Cultural Play and Metamorphosis
Huda Lutfi trained as a cultural historian and, with her second career as an artist, has emerged as one of Egypt’s most notable contemporary image makers. Born in 1948 in Cairo, where she lives and works, she studied Islamic culture and history in Montreal, gaining a Ph.D. She then took up the position of Professor of Islamic cultural history at the American University in Cairo in 1983. She now works as an artist, based in the Townhouse Gallery studios in Cairo and has had a number of successful solo exhibitions. She continues to draw on her research background and interests in culture, history and identity. Viewing the world as ‘a series of signs to be deciphered and interpreted’, she makes paintings, collages and installations that focus on themes of memory, gender, spirituality and meditation.
Huda Lutfi is a self-taught artist whose work and iconography has evolved out of a distinguished academic career as a mediaeval historian. She was born in Cairo and studied at McGill University in Montreal where she was awarded a Ph.D. in Islamic culture and history in 1983. She returned to Egypt and was appointed Professor of Islamic cultural history at the American University in Cairo, a post she held for many years. Granted extended teaching leave in 1999 to pursue her career as an artist, she is currently Associate Professor at the American University in Cairo.
During her studies in Canada, Lutfi practised Arabic calligraphy and explored an interest in Arab-Muslim art and architecture. This found concrete expression through adobe architecture and mural painting in two houses she built in the 1980s in the oasis village of Tunis in Egypt. She described the process “The construction of my mud-brick houses and the murals were directly inspired by Nubian, rural Egyptian, African and Arabic floral, geometric, calligraphic and architectural decorative motifs, which I eagerly researched in my art history books. I used natural dyes, mud, broken pieces of glazed pottery and stained glass, or whatever materials I found available.”
In 1991 a teaching grant from Harvard University gave her the time to start working with mixed media on paper using collage and painting and in 1998 she began to teach painting to street children in Cairo, a mutually beneficial experience. Since 2000 Lutfi has worked at the Townhouse Gallery, Cairo’s foremost contemporary art space, where six studios are allocated to invited artists who have something unique to offer the gallery and the community.
Huda Lutfi’s study of history and culture has greatly influenced her work. She mixes historical texts with imagery inspired by the magical and spiritual iconography of Pharaonic, Coptic, Arab, Mediterranean, Indian and African cultures. Lutfi states: “Conceptually, my work is inspired by an inward, psychological outlook on the human condition, exploring and representing experiential states that are common to human beings. Egypt has a long and complex artistic and cultural tradition which can be both a challenge and an inspiration to any artist. One of my favourite icons is the eye, a symbol which carries meaningful significance, not only in Egyptian culture … As I repeatedly use the eye icon it becomes invested with a new personal meaning. It is transformed into a symbol of seeing, of perceiving, it is the eye of knowledge and wisdom.”
Lutfi explains the transition as an artist from her earlier works to recent concerns:
‘As an artist, my training as a cultural historian continues to be relevant, and like any historian I read the world as a series of signs to be deciphered and reinterpreted. My earliest works were collages juxtaposing old and modern images from Egyptian history, always stressing Egypt’s cultural richness and openness to borrow and reinvent its cultural identity. This concern with cultural play and metamorphosis has inspired my earlier exhibitions and which have therefore assumed titles such as: “Woman and Memory”, “Conjuring the Past”, “The New and the Old” and “Calligraphic Abstractions”. In my latest exhibition, “Found in Cairo”, which ran through the month of May 2003 at the Townhouse Gallery, I focused on my hometown Cairo. Here, the metaphor of research is there, for around two years I went on a sort of archaeological venture, carefully collecting objects from the city’s repository of the Friday market, book stalls and antique shops, and manipulating them in such a way as to induce reflection on our day to day experiences.’
Huda Lutfi’s commitment to freedom of expression and human rights, notably her work with street children and women, has found a voice in her paintings and collages. Using a format of colours, script and icons easily identifiable to academics and intellectuals she intersperses images and verse instantly recognisable to the general public. Lutfi has used images of 20th century women coupled with revered icons of Egypt. Work exhibited in 2001 at the Townhouse Gallery, Cairo demonstrated this with images of Isis alongside the faces of Umm Kulthum, the popular Egyptian singer, and other public figures.
