With scholarship in the discipline of history witnessing a shift toward global approaches to local historical processes, new questions are being raised about how to identify commensurate theoretical methods and conceptual frameworks for analysis – with art history being no less part of this scholarly shift. How do we strike a balance between acknowledging distinctly local historical transformations with related global ones? In what ways can we conceptualize intertwined global networks that gave rise to local phenomena without erasing local agency and uniqueness? Where do we account for power in our analyses of local and global historical developments?
Modernism on the Nile: Art in Egypt between the Islamic and the Contemporary
(UNC Press, 2019) by Alex Dika Seggerman
deftly takes up the challenge posed by these and other questions by punctuating its mark both in the field of global modernism and in modern Arab and Islamic art history, offering the commensurate theories and frameworks necessary to help move these conversations forward. Through research conducted in Egypt, Europe, and the United States, Seggerman analyzes Egypt’s modernist art movement from the late-nineteenth century up until the 1960s, demonstrating the interconnectedness of this movement with a constellation of artistic production outside of Egypt.
By examining the work of a range of characters like the satirical cartoonist Ya’qub Sanua, the nationalist sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar, the enigmatic religious teacher Muhammad ‘Abduh and more, Seggerman argues that Egyptian modernism was neither “transnational” nor “global,” but manifested itself in a constellational network operating within a finite field that was wide enough to encompass an array of modernisms. Furthermore, by tracing and identifying “the Islamic” in modern Arab art, Seggerman also challenges the conventional periodization of Islamic art that heavily centers the premodern. She argues that we ought to pay more attention to the subtle inflections of Islam – not merely as a faith and doctrine but as a lived experience and cultural heritage – in the diverse work of major Egyptian artists of the time. This book is a welcome addition to the study of Middle Eastern, Muslim, and global modernisms.
Asad Dandia is a graduate student of Islamic Studies at Columbia University.