Recognized as the ‘liberator of modern Egyptian art’ and widely celebrated for his utterly human and insanely caricature-like pioneering depictions of Souks in Cairo and Cafés in Aswan, Ragheb Ayad (1892-1982) married the Italian-born painter Emma Caly (1897-1989) in 1930. Ragheb was thirty-eight, Emma, thirty-three.
Inseparable ever since, Ragheb Ayad went on establishing himself as one of the most influential artists of the 20th-century, with a six-decade-long career that spanned two kings (Fouad I and Farouk), three presidents (Mohamed Naguib, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anouar el-Sadat) and two national revolutions (1919 and 1952), while Emma Caly-Ayad affirmed herself as a distinguished and prolific painter in her own way.
BUT, as with many artistic couples, the husband gained more popularity than the wife, and eventually, Emma was lost in the gaps of history.
The Italian link acted as the catalyst in triggering the romantic relationship. Ragheb and Emma first crossed path as students at the Superior Institute of Fine Arts in Rome around 1927. This was the beginning of a partnership that lasted over half a century, until Ayad’s death in 1982. A native of Rome, Emma Caly studied painting first at the Albertina Academy of Fine Arts in Torino, before enrolling at the Superior Institute of Fine Arts in Rome. Ragheb Ayad was already in Rome. He travelled first at his (and Youssef Kamel’s) expenses between 1923-24, then through a state-sponsored scholarship from 1924 to 1928. In total, he spent six years in the Italian capital studying at the Superior Institute of Fine Arts (Academy of Fine Arts) and the Accademia di San Lucia.
Two years after Ayad returned to Egypt, Emma followed, and soon, came to be known as Emma Caly-Ayad. She began her career as an art instructor at the newly established Higher Institute of Fine Arts for Women Teachers [al-Ma’ahad al-‘ali li-l Funun al-Jamila l-il-Mo’alimat] in 1938-39. Parallel to her teaching duties, Emma painted prolifically throughout her life and maintained a more conventional approach to art making. Based on techniques from Renaissance frescoes and Mexican murals, she produced works with a sculptural composition and luscious colours. Inspired by Egypt, but more so by Ragheb, her paintings tackle a variety of subjects, from the fellaha and the countryside, to portraits and nature morte. The duo’s synchronised creativity influenced each other’s colourful styles and resulted in decades of collaborations that explored themes of popular life and Christian iconography.
The pair went on dipping together between painting, teaching, managing institutions, and everything in-between. With her support and dedication, Ragheb rose to prominence, both as an artist and an institutional champion, leading the Coptic Museum (1941-46), the Free Studies Section [Dirassat Hurra] at the Egyptian School of Fine Arts (as of 1942), and the Museum of Modern Art (1949-54), while at the same time, taking part in hundreds of collective and individual exhibitions in Egypt and abroad, until his death in 1982. By 1965, Ragheb Ayad followed in the footsteps of pioneer modernist painter Mahmoud Saïd, becoming the second Egyptian artist to be awarded the prestigious State Merit Prize for the Arts by the then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Widely recognized as the founding father of the Egyptian popular expressionist movement, Ragheb Ayad was one of the most innovative painters of his generation and one of the most respected in the Arab world. Five years her senior, the Egyptian painter was more than just a partner for the Italian artist. Adopted by Egypt and devoted to Ragheb, Emma combined her pedagogic mission with a career in painting, regularly taking part in the different Salons du Caire (e.g. 1933, 1945, 1954), as well as various editions of the Alexandria Biennial for Mediterranean countries. Eventually, she dedicated her life to building a new generation of women artists, while producing works of art about Egypt and of Ragheb.
After their death – Ragheb in 1982, Emma in 1987 – Ragheb’s legacy continues to live on, while Emma has been forgotten, overshadowed by the notoriety of her husband.
Ragheb & Emma brings together nearly fifty-five paintings and drawings that depict the evolution of the two extraordinary and discreet artists, and explores how the pair played a part in shaping the development of one another’s practice, and ultimately, the career of one of Egypt’s giants or sheikh al-fananin [The Dean of Pioneer Artists]. It also features rare archival material never displayed before, including personal photographs, magazine clippings, and personal belongings.
Ragheb & Emma is an homage to the Ayad’s bond and a long overdue tribute to one of the most solid couples in Arab art history.