KARNOUK, Liliane

Author Tags: Art

Born in Cairo in 1944, Liliane Karnouk has lived in Vancouver since 1967. She obtained her M.A. in art and communication from the University of British Columbia. Her own work as a visual artist has earned her several grants and awards, and she has exhibited in Egypt, Europe, and Canada. She speaks English, French, Italian and Arabic. Her illustrated study Modern Egyptian Art 1910-2003 examines the work of more than 70 artists from 1910 until the early 21st century. According to her publisher's catalogue: "From the early years of the twentieth century, with the rejection of European political and cultural domination in Europe, modern artistic expression in Egypt was influenced by and often reflected the country’s growing national consciousness. In the years following the 1952 revolution, wealthy patrons of the arts disappeared from Egypt’s cosmopolitan art world and were replaced by the state, which by the 1960s exercised full control over all cultural activities, including the arts. In the 1990s, as elsewhere throughout the world, Egyptian art was affected by general shifts in culture brought about by globalization. The disruption of a sense of place and feelings of belonging were a response to the influx of the challenging and, at times, disquieting information available to whole cultures and communities through new media." Her 2005 book is a composite of work that has appeared in preceding volumes, Contemporary Egyptian Art (1995) Modern Egyptian Art: The Emergence of a National Style (1998).


Contemporary Egyptian Art (1995)

Modern Egyptian Art: The Emergence of a National Style (American University in Cairo Press, 1988).

Modern Egyptian Art 1910-2003 (The American University in Cairo Press, 2005). $39.95 U.S.ISBN: 9774248597

[BCBW 2006] "Art"

Modern Egyptian Art
Review (2006)

from Norbert Ruebsaat
Smart Art

It seems ironic that the authoritative history of modern Egyptian art should be written on the West Coast of Canada until you discover while reading Modern Egyptian Art (American University of Cairo Press) that Egyptian artists, citizens of the world’s oldest country, ask themselves the same questions as do Canadian artists, citizens of one of the world’s youngest countries.

In 1910, when Vancouver resident Liliane Karnouk’s survey begins, artists on the Nile, like those on the St. Lawrence or the Fraser or the Yukon, wondered if they should imitate their European colonial masters or discover indigenous styles; in the 1950s, when Nasser’s Revolution decolonized Egypt and when Canada had been “given its independence” by the British parliament, artists in both countries split on the question of whether to produce a “national” art or ally themselves with transnational modernist trends; and in the contemporary “pomo/pocol” period, when questions of universalism/localism, multiculturalism/identity politics and critiques of Grand Narrative are everywhere in the globalized (not-yet-privatized) air, “nomad” Egyptian and Canadian artists—like Karnouk herself, who moved for many years between Cairo, where she grew up, Europe, where she studied art, and B.C., where she now lives—ask themselves not only who on earth but where on earth (or in the media) they are.

Karnouk’s text, accompanied by many reproductions, profiles over 70 artists, and brings us up to the 1990s; it then breaks into a series of thematic chapters which tell how young Egyptian artists, like their Canadian counterparts, use media art, performance, installation, book art, along with sculpture and painting to address the dislocations and distortions that global media and advertising create and propose mysteriously to solve, and that art can illuminate but not solve—and it is wise for us residents of a young, imaginary “First World” former colony to look at the styles of an old former “Third World” country-cum-colony that has had fewer technological tools to construct the imaginary but that has, as a result, a better memory. Even young Egyptians, it seems, have memories.

Karnouk reminds us that Egypt was colonized by the Hyksos in 1674 BC, by the Persians in 525 BC, by the Greeks in 332 BC, by the Romans in 50 BC, by the Arabs in 700 AD, by the Ottomans in 1500 AD, by the French in 1778 AD, by the British in 1882 AD, by Soviet advisors in the 1950s and by American-cum-global advisors and media in the 1970s. These invasions were endured, internalized, absorbed, reconstructed and turned by Egyptians, according to Karnouk, into a knack for multicultural identity construction and a suave cosmopolitan art practice, two ideas which she draws together in the term “Egyptianicity.” Canada endured British, French, Russian, Spanish and American invasions (not to mention previous Beringian ones), and has “absorbed” immigrants from all over, and we imagine ourselves to be pretty good at multiculturalism, but we aren’t cosmopolitan or suave. Why? Maybe we should read this book and find out.

Excellent and smartly opinionated passages are those on “neopharaonism” which asks who is appropriating/influencing/colonizing whom when neoromantic European artists reconstruct ancient Egypt as colonial art craze and Egyptian artists borrow their idioms to create truth about the most ancient of pasts, and the chapter on kitsch—which Karnouk baldly describes as “works which do not entail any of the basic criteria of art: the inherent and irreplaceable originality of the fusion of time, place, idea, skill, form and material into an ‘original’ concept.” As examples she cites a modern building “kitschified by sparkling stucco ceilings, a crystal chandelier and plastic plants,” and “Michelangelo’s David as a men’s wear label.” Canadians take heed, then order the book—one for yourself, one for your library, school, department, etc.