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PARIS: The last exhibition of the Institut du monde arabe (IMA) in Paris has been ready for almost a year, but it is only now, as French museums and cultural venues are finally reopening after their forced closure due to of the COVID-19 pandemic, the public finally have the chance to see “Arab Divas, from Umm Kulthum to Dalida.”

The exhibition – which runs from May 19 to September 26 – was originally scheduled to open in May 2020. Now the magnificent voices of Umm Kulthum, Dalida, Sabah, Fayrouz and Warda will once again be able to shine and transport their audiences. .

The show covers 1,000 square meters of the IMA and consists of hundreds of unique collectibles, divided into four main parts.

Elias Sarraf, Portrait of Asmahan, Alexandria, circa 1930, Beirut, Arab Image Foundation, Faysal el Atrash collection. (Thez Arab Image Foundation)

The first is dedicated to the pioneers of the 1920s; visionary and avant-garde women who paved the way for those who followed. “It was fundamental for us to show the neglected divas, the pioneers, those who contributed to the creation of entertainment culture and popular music, to the expansion of broadcasting and the development of cinema,” explains L ‘exposure. curator Elodie Bouffard.

This section of the exhibition takes the visitor back to the streets of Cairo, which at the time was the cultural center of the Arab world. The trams, the men in galabies, the cafes, all seem to come out of a bygone era as the diva’s voices fill the space.

“We wanted music to flow freely, not through headphones, because listening to music used to be done in a community,” Bouffard says. “It was a collective experience, a communion, even a trance, just like the concerts of Umm Kulthum.

Vinyl from Fayruz to Baalbek “Ya amar ana wiyak _ Ma fi hada”, 1960, Beirut, collection Abboudi Bou Jawde. (Abboudi Bou Jawde)

The Egyptian capital has attracted artists from all over the Middle East, including Rose Al-Yussef (real name Fatma). Born in Lebanon, she became an iconic figure in Egyptian media and theater during the interwar period, and founded the famous cultural and political magazine Rose al-Yussef.

Another extremely important figure from the same period was Badia Massabni. She opened the first cabarets in Alexandria and Cairo, and trained the greatest dancers in the Arab world. The show also highlights Munira El-Mahdeya, she was a mistress of tarab – the emotional aesthetic central to the Arab artistic tradition – and was the first Muslim woman to perform on stage, in the theater production “Saladin” .

The world of cinema is represented by Assia Dagher, a Lebanese producer responsible for propelling famous director Youssef Chahine and famous diva Sabah to stardom. In recognition of her work, she obtained Egyptian nationality.

Leila Mourad on the cover of Al-cinema magazine, Egypt, 1945, Beirut, Abboudi Bou Jawde collection. (Abboudi Bou Jawde)

“Witnessing empowered and empowered women who have truly revolutionized and played an important political role in the Arab world and beyond is crucial for Westerners. It portrays a different image of the oriental woman, ”explains Maïa Tahiri, communications officer for Arab countries at the IMA.

It is thanks to such pioneers that the great divas were able to share their remarkable talent. And the exhibition allows visitors to “visit” some of their changing rooms. The first belongs perhaps to the greatest Arab diva of all, the Egyptian icon Umm Kulthum. He’s filled with her costumes and stage props, and – of course – her unmistakable voice, as the speakers perform some of her greatest hits.

Next is Algerian singer Warda, whose son provided a number of her personal items for the exhibition. Next comes the legendary Asmahan, whose life as a Druze princess and spy born on a boat is commemorated in a few photos and video recordings. And finally Fayrouz, the greatest living Arab diva that visitors can become better acquainted with through photos, posters and other memorabilia on loan from dedicated art collectors.

Assia Dagher on the cover of Al-Kawakeb (The planets) magazine, Cairo, 1954. Beirut, Abboudi Bou Jawde collection. (Abboudi Bou Jawde)

Bouffard explains that around thirty collectors contributed to the exhibition, including Sabah’s chest of drawers, William Khoury, whom she met through “friends of friends of friends” and who kindly granted Bouffard access to her personal collection of the Lebanese diva’s stage outfits, some of which are on display here.

The third part of the exhibition is devoted to “Nilewood” – the golden age of Egyptian cinema – and presents Leila Mourad, Faten Hamama, Suad Hosny, Sabah, Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, Hind Rostom and Dalida. This age ended in the 1970s with the deaths of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1970) and Umm Kulthum (1975), and the start of the civil war in Lebanon (1975).

“These events were tipping points for the two cultural poles, Beirut and Cairo,” says Bouffard. “Cinema – and culture as a whole – was also confronted with the arrival of television, which marked the end of vast popular gatherings, cinema, radio and theater, all of which were moments of significantly strong social bond. .

Although this era is over, many contemporary artists are still inspired by it. In fact, that’s what inspired this exhibition.

“The project was born about four years ago,” says Bouffard. “For a hip-hop exhibition at the IMA, we called on beatmakers from all over the Mediterranean region to create a soundtrack. Throughout our collaboration, songs from Warda, Umm Kulthum and Fayrouz kept coming back. All beatmakers shared this musical heritage. We started to dig deeper and, shortly after, Lamia Ziadeh’s book “O night, O my eyes” came out. A few days after the end of this exhibition, we hosted “Love and Revenge”, in which Wael Kodaih and Randa Mirza mix Arabic songs from this period. “

The last part of the exhibition is devoted to these contemporary artists claiming their cultural heritage – Ziadeh’s “wall of curiosity” inspired by his book; Photomontages by Egyptian photographer Nabil Boutros taken from old films; Staged images of belly dancers by Youssef Nabil; and Shirin Neshat’s documentary on Umm Kulthum.

The exhibition ends with an installation by Kodeih and Mirza that brings Samia Gamal and her contemporaries to life in the form of holograms. They stand next to two turntables for a “last dance”. But this exhibition guarantees that they will all live on in our memories.


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