Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 9, 2019
Octavian Esanu, ed. Art, Awakening, and Modernity in the Middle East: The Arab Nude New York: Routledge, 2018. 156 pp.; 42 b/w ills. Cloth $155.00 (9781138563834)

The first time a nude was included in an exhibition in Lebanon, it caused quite a stir. Whereas young Lebanese painters who had studied in Paris were familiar with painting nude models, they found it difficult to show their paintings to the conservative Lebanese public upon their return home.

Lebanon—The Artist’s View: 200 Years of Painting, exhibition catalog (18)

In her pathbreaking 2010 article Necessary Nudes: Hadatha and Mu‘asara in the Lives of Modern Lebanese,” included here, Kirsten Scheid contends that, contrary to common assumption, artists in Mandate-era Beirut were producing nudes in the beaux arts academic style, a practice that “became an index and instrument of modernizing” (22). However, rather than “revisiting these forgotten Nudes” to offer a corrective to their assumed absence, Scheid explores the production and prevalence of this absence narrative (22). Focusing primarily on the careers of two artists, Moustapha Farroukh (1901–1957) and Omar Onsi (1901–1969), she examines the role nudes played in Arab artists’ cultivation of what she refers to as “universal modernity” “convergently constructed” (22). As a tool of tathqif (culturing), this art form enabled male artists to exhibit their admittance into the modern, cosmopolitan world—a consequence of their discipline and rigorous training—while simultaneously displaying their commitment to leading their nation on its path to progress and liberation.

Six years after its publication, Scheid’s essay became the impetus for The Arab Nude: The Artist as Awakener, a 2016 exhibition and conference at the American University in Beirut (AUB), cocurated by Scheid and Octavian Esanu. The edited volume under review, Art, Awakening, and Modernity in the Middle East: The Arab Nude, is a compilation of papers first delivered at that conference. The contributions are focused primarily on the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century nahda (renaissance) in Lebanon and Egypt, except for the final piece, which extends to Iraq after the US invasion. The essays are not limited to the study of the nude as an art historical tradition; they consider also a range of representations of the denuded body, including images from erotica and the practice of nudism, and they explore linguistic as well as visual articulations through different disciplinary approaches. Together the eight essays work to debunk the long-held belief that the nude is “a cultural category specific only to Western culture” (3). Departing from Kenneth Clark’s infamous 1956 distinction between “nakedness” and “nudity”—the former a source of weakness and vulnerability and the latter “an ideal type”—Esanu’s introduction frames the nude as a Foucauldian “instrument of disciplinary power and a mechanism of self-mastering” within the project of Arab modernity (7). As such it becomes a “nodal point” through which new nahda conceptions of gender, sexuality, class, and religion converge and can be read.

As a “tool of modernization,” production of the nude intersects with the development of other technologies of modernity; several of the chapters in this volume address the establishment of both private and state-sponsored press industries and the subsequent evolution of new forms of writing. In her essay “Early Representations of Nudity in the Ottoman Press: A Look at Nineteenth-Century Ottoman and Arabic Erotic Literature,” art historian Hala Auji presents the volume’s most rigorous engagement with Scheid’s notion of tathqif as it pertains to the emergence and education of an effendi (gentleman) class. While nudes (in the beaux arts sense) do not appear in the Arabic press until the early twentieth century, erotica had been in wide circulation in the Ottoman world for the previous hundred years (45). Auji demonstrates, however, that such publications were not simply “pornography in the modern-day understanding of the term”; their varied purposes ranged from the medical to the scientific, from the literary to the moral and religious (48). Collectively such texts reveal “society’s changing views on gender, beauty, and sexuality as well as on the nude, specifically female, form” (48). Reading illustrations from publications from the mid- to late nineteenth century, Auji highlights how the female figures, in various states of undress, are marginal in scenes of sexual encounter; the real focus is on the mostly dressed male protagonist, whose clothes and surroundings reflect modern bourgeois taste. As such these depictions “work toward reifying emergent constructions of masculinity in the modern era” (54).

With a similar focus on innovations in publishing, librarian and researcher Hala Bizri’s article, “The Nudism of Sheikh Fouad Hobeiche,” introduces readers to the self-proclaimed “Messenger of Nudism” who used his periodical al-Makshuf (The revealed) and his publishing house, Dar al-Makshuf, to spread his philosophy in 1930s Lebanon. Hobeiche adopted the style of reportage that had recently been popularized in the Lebanese press to offer readers more than a traditional translation of Louis-Charles Royer’s Au pays de hommes nus (In the country of nudists); appearing in Arabic in 1930, the translation included his own personal reflections, commentary, and critique (89). For Hobeiche, nudism was a way of life—a religion, almost—that promoted physical and spiritual well-being and the liberation of the individual and, ultimately, the nation. He was interested not merely in the physical stripping of the body; rather, he drew on the multiple connotations of makshuf as a process of revelation, of bringing to light information and truth. Al-Makshuf’s central mission gradually shifted to promoting a “literary conception of nudism” focused on the liberation of “Arabic literature from enslavement to tradition, an age-old disease, and an enslavement to commerce, a dangerous modern disease” (93).

