Jessica Winegar

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Claiming Egypt: The Politics of Making Art and Culture in the Middle East

Jessica Winegar often begins her presentations by asking audience members what image comes to mind when they think of Egyptian art. A moment later when a slide of King Tut’s mask flashes on the screen, a ripple of laughter fills the room. Ancient Pharaonic art such as the pyramids, the Sphinx, and King Tut’s mask bear little resemblance to the work of most contemporary visual artists in Egypt, but its strong images remain deeply etched in the minds of people around the world.

Today’s Egyptian artists struggle with attitudes from dealers, collectors, museums, and critics who expect contemporary Egyptian art to break new creative ground, yet continue to pay homage to the familiar ancient images that mark work as clearly—and comfortably—“Egyptian.”

This stylistic dilemma is only one of myriad conflicts debated constantly in the cafés, classrooms, and galleries of the Egyptian art world, and reflected in Winegar’s book Claiming Egypt: The Politics of Making Art and Culture in the Middle East. In nearly three years of field work, Winegar explored how contemporary art movements in Egypt reveal powerful connections between art and politics, conferred by the nation’s troubled history of colonialism, nationalism, socialism, and capitalism.

Claiming Egypt is the first academic book on an Arab art world. “People are surprised that there’s this whole art scene in Egypt that can tell us a great deal about contemporary struggles in the Middle East,” Winegar says. “Art reveals so much about social life in the region that we couldn’t get at in any other way. What is it like to have this history of socialism and colonialism, in a country now embracing capitalism? Artists, like most people in Egypt, want to maintain their cultural integrity while also being cosmopolitan.”

Winegar vividly describes individual artists’ lives in today’s Egypt to illustrate her anthropological study of the largest and oldest Arab art scene. “Social life in the Middle East is not reducible to the veil and terrorism,” Winegar observes. “Through its art, we can see Arabs and Muslims as people living everyday lives and doing creative things.”

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Fordham University

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