Two rare Mahmoud Mokhtar works are being sold at Sotheby’s this month, bookending the Egyptian modernist’s life.
The first bronze, Arous El Nil (or Bride of the Nile), shows a woman with a Pharaonic headdress and scarab necklace looking to the side. It was made in the 1920s or 1930s and is the bust for the full-length sculpture that is in the collection of Paris's Centre Pompidou. The work has the art deco stylisation that the artist is now famous for, as well as his dexterity with Egyptian symbolism. Like many intellectuals of the period, Mokhtar returned to motifs, styles and subjects from Egypt's Pharaonic past to create a new identity for the nation as it broke free of colonialism.
The second is very different. Created when Mokhtar was only 19 years old, Ibn El Balad (1910) is a bronze sculpture of a young boy standing on a brick platform. Rather than the epic grandeur of his later work, this is sympathetic, even quirky; a quizzical expression rests on the boy's scrunched-up face, and his shoes are turned up in a cartoonish manner. The piece was Mokhtar's university graduation project at the Egyptian School of Fine Arts in Cairo.
"You don't find these early works very much," says Sotheby's specialist Mai Eldib. "You find the later period, where you see the marriage between the Pharaonic and the art deco aesthetic. But I feel, for me personally, that this naive, 1910 identity of Mokhtar is who he really was – before his Bernheim-Jeune exhibition [of 1930], before he did all he is now known for."
The work represents an anonymous boy in Cairo, but Eldib speculates on a potentially autobiographical cast; whether “it's actually an homage to himself – coming from the village to the big city in Cairo, trying to figure it all out”.
Both sculptures are from the collection of the aristocratic Hafez Afifi Pasha family. Afifi Pasha was a surgeon and statesman, and an important patron of artists and architects during the crucial period leading up to Egypt’s independence in 1956. He commissioned the architect Fathy Hassan for a workers' village on his vast farm on the outskirts of Cairo, in a social experiment of modern living that drew on traditional craft skills. He also used the farm to entertain lavishly, hosting none other than Umm Kulthum.
Afifi Pasha was also an enormous supporter of Mokhtar, funding the well-known Egypt Awakened (1920) sculpture, of a veiled Egyptian woman standing next to a sphinx, which now looks over Ramses Square in Cairo.
The surgeon's substantial art collection has been passed down via branches of his large family, and the two Mokhtar works coming to auction are from one of his granddaughters.
is Sotheby's putting them up at the 20th Century Art / Middle East 2021 sale, which will be open for online bidding from this Tuesday to Tuesday, March 30.
Ibn El Balad carries an estimate of £90,000-£110,000 ($125,000-$150,000) and Arous El Nil for £120,000-£180,000 ($166,000-$250,000). The figures are in line with the market for Mokhtar pieces, though Sotheby's will no doubt be looking for a repeat of its 2016 bonanza, when a 1931 version of one of Mokhtar's classic subjects, On the Banks of the Nile, sailed past its £120,000 ($166,000) estimate to reach £725,000 ($1 million).
Accurately dating Mokhtar's bronzes, which were made in several casts, continues to be a challenge. Despite his stature, the artist lacks a verified list of all his works. With this in mind, the Sotheby's team emphasised the work they did to establish the identity of these pieces, noting that both are mentioned in the authoritative book on the artist, The Sculptor: Mokhtar (1964), by Badr Eldin Abou Ghazi, and elsewhere.
Abou Ghazi names two owners for the first two Ibn El Balad casts, which were made in gypsum in a series of eight. These are Afifi Pasha and the feminist Huda Sha'arawi, who was a friend of the artist.
"It's so beautiful to have something from this part of Egypt's past life, this nostalgic Egypt that we all look back to," says Eldib, who lives in Cairo, of sifting through the documentation from Afifi Pasha's family. "Doing the research itself was so poignant and memorable."