Sitting proudly just opposite Cairo Opera House, the Mahmoud Mukhtar Museum
exhibits the treasures produced by the ‘father of modern Egyptian sculpture’ over his short 43 years of life, from 1891 to1934.
The building itself is white, deceivingly small and unimposing, with high walls surrounding its clean grounds. Not only does this museum celebrate Mahmoud Mukhtar’s work, it is also a tribute to the achievements throughout his life and is also his resting place – spookily, his tomb is in the basement.
Mahmoud Mukhtar was born in a remote farming village near to Mahalla but raised by his grandmother in a village near Mansoura until 1902 when he moved to central Cairo. Rumour has it that from a young age, Mukhtar would be seen sculpting using mud from the canal banks.When the School of Fine Arts opened in 1908, Mukhtar began developing his artistic talent and in 1911 he was offered a scholarship at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. This set him on the path of career success and eventual international recognition.
Heavily influenced by his heritage and surroundings, Mahmoud Mukhtar’s exhibited work is full of familiar portraits and scenes, sculpted out of an assortment of different stones.
Immediately after entering the museum, visitors are greeted by two, larger than life statues. One is a life-like impression of the Ancient Egyptian goddess, Isis; half naked from the waist up, the impressive statue features detailed plaits in her hair and an elaborate necklace. Isis was worshipped as the ideal mother and the goddess of children. We wonder then, if this was the reason it was juxtaposed with an equally large figure of a female Egyptian villager carrying a jar on her head – as if to say that the modern day, family woman is a personification of the goddess.
Alongside these two statues, there are three marble heads on top of three tall stands. The first is a depiction of Abdel Khalik Sarwat, the twice serving Egyptian prime minister in 1922 and again in 1928. His expression is stoney and serious with a thick, full moustache. Alongside him are two female heads, one titled ‘Serendiptious Piece’, suggesting it was created from the artist’s imagination, and one portraying a cheerful female face, called ‘Egyptian girl’.
Before entering the next hall, you are confronted with a large, black slab hanging on the wall. The piece, titled ‘The Relief of Justice’, portrays an image of judgement; the weighing scales to weigh the heart of the dead are prominent in the corner. The main figure in the piece has their face turned to the side, possibly suggesting that their identity has no significance; the dead will be judged only on their acts during their life.
Continuing our journey to the next room, suitably named ‘The Bronze Room’, we meandered through the lines of small, intricate bronze sculptures. One piece in particular stands out; a small sculpture of a beggar and his son. The elderly man is positioned on the ground, holding out one hand for money whilst cradling his son with the other. The elderly man is missing a leg and his son, a foot. Both are barely clothed and the artist managed to accurately depict their weathered skin, scruffy hair while vividly capturing their feelings of despair.
Many of his other sculptures represent common and realistic sights in Egypt. For example, women happily absorbed in caring for their children, indigenous men wearing galabeyas, pointy slippers and hats, along with significant Egyptian figureheads including an impressive sculpture of the artist Hugo Santos, Dr Ali Ibrahim and several politicians and sheiks of the time.
Many of Mahmoud Mukhtar’s pieces feature Saad Zaghloul, Egypt’s prime minister in 1924 and a famous revolutionary. Being heavily involved in politics during the British occupation of Sudan and Egypt, Zaghloul demanded that the UK acknowledge the countries’ independence. The British responded by exiling him to Malta and the Seychelles which led to outrage, followed by the revolution of 1919. Upon his return to Egypt, he was considered somewhat a hero and elected as prime minister with an overwhelming majority of votes.
A large wall etching shows Zaghloul being lifted in celebration by a crowd of Egyptians. The next, and most prominent, depicts the famous meeting where Zaghloul and other Egyptian politicians met with the British general and his army to demand the revocation of Egypt and Sudan’s protectorate status.
Along with this collection as a tribute to this iconic figure, Mahmoud Mukhtar is also famous for two statues of Saad Zaghloul which today stand proudly in Alexandria and Cairo. Small impressions of these are available to view at the museum.
The last room in the museum is painted a bright blue and provides insight into Mukhtar’s life. His original working overalls are hung opposite a heavy black coat with a velvet collar for more formal outings. There’s also an interesting collection of vintage photographs showing the artist working on his projects. These, along with old newspaper cuttings from both Arabic and French newspapers, help bring his work to life and put it into context.
The detail, accuracy, smoothness and talent is obvious in all of Mahmoud Mukhtar’s sculptures, throughout the entire collection. His sculptures presenting images of politically-motivated scenarios during his life time are particularly engaging and most of his work is self-explanatory whilst remaining interesting to just simply look at. There is little information on the pieces available in the museum, but, the lingering staff know a little bit about the pieces.
Entrance is just 3LE for Egyptians but typically, the price goes up to 10LE for a foreigner.