Homegrown Heroes: Peasant Masculinity and Nation-Building in Modern Egyptian Art
On January 18, 1938 the Fuad I Agricultural Museum in Cairo opened its palatial doors to the local public and featured four untitled portraits (1934–1937) of peasant men sporting distinctive costumes and handicrafts. The artist behind these prominent paintings was an Egyptian named Aly Kamel al-Deeb (1909–1997), whose early career combined commissions at official museums and participation in anti-establishment artist groups in Egypt. What could explain al-Deeb’s transition from creating art in opposition to national museums, to painting for such institutions? This essay analyzes al-Deeb’s four paintings, which I call Homegrown Heroes, and argues that they began shifting the urban Egyptian public’s perceptions of the male peasant subject and his role in achieving national sovereignty. Many scholars put nationalist and avant-garde narratives of Egyptian identity in opposition. This essay reveals the patriarchal frameworks underlying representations of folk art and authenticity among nationalists and the avant-garde alike in their meditations on the peasant figure. Contextualizing Homegrown Heroes in the surrounding art and science displays, popular culture, and sociopolitical shifts of the interwar period shows that male peasant figures in Egyptian art transformed from passive symbols of cultural backwardness to heroic citizens who use folk-art practices to liberate Egypt from Western imperialism.
ARTMargins Online, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp. 24-68.
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