Whether they are actresses, directors, dancers, singers or all at the same time, from the Maghreb to Cairo via Paris, the icons of the Arab world are being honored in a shimmering and immersive exhibition which has just opened. at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris.
Visitors enter through a long curtain of threads onto which black and white photographs are projected. l’exposition Divas. There is something extremely captivating and touching about technology at the service of these outdated images. Oum Kalthoum, Warda, Fayrouz, Samia Gamal, Asmahan, Dalida. Their faces seem to emerge from the past to tell us distant stories, theirs, at the height of the nahda, from the late 19th century until the death of Egyptian President Nasser in 1970.
It is there, in the midst of pan-Arabism, that the pioneers of the Arab scene, who dream of emancipation, seize theaters and film sets. It is especially in Cairo that it all begins with the emergence of cabarets in which Mounira al Mahdiyya, the first Muslim to appear on stage, performs in particular. The Damascene Badia Massabni (1892-1974) founded theaters. Dancers from Raqs sharqi (literally Oriental dance), an ancestral dance of fertility, which she modernizes, sensualizes and makes popular. These glamorous artists, with shimmering outfits, also support the development of Egyptian cinema, nicknamed “Hollywood on the Nile”.
Divas in velvet cases
The films are often singing. The oriental stardom was born and its productions attracted to Cairo, from the twenties, artists from all over the Arab world. This is the case of Asmahan whose crystal voice of infinite sadness rivaled that of Oum Kalthoum – to the point that the latter will for a time be suspected of having had him murdered. Farid El Atrache’s sister is a mountain princess from Syria.
Actress, singer, spy, mother, she died in a mysterious car accident at the age of 29. The part dedicated to it is located in a space that evokes the atmosphere of the noir novel.
Of the 1,000 square meters allocated to Divas, each of the artists to whom the exhibition is devoted has its own case. Paradoxically, it is behind a red velvet curtain, in a felted space simulating a lodge, that the space dedicated to the great Oum Kalthoum is located.
Stage costumes that once belonged to the great women artists of 20th century Arab music and cinema are on display.
The singer, daughter of an imam from the Egyptian countryside, easily recognizable by her dark glasses, her scarf in her hand and her singing tricks that lasted a very long time, was the first woman in the Arab world to have a huge career. It lifts part of its mystery through photographs, some reproductions of personal effects, extracts of songs and especially interviews. We can see how the political and pan-Arab commitment of the woman who stopped singing on the death of President Nasser was great.
This is also the case of the Algerian singer Warda to which the following lodge is dedicated. It was as a child, in Paris, that the latter began her career, before her parents, owners of a cabaret, were driven out, accused of delivering arms to the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). Suitcases and passports illustrate his life. Stressing that the careers of these singers were sometimes linked to exile, which can also be internal. Like that of Fayrouz. Record covers, film posters and concert and musical excerpts illustrate the career of one who remained loyal to Lebanon, but stopped singing there when the country sank into Civil War.
From dawn to dusk
The last diva is of course Dalida. Of Italian origin, born in Cairo in 1933, she began her career there in the cinema, in Cigara wa kass (A glass and a cigarette) where she played dancer’s rival Samia Gamal. The exhibition returns to the Egyptian part of his life and ends with an evocation of Sixth day, by Youssef Chahine, in which she played the main role, a few months before her suicide, in 1987. This evocation is that of a twilight.
His death underlines, according to the chronology drawn by the curators of this abundant exhibition, the end of an era. Thus the end of the exhibition shows deserted cinemas. Youssef Nabil celebrates oriental dance – endangered in Arab countries – in a languid and quirky video, I saved My Belly Dancer (2015). Shirin Abu Shakra offers an installation in which to the sound of the love song Sulayma (1959) past and present confront each other.
Beyond the twilight, we observe how these daring women fascinate contemporary artists. This is expressed through an installation by Lamia Ziadé. Lebanese duo Randa Mirza and Waël Kodeih close Divas with installation in the form of holograms. We see the great Tahiyya Carioca and Samia Gamal dancing, to dreamlike and captivating music, composed from pieces taken from Egyptian films. The voices of the divas of the Arab world are still singing. Like a wind, very distant, of freedom, which would never want to be extinguished.
Exposition Divas D’Oum Kalthoum à Dalida, Arab World Institute in Paris from May 19 to September 26, 2021.