Mona Abaza has given the Egyptian art scene a great addition with her second book "Twentieth Century Egyptian Art: The Private Collection of Sherwet Shafei."
As a young journalist curious about Egyptian art, it was Sherwet Shafei who guided me across what was hitherto unknown. Little did I know that Shafei had played a similar role with many other art enthusiasts before, influencing everyone from collectors to gallery visitors over the years as the proprietor of Safar Khan Gallery, one of Cairo’s first private exhibition spaces.
With great passion Shafei shares her stories and a cup of tea among her collection be it in her gallery, or upstairs in her special Collector’s Corner housing valuable pieces by Egypt’s old master painters; or in her home, teaching me about Egypt’s art history and its key players.
Shafei’s collection is divided amongst three categories of artists including the masters, and the second generation whom she refers to as the “innovators” and the Orientalists.
Effat Nagy, El-Hussein Fawzy, the Wanly brothers Mohamed Nagy and Shabaan Zaky, among tens of other artists that constitute her private collection, are highlighted in her three chapters.
Staring at the sensuous female subjects of Mahmoud Said or straining my ears to hear the silent music of minstrels in Ragheb Ayad’s “Music of the Pharaohs,” Shafei’s stories about Egypt’s greats was mesmerizing.
In her book, Abaza succeeded in replicating that feeling of being intimately acquainted and immersed in the nostalgic accounts of Egypt as seen through these works, creating a book that should be in every Egyptian home.
Shafei, who has been running Safar Khan Gallery in Zamalek for over 20 years, is one of the country’s most respected gallery owners. “In this book you’ll find pictures of my collection and the important pieces that passed through my hands,” says Shafei, pieces that include Mahmoud Saïd’s "The Whirling Dervishes" which sold at Christie’s Dubai last October for $2.5 million.
Shafei is credited by collectors for having a fine eye for selecting that which is most valuable according to the piece’s artistic merit, those that have yielded great investment returns and for helping collectors acquire hard to find works.
She has also played a fundamental role in promoting and creating a market for modern and contemporary Egyptian art abroad due to her work with foreign collectors.
At home, she has helped expand the general understanding that most art collectors had of Egyptian art through her dedicated commitment to reviving the lost histories of many artists who have resurfaced through her detective-like research and subsequent excavation of homes and studios of once forgotten artists.
"Twentieth Century Egyptian Art: The Private Collection of Sherwet Shafei" is a 216-page homage to the men and women who contributed great works to a young, yet nevertheless, rich art movement in Egypt, but it’s hard to conclude whether the star of the book is the collection overall, or the inspiring story of Shafei’s career.
Her career as a gallerist started after retiring from a career in national television as first the host of a cultural program "A Journey of Art," and then as head of Egyptian television’s cultural channel.
Over 200 works that make up Shafei’s collection are highlighted in the book with images rich in color complemented with notes by the collector narrating several stories: Shafei’s personal relationship with many of these artists, her impressions on the work and hints about the life stories of the artists themselves.
The notes carry Shafei’s soft spoken voice so well, and it is by reading these notes that readers can feel personally acquainted with Shafei. There is no pretension or pomposity in her tone. Unlike the traditional art tomes, this book, with its short lecture note-style is an easy read.
Shafei’s notes are preceded by Abaza’s 26-page introduction: a rich essay that deftly explains many facets of Egyptian art both past and present.
The introduction is a concise yet thorough explanation of the artists and collectors that cultivated the creative output of the earlier part of the 20th century; the political climate that influenced the art being produced by both Egyptians and the expatriate community as well as the political and economic factors that have led to a revival in the Egyptian art scene.
Abaza’s introduction also discusses current trends in Egypt such as the influence of the Dubai art scene on the regional art market, helping readers gain perspective on an issue that can only be grasped through a clear understanding of both history and current events.
These narrative threads are interwoven with details of Shafei’s life as a collector and her role in the Egyptian art market in a way that explains the parameters of Egypt’s art history and gives perspective on the current state of the market.
In the Collector’s Corner, Shafei reflects on her career as I listen, entranced by Mohamed Ismail’s "Deconstruction" as Nahmeya Saad’s pastel work "Reclining Nude" stares out at us. Shafei is seemingly content. Was it a difficult thing to put together?
“The book was three years in the making. It took me a very long time and it was hard, I never wrote a single word in my life so I had to go through my head and remember those old times to get what I had stored in my mind and that process of recollection was very hard. Had it not been for Mona, my daughter, who encouraged me … I would have never been able to do it,” says Shafei.
With Shafei’s full collection becoming available to the public for the first time I wonder why she has decided to unveil now what has been kept carefully guarded.
“I felt that it was time that such a collection should be valued and recorded. If it had been documented in a TV program it wouldn’t last, but recorded in a book, it will continue for all ages to be there for the coming generations.”
"Twentieth Century Egyptian Art: The Private Collection of Sherwet Shafei" is available in all major bookstores across Egypt including the American University in Cairo bookstores, Diwan and El-Shorouk bookstores for LE 225. The official book launch will take place on Feb. 6 at Oriental Hall, the American University in Cairo, Downtown Campus.
Sherwet Shafei is the gallery owner of Safar Khan Gallery and a highly recognized collector.