Photo of a gallery space with a sculpture of a peasant women with a jug on her head in the middle.
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Collection Highlight: Mahmoud Mokhtar and the Pride of a Nation

11 July 2023

By Arthur Debsi

Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art houses a unique world-class collection of modern and contemporary art from the Arab world and its cultural and historical connections. Among its treasures is an iconic 20th-century sculpture that came to represent the spirit of Egyptian independence.

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Often regarded as Egypt’s first sculptor in ‘more than 1,700 years’(1), Mahmoud Mokhtar aimed to form an artistic language, with visual references that would reconcile a contemporary Egyptian public with its cultural and historical identity. In his practice, the sculptor detached himself from the European academic training that he had received to move his sculpting oeuvre towards a more nationalist art.

Throughout his career, Mokhtar took much of his inspiration from scenes of daily life in the Egyptian countryside as he searched for ‘Egyptian-ness’ in his work. He returned often to the figure of the fallaha (peasant woman; masculine: fellah), for example, producing a large number of various-sized sculptures of the subject, including this bronze statue entitled Au Bord du Nil (1930), on view as part of the permanent collection at Mathaf. The life-size artwork depicts a fallaha wearing a tarha (traditional Egyptian veil) and holding a balas (jug used to carry water) on her head.

Statue of a farmer woman holding a water jug on her head.

Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891-1934), Au Bord du Nil, 1930, bronze with dark patina, 220.5 x 50 cm.

Building upon the sculptural traditions of ancient Egypt, Mokhtar readapted the Pharaonic style with a modern approach. In the case of Au Bord du Nil, he focussed less on the monumental aspect and more on dynamism and drawing a specific narrative around the character herself.

Au Bord du Nil (1930) is not a generic depiction of a peasant Egyptian woman, many examples of which fed into Orientalist clichés in the late 19th century. Rather, the artwork conveys a specific, strong message in response to the tense politicised context of the 1930s, when the Kingdom of Egypt was under British military control. At the time, the Egyptian people’s aspiration to regain national sovereignty had firmly intensified, inspiring Mokhtar to transform the figure of the fallaha into a nationalist symbol.

Photo of a photo, sepia toned, Egyptian farmers with jugs on their heads.

G. Lekegian (French, 1870s - 1890s), photographer. Fellahines (po[r]teuses d'eau), about 1870–1890. Albumen silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 84.XM.1407.61. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program.

The sculpture’s subject embodied the deep-rooted traditions of Egypt, which were viewed as ‘uncorrupted’ by Western colonialism. For thousands of years, the fallaha had been tasked with fetching water from the Nile. By choosing to depict this enduring figure, Mokhtar proved that the traditions had not disappeared, but had survived through the centuries until modern times.

Until he passed away in 1934, Mahmoud Mokhtar never ceased celebrating the Egyptian peasantry. Through the example of Au Bord du Nil and other works, he connected modern history in Egypt with its glorious ancient past, both in terms of sculptural style and subject matter. Entrenched in visual Egyptian culture, the fallaha became an archetypal image, associated with the struggle for independence. The future of modern Egypt would be built by the Egyptian people, including Mokhtar himself, who proudly proclaimed: ‘Je suis le fils d’un modeste fellah de la terre égyptienne’(2), or,I am the son of a modest fellah from the Egyptian soil.”

Arthur Debsi is a Research and Collection Consultant at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.


(1) Mahmoud Moukhtar quoted in Seggerman, Alex Dika. Modernism on the Nile, Art in Egypt between the Islamic & the Contemporary. Cairo, Egypt: AUC Press, 2019. (p.79)

(2) ‘I am the son of a modest fellah from the Egyptian soil’. Mahmoud Moukhtar quoted in Abou Ghazi, Badr al-Din, Boctor, Gabriel. Mouktar ou le réveil de l’Égypte. Cairo, Egypt: H.Urwand & Fils, Dar al-Hilal, 1949. (p.43)

Plan Your Visit

Au Bord du Nil is on view in Mathaf’s permanent collection galleries. Admission to Mathaf is free and includes entrance to temporary special exhibitions. Reserve free tickets in advance to select your preferred time slot.

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