Founded in Egypt with the publication of their manifesto Long Live Degenerate Art, the Art et Liberté Group (1938 – 1948), proposed a new understanding of Surrealism. While a few scholars have taken note of the Cairo-based collective up much of what has been written remains primarily concerned with examining the Group’s leftist political affiliation and its correlation with anti-fascist sentiment upon the eve of World War II. This political framing has left the Group’s artistic and cultural contributions largely unexplored, particularly their advancement of a new definition of Surrealism, called Subjective Realism. Through this new definition, Art et Liberté proposed a new direction for the Surrealist movement which they perceived as one in crisis. The Group rejected the convergence of art and nationalism, aligning themselves with a complex, international and evolving Surrealist movement spanning cities such as Paris, London, Mexico City, New York, Beirut and Tokyo. At the dawn of the Second World War and during Egypt’s colonial rule by the British Empire, Art et Liberté was equally engaged in its defiance of Fascism, Nationalism and Colonialism.
Through consulting a significant body of artworks, most of which are in the exhibition Art et Liberté: rupture, war and surrealism in Egypt (1938 – 1948), along with a diverse corpus of unpublished primary sources, Sam Bardaouil demonstrates how, through a process of acute negotiation and appropriation, the Group developed a distinct Surrealist aesthetic that was at once, internationally minded yet locally concerned. In doing so, the lecture develops how the Group provided a restless generation of young artists, intellectuals and political activists, Egyptian and non-Egyptian, men and women alike, with a heterogeneous platform for cultural and political reform. The presentation uncovers the Group’s pivotal role within an international network of surrealist writers and artists. It equally highlights the Group’s deliberation of the display tactics of exhibition making employed by the Surrealists elsewhere in creating a model of dissent that employed the “form of the exhibition” as a means to breakdown the nationalist, bourgeois and academic dictates that controlled almost every aspect of the artistic sphere in Egypt at the time. The presentation also posits Art et Liberté's significant visual and literary contributions beyond the polemics of post-colonial discourse, advocating for a new art-historical understanding of the Surrealist movement.
Sam Bardaouil is the author of Surrealism in Egypt: Modernism and the Art and Liberty Group (2017). He has taught at universities such as the American University of Beirut and the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. He is co-founder along with Till Fellrath of the curatorial platform Art Reoriented. They have curated the Lebanese Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013), the exhibition Tea with Nefertiti. The Making of the Artwork by the Artist, the Museum and the Public (SMÄK from Munich, IVAM from Valencia, IMA from Paris and Mathaf-Arab Museum of Modern Art from Doha, 2012-2014) and Art et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938 - 1948) at Museo Reina Sofia, among many other exhibitions.