Albert Hourani Book Award
Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt
Creative Reckonings is a brilliant exploration of contemporary Egypt. Jessica Winegar demonstrates the full power of the ethnographic method to see crucial dimensions of the whole in a piece of the whole. This is a study of the space of art in Egypt. It is a space molded and constrained by economic, political, and cultural trends that are distinctively Egyptian and Middle Eastern, by career challenges and opportunities facing aspiring artists in any age and any place, and by the expectations of an international community of artists, art critics, gallery owners, and curators. The poignancy and power of these expectations arise from the particular ethos of the world of “high art” as it developed in Europe and America and the cult of authenticity marketed along with that ethos. While the nationalist program of government ministries, local and international critics, and consumers demand “authenticity” as a mark of the original contribution of Egyptian artists, that same quality is used to index its derivative nature. Winegar’s study goes beyond Egypt by suggesting how this “catch-22” is emblematic of predicaments shared by all non-first world artists in the post-colonial condition—artists subject to the gaze of the West and massive resource disparities.
The book features beautiful color plates and is delightfully written with chapters featuring intimate profiles of artists and collectors interwoven with thematically organized treatments of key questions. The pathos and vibrancy of Egyptian life is beautifully rendered in this study of an authenticity that arises precisely from the struggles of Egyptian politicians, artists, merchants, consumers, collectors, and critics to “reckon” with the kind of contradictory imperatives whose dynamic interaction also defines the broader questions of what it means to be Egyptian, and what it means to be Egypt.