Mahmoud Mokhtar

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Biography of Mahmoud Mokhtar ( 1891-1934 )

Today recognized as the father of modern sculpture in Egypt, Mahmoud Mokhtar is known as the initiator of a disruption with academism and orientalism, to the benefit of a national art inherited from the Pharaonic era. Deeply committed to the anti-imperialist nationalist movement, he has dedicated his work to this cause.

Mahmoud Mokthar was born in 1891 in Tunbarah, near the Al-Mahallah al-Kubra delta, to an Egyptian farming family. Very early on, the artist developed a particular sensitivity for the modelling of the material. He discovered this mode of expression on the banks of the Nile, known for their production of silt, a black soil brought by the flood. From an early age, he shaped, modelled and created figurines in this fertile mud characteristic of the region. Only a few years later, he was led to leave his native village to join his mother and two sisters in Cairo in 1902. He learned Arabic and French.

Attracted by the art world, he chose, in 1908, to join the studio of Guillaume Laplange, a French sculptor and first director of the Cairo School of Fine Arts. His teacher passed on his academic style to him. At the age of 21, after graduating in Egypt, he moved to France in order to learn alongside Antoine Bourdelle and Jules-Félix Coutan at the School of Fine Arts in the city of Paris. However, the pedagogical methods of his teachers were essentially based on a very classical teaching, relying on the observation of ancient sculptures. Mokhtar, attached to his origins, chose to detach himself from them in order to incorporate the aesthetics of Egyptian themes into the heart of his productions. During this period of study, the artist's living conditions, then living in the centre of Paris, remained modest. Indeed, he was forced to develop other subordinate activities in order to continue to devote himself to the practice of sculpture, the latter not allowing him to provide for his own needs. 

However, at the end of the First World War, his career took a different direction. He was invited to replace Guillaume Laplange, his first master: on this occasion, he held the position of artistic director at the Musée Grévin, dedicated to the creation of wax figures bearing the effigy of public figures. He sculpts the statues of great names such as Georges Clémenceau, Woodrow Wilson, or the dancer Anna Pavalova. In this context, he created a representation of the Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum. 

In Paris, the artist met Saad Zaghloul, Egyptian Prime Minister and leader of the Independence Party. This meeting is decisive for Mokthar. Indeed, in 1919, the sculptor attended from France, the Revolution agitating Egypt, which stood against the British occupation. Particularly affected, he chose to shape a committed work, which he named Nahdat Misr, meaning "The rebirth of Egypt". His model won a gold medal at his exhibition in the Grand-Palais that same year. Its creation then became the symbol of this emancipated contemporary Egypt. Translated into a monumental format, the latter was initially inaugurated in the centre of Bab el-Habib Square, then moved to Cairo University in 1928. Moreover, in 1924, upon his return to Cairo, the artist brought together revolutionary artists and intellectuals advocating Egypt's independence.

Another emblematic creation of Mokthar's work: this female subject entitled Au bord du Nil. A hieratic pose, a jug carried on the head, feet together, face with pure lines, draped in an antique style reminiscent of those of Queen Hatshepsut's figurations, flanked at the entrance to her tomb: here we find the aesthetics of ancient sculptures from Ancient Egypt. In the same way, we also perceive the influence of the Art-Deco movement, initiated in the 1910s, which was fully established around 1920. This last trend, opposing the organic forms of Art Nouveau, returns to simple, stylized forms with refined lines. We find all these characteristics at the heart to this water carrier created by Mokthar. Through this work, the artist communicates to us his strong political commitment: We perceive the determination of this female figure, who seems unbreakable. With the gaze set in front of her, this figure is not embodying the allegorical image of a fertile and independent Egypt, which is established by the work of its land? 

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