Here Bizri touches upon one of the volume’s most intriguing threads, and one she might have drawn out further: the various nomenclature surrounding the nude and the slippages constantly at play in the processes of naming. In her Lacanian reading of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, intellectual historian Nadia Bou Ali identifies nahda with the “reduction of language to grammar,” its transformation into “a medium for communication, in which words and meanings have to correspond to clear images” (116). The painting of nudes is for Bou Ali “symptomatic of anxieties” surrounding the emergence of “the bourgeois body” that are absorbed by the disciplining force of the beaux arts (124).

In his more experimental contribution, “Msalkha, or the Anti-Nude,” anthropologist Saleem Al-Bahloly creates a dialogue between two Iraqi artists separated by fifty years and their radically different experiences producing this art form. In 1958 Baghdad, after studying in Paris and Rome, Jewad Selim returns to the memory of a beautiful, freshly bathed neighbor reclining in a courtyard and gives form to it in his Siesta. In 2007, Bassim Shakir, an aspiring art student preparing for his admission exam by copying an image of the Venus de Milo, is tortured by a group of qiyadi, men wearing black who—according to Al-Bahloly—were unable (or unwilling) to distinguish between timthal ‘ari (a nude statue) and binayya msalkha (a naked girl, or as per the author’s loose translation, a piece of meat). The limitations of naming and categorizing leave behind what Al-Bahloly refers to as “a conceptual remainder” between ‘ari and msalkha that, while repressed, ultimately returns, whether in Baghdad in 2007 or at the exhibition of Manet’s Olympia in the 1865 salon (135). At times disorienting—even perhaps misleading—however, is the historical (and geographical) expanse that Al-Bahloly’s argument transverses, especially as it moves through “the Islamic tradition,” seamlessly connecting the 2007 ruling by the fiqih (local jurist) against Shakir’s Venus de Milo drawings with assumed sources from the Quran or the hadith (134).

In the remaining two texts, Elka M. Correa-Calleja and Nadia Radwan focus on the appearance of the nude as an expression of nationalist and anti-colonial struggles in the works of Egypt’s first generation of modern artists, al-ruwwad (pioneers). While Correa-Calleja focuses on the development of sculptor Mahmud Mukhtar’s work, Radwan offers a survey of how these artists painted nudes in ways that both challenged and reproduced Orientalists’ images of Egyptian women. She points to how artists like Mahmud Sa‘id took working-class and peasant women as their subject matter, grounding their nudes in specific locations rather than “incarnat[ing] an abstract body belonging to an imagined space designated as the ‘Orient’” (76). While doing so, these artists engaged in “the discourse of authenticity,” including various elements in their paintings that were seen to reflect the “real Egypt” (78). Radwan provides readers with a valuable introduction to the artistic landscape of early twentieth-century Egypt; however, her broad sweep entails foregoing several opportunities to further engage with the questions raised, especially those pertaining to gender and class dynamics.

Art, Awakening, and Modernity in the Middle East: The Arab Nude is an important cross-disciplinary contribution to studies of art and intellectual history during the nahda, especially given the continued presumption of the scandalousness of these artworks. The planning of the 2016 exhibition was dominated by an (ultimately unfounded) anticipation of offense and antagonism. (In her reflections on the process of curating the 2016 exhibition, Scheid discusses concerns and assumptions of AUB administrators and her cocurator regarding audience responses; see “Over the Shoulder: Looking at Islamic Visuality, Projected Scandals, and Muslim Visibility,” in Provocative Images in Contemporary Islam, Bart Barendregt et al., eds., forthcoming from Leiden University Press.) Esanu opens his introduction to the volume by recounting the 1928 murder of the Lebanese painter Khalil Saleeby (1870–1928) and his American wife by local villagers. Although ostensibly the motive was a water dispute, the significance of the story here is the suspicion among some Lebanese art historians that the artist was killed because he painted nudes. Intended to demonstrate how “our knowledge of the nude in the Middle East continues to be subject to multiple fictionalizations and dramatizations” (3), this sensationalist opening relishes, if only briefly, the possibility of scandal, a testament to the need for and importance of the interventions in this volume.

Dina Ramadan
Assistant Professor of Arabic, Bard College