Art and liberation

Modern Arab art and the depiction of blue collar workers

The rise of liberation movements in the Arab World during the 20th century brought with them an array of complimentary works from the creative sector. Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi examines the phenomenon

Back in the mid-20th century young Arab men and women engaged in ongoing protests against the establishment required chants to sing and banners to carry. These were readily provided by poets and illustrators, who were often found accompanying the protestors in the streets. An essential component of these liberation movements was the labour movement, which found eager partners and supporters within members of the arts community. This mass effort coincided with the strengthening and, in many cases, assumption of power by socialist and communist-leaning groups that put workers' rights at the forefront.

Sirri's "Abbas Bridge" is based on real life events that took place in the industrial town of El-Mahalla el-Kubra in Egypt in 1947. At the time these were considered the largest protests of their kind in the country’s history. The government responded with force, yet within five years the king was ousted in the 1952 Officers Coup in which, according to scholar Heba F. El-Shazli, "Egyptian workers played a catalyst political role". In fact, under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the image of workers underwent a drastic change. No longer were they hidden from view, or depicted in the background of artworks as passive bystanders. They were now celebrated front and centre in many works by Egyptian artists.

Dignifying the proletariat

Perhaps few other artists depicted workers more often or with a greater sense of empathy than the Egyptian Hamed Ewais (1919-2011). In painting after painting, the ardent leftist portrayed fishermen, industrial workers, farmers, barbers and laundrymen as large, central figures dominating the composition. Ewais' telling painting titles, which clearly dignified the proletariat, also betrayed his sympathies towards the working class.

"Abbas Bridge" 1955, by Egyptian artist Gazbia Sirry (photo: Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi)
Based on real life events: Sirri's "Abbas Bridge" recalls protests that took place in the industrial town of El-Mahalla el-Kubra in Egypt in 1947. At the time they were considered the largest protests of their kind in the country’s history. The government responded with force, yet within five years the king was ousted in the 1952 Officers Coup in which, according to scholar Heba F. El-Shazli, "Egyptian workers played a [sic] catalyst political role"

For example, following the Naksa – the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967 – he portrayed a fellah (peasant) sporting a bandana and carrying a Soviet-made machine gun, titling it "The Guardian of Life". This points to the high degree of respect that workers were shown by a generation of artists in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s.

An equal champion of the working class was artist Inji Eflatoun (1924-1989) who was born into an upper middle class family in Cairo and married the communist prosecutor Hamdi Aboul Ela. Eflatoun's activism for women and labour rights landed her a jail term lasting more than four years.

However, her spirit was relentless and she continued to depict workers in countless paintings, including The Builders (1952) and White Gold (1963), which derives from a series of cotton pickers she painted in the 1960s.

Similarly, Eflatoun's contemporary Menhat Helmy (1925-2004) painted a composition called Procession to Work (1957), showing a group of male and female workers carrying tools, and marching behind a man holding a white pigeon – a popular symbol for peace.

Produced while the artist was professor of sculpture at the School of Fine Arts in Cairo, Gamal Al Sagini's (1917-1977) bronze piece titled Nasser (1960) depicts the Egyptian leader being supported by workers and peasants, representing different industries.

The message is clear, workers amongst others, stand by Nasser and thus the president’s strength is derived from them.

Over in Iraq, Mahmoud Sabri’s (1927-2012) early works, including A Peasants Family (undated) and Builders (1957) exemplified his interest in the worker's plight.

As his career progressed, he continued to depict workers in paintings such as The Parsnip Seller (1950) and later, following his studies in Russia in the early 1960s with works like A Family of Farmers.

Like Ewais, Sabri gave titles to his works that reflected the tremendous respect he held for these labourers, which was evident in his portrayal of the execution of Salam Adel, the leader of the Iraqi Communist Party in 1963 that Sabri titled The Hero.

Mirroring events

Sometimes the depiction workers can be both a reflection of past events and an omen of things to come – as in the case with He told us how it happened (1957) by Iraq's Kadhim Haydar (1932–1985) where a likely unemployed young man recounts the events of the bloody crackdown against protesters on the orders of Prime Minister Nuri Pasha Al Said following the signing of the Baghdad Pact with Britain. Within a few months, the monarchy was toppled in the July 14 Revolution.

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