From movies to a mastery of modern art

Dr Hussam Rashwan, a well-known collector and recognised authority on modern Egyptian art, takes Artscoops on a fascinating trip down memory lane, starting back in 1970s’ Alexandria, when he first discovered the local art scene, before bringing us up to date with details of how he presents his impressive 2,000-piece collection today.

Dr Hussam Rashwan at his desk

From school museum trips to watching documentaries about Van Gogh or Michelangelo, the backstories about how art enthusiasts ‘discovered’ their passion are as inspiring and intriguing as they are personal. 
In Dr Hussam Rashwan’s case, it was a love for movies that gave him his first experience of Egypt’s modern art scene five decades ago, when he was teaching computer sciences and engineering at Alexandria University.
“It was back in 1974 and, as a cinephile, I’d become a member of the Cinema Club in Alexandria, which met on Saturday afternoons at the Museum of Fine Arts,” the recognised authority on modern Egyptian art and collector explained. “At that time, this was the only way to get to see the films I really loved from the Italian and French schools since they weren’t available elsewhere.”
Over time, as he became an established member of the club, Rashwan began dropping in on Tuesday evenings to help the director select the movies for the coming month, and it was on one of these visits that he met the artists Saad El-Khadem and Effat Nagy.
“During a chat, Saad asked me how it had come about that I was so passionate about cinema, but less interested in modern Egyptian art, while pointing out that we were chatting in a building full of outstanding, iconic paintings and sculptures,” he said. “I responded that I’d simply never been lucky enough to receive the guidance I needed to get started. You have to remember that at that time, resources like books and catalogues were virtually non-existent.”
It was at this point that El-Khadem took Rashwan under his wing and began sharing his in-depth knowledge of Egyptian modern art, starting with tours of the works set out over the museum’s two floors, which included seminal pieces by Mahmoud Mukhtar, Ragheb Ayad and Mohammed Naghi, among others. He’d then back up these tours with a wealth of facts and figures about the artists, artistic movements, the works’ historical context and more. 


As their friendship blossomed, Rashwan began visiting the married couple regularly. While doing so, he discovered that Saad El-Khadem’s brother, Dr Hassan El-Khadem, was married to Nadia Mahmoud Said, a neighbour of his in the Roushdy district of Alexandria and the daughter of Mahmoud Saïd, long recognised as the founder of Modern Egyptian Painting and icon of Egyptian identity. This connection would prove to be key as Rashwan built up his collection and also set the scene for him to much later co-author an essential catalogue of Saïd’s work. 
A move to Cairo when Rashwan was seconded to the American University there introduced him to a new, equally inspiring group of great minds and artistic cityscape.
“Cairo inevitably had its own thriving art scene and it was incredibly exciting to become part of that,” he said. “One weekly highlight was Tuesday evenings, when artists and academics would get together at the Galerie de l’Art pour Tous, close to the Maspero Building, to chat and exchange stories. The level of expertise and talent at these meetings was truly impressive, with attendees including Ragheb Ayad, Aime’Azar, Hamed Nada, Morris Farid, Gazbia Sirry and Saad El-Khadem, among others. Even though I counted myself as just a beginner, I was intrigued by the discussions and quickly became a regular.” 
From learning about how the foundations for Egypt’s art scene were laid at the end of the Ottoman era to discovering that the French post-Impressionist painter and writer Émile Henri Bernard, who settled in Egypt, had saved Van Gogh’s works, Rashwan found himself whiling away hours where education and entertainment overlapped in a thoroughly enjoyable way, almost unaware that his own knowledge was significantly increasing.
The get-togethers also provided an ideal environment for Rashwan to set out on his own personal collecting journey, as he explained. “The conversations not only helped me to select what to buy, but gave me access to the artists, since in those days there were no galleries as such,” he said. “Instead, I used to buy from the artists directly, having been introduced to them.” 
Rashwan can clearly recall the first piece of art he bought, which was a limited edition engraving by the French artist Gabriel Biessy, created when he moved to Egypt to take up the role of director of the School of Fine Arts in Cairo.
Titled ‘Soleil Couchant a Choubrah’, it was created for Prince Youssef Kamal as President of ‘Société des Amis de l’Art en Egypte’, on the occasion of the society’s formation in June 1923.


Over the years, Rashwan acquired numerous works by Egyptian modernists and other artists who settled in the country. An emerging common thread, he explained, was the way in which a sizeable number of the artworks depicted moments or meetings of historical significance.  
“I’m happy to admit that this has always been my niche, in fact, I struggle with contemporary and conceptual art,” he admitted. “For example, one painting by Jaro Hilbert, who settled in Egypt in 1926 and founded the country’s first academy for art tuition, shows the landmark Cairo Conference of November 1943, when Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Chiang  Kai-shek and his wife met at the Palais du Desert in Cairo. These are the kind of scenes and moments recreated on canvas that intrigue me.” 
Today, Rashwan has approximately 2,000 pieces of modern Egyptian art on his walls and elsewhere, including pieces by foreign artists who settled or spent time in the country. Asked how he presents his paintings, he explained that these decisions are made in various ways, from themes explored to the size of the works. 
“For example, I have several works by Said El-Adawai grouped together for stylistic reasons,” he said. “Then, elsewhere, I have a work by Mahmoud Saïd titled ‘Le Nil vers Béni Hassan’, which acts as a centrepiece, due to its large size, so others are organised around it.”
Other works are assembled in formats that serve as a reminder of the way they came to be in the collection, such as the time when Rashwan had the opportunity to buy some of Mahmoud Saïd’s works during a visit made by his daughter to Egypt from the US for personal reasons.
“This was a wonderful opportunity and I spent an incredible day browsing through the collection. You have to remember this was 1977 and there were some pieces priced at just 150 Egyptian pounds!” he recalled with a smile. 
In the years that followed, Rashwan’s interest and expertise in Saïd’s work grew, to the extent that he began working with other academics who were researching the artist. This, he explained, was at a time when recognition of both Saïd’s importance and the need for better documentation in English of modern Egyptian art were both growing.
Against this backdrop, Rashwan co-authored a ‘catalogue raisonné’ of Saïd’s paintings and drawings with the academic Valérie Didier Hess.
Asked whether he regards his collection as now complete, Rashwan admitted with a smile that the temptation to add to the art he owns is always there. “But it would have to be an artwork that I felt truly brought something special to the entire collection in some way,” he emphasised.


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