Richard Woffenden reviewed the 2001 solo exhibition in the Cairo Times: “In Egypt many contemporary artists shy away from using their country’s artistic memory in their work for fear of not being modern enough. Conversely some artists fill their canvases with empty mirrors of the past … Standing out from the crowd, Huda Lutfi manages to use the rich annals of history to produce work that is both intelligent, personal and fresh.”
In her 2003 solo exhibition at the Townhouse Gallery, Lutfi’s ‘archaeological research’ in the Cairo street markets led her to make larger installation pieces. She drew on the meditative atmosphere of the nightly Sufi gatherings which Cairenes attend ‘as if to get away from the noise and colours of Cairo’. ‘The question that kept coming to mind as I was choosing my objects was, how is it possible for me to convey visually an intangible state of being, of silence or meditation, the moving away from noise and forms to quietness. Well, the object that I found most appropriate for this was the wooden shoe mould, which I found in large numbers in a downtown shoe factory. These were cleaned, scraped and painted in silver, and on each I inscribed in endless repetition the old Sufi adage “I am the companion of the one who remembers me.” Assembled en masse, these meditative moulds seem like a praying carpet, and with dimmed lighting, the whole space conveyed a feeling of quietness.’
Lutfi was awarded second prize in the Biennial for Women Artists of the Mediterranean in 1997 where she exhibited in Marseilles and Arles, France. She has exhibited widely in Egypt and also in France, Netherlands, Germany, Greece and the USA. Reviews and publications include ‘Huda Lutfi, A Contemporary Artist in Egypt’ in the Woman’s Art Journal in 2000 (vol. 21, no. 2).
Huda Lutfi was shortlisted for the Visiting Arts/Delfina Annual Fellowship in 2001 on the nomination of William Wells, Director of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo.
SOURCES: Artists statement and ‘Huda Lutfi, A Contemporary Artist in Egypt’ (Woman’s Art Journal, 2000, vol. 21, no. 2)
Huda Lutfi was born in 1948 in Cairo where she lives and works as a painter and mediaeval historian. She studied at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and was awarded a Ph.D. in Islamic culture and history in 1983. From 1983-99 she was Professor of Islamic cultural history at the American University in Cairo and is currently Associate Professor at the university. A self-taught artist, Lutfi began to paint in 1992 and makes work in mixed media using collage and painting. She was awarded second prize in the Biennial for Women Artists of the Mediterranean in 1997 and exhibits in Egypt and internationally with solo exhibitions in Cairo, France, Germany, Netherlands and the USA.
Exhibition / Installation,
Indianapolis Museum, Indianapolis, USA
Muscarelle Museum, Virginia, USA
Museum of Modern Art, The Hague
Fortis Circustheater Foundation, The Hague
World Bank, Egypt
Shell Oil, Egypt
Al-Ahram Beverages Company
The American University in Cairo
President of the American University
GROUP EXHIBITIONS (Selected)
Exhibition / Installation,
2002 ´Imagining the Book´, Library of Alexandria, Alexandria, Egypt
2001 ´Cairo Modern Art in Holland´, Fortis Circustheater Gallery, The Hague, Netherlands
2000 ´Out of the Blue´, Mashrabia Gallery, Cairo
1998 ´ Four Women Artists´, Townhouse Gallery, Cairo
1997 Biennial for Women Artists of the Mediterranean, Marseilles & Arles, France
Exhibition / Installation,
2003 ´Found in Cairo´, Townhouse Gallery, Cairo
2002 ´Dawn Portraits´, Fortis Circustheater Gallery, The Hague, Netherlands
2002 ´Earlier Works´, La Bodega-Karim Francis Gallery, Cairo
2001 ´Paintings by a Contemporary Egyptian Artist´, Muscarelle Museum of Art, Virginia, USA
2001 ´The New in the Old´, Townhouse Gallery, Cairo
1999 ´Recent Works´, Xenios Gallery, Frankfurt, Germany
1997 ´Conjuring the Past´, Mashrabia Gallery, Cairo
1996 ´Magic and the Image´, Terra Viva Gallery, Uzes, France
1996 ´Woman and Memory´, Ewart Gallery, the American University in Cairo
2000 Ford Foundation Artist Grant
1997 2nd Prize, Biennial for Women Artists of the Mediterranean
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
(30 October 01 - 02 February 02)