to Egypt, he decided to execute this monumental work in Aswan granite, the stone that ancient sculptors had used in Pharaonic Egypt. The work, which became a cultural landmark and inspired a number of poets and writers, was completed in 1928. The Awakening of Egypt, four metres long and three metres high, depicts a lion with a man’s head—an allusion to the Giza Sphinx—beside which stands a proud peasant woman, one of whose hands is placed on the lion’s head as though holding the animal back while with the other she draws aside the veil that covers her face. Both are looking in the same direction, perhaps towards a new dawn, towards the rising sun, symbol of resurrection for the ancient Egyptians.
The Egyptian government placed Mukhtar’s sculpture in the Cairo Railway Station Square, where it was inaugurated in 1928. It was relocated in 1955 to its present place in front of Cairo University.
On 10 March 1934, shortly before his 43rd birthday, Mukhtar died in Cairo. His family donated his works to the State. In 1962 the Mukhtar Museum was completed in al-Hurriya Garden at Gezira. Aptly designed by Wissa Wassef along the simple, imposing lines of ancient Egyptian temples, it today stands invitingly opposite the Cairo Opera House, housing Mukhtar’s works.