Alex Dika Seggerman: A New Modernism for a New America

Today we welcome a guest post from Alex Dika Seggerman, author of Modernism on the Nile: Art in Egypt Between the Islamic and the Contemporary, out now from UNC Press.

Analyzing the modernist art movement that arose in Cairo and Alexandria from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s, Alex Dika Seggerman reveals how the visual arts were part of a multifaceted transnational modernism. While the work of diverse, major Egyptian artists during this era may have appeared to be secular, she argues, it reflected the subtle but essential inflection of Islam, as a faith, history, and lived experience, in the overarching development of Middle Eastern modernity.

We’ve chosen to publish this blog post as part of the AUPresses University Press Week blog tour, under today’s theme of “How to be a better (global) citizen.” In this post, Alex Dika Seggerman considers how a global perspective and the concept of “constellational modernism” might help to dismantle the white, male-centric canonical narrative of modernism in art history.


A New Modernism for a New America

Last fall, I began teaching at Rutgers University-Newark. A public institution that serves mostly commuter students from Northern New Jersey, the school is ranked the one of the United States’ most diverse university campuses. My students arrive in class knowing little about art history, as it is not commonly integrated into public high school curricula. Moreover, often as first-generation Americans or first-time college students, my students are not tied to the “Western Canon” of art history. In this way, they are unlike the students I taught at Yale University and Smith College, who often had already been to major European museums, like the Uffizi in Florence, the Louvre in Paris or the Tate Modern in London.

It has been invigorating to teach the Rutgers students precisely because they do not carry preconceived notions about European superiority in art history.

MoMA90 attendees with Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950, 1950 (left) and Alice Neel Georgie Arce, 1953 (right)

Last semester, I taught “Global Modern Art,” in which we studied Katsushika Hokusai (Japan), Mahmoud Mukhtar (Egypt), Wifredo Lam (Cuba), Frida Kahlo (Mexico), and Amrita Sher Gil (India) alongside new interpretations of Edouard Manet (France), Pablo Picasso (Spain), and Jackson Pollock (USA). We discussed how works by Mukhtar, Lam, and Kahlo visualized artists’ nationalities as well as issues facing their communities, particularly through referencing indigenous cultural forms. I asked them to look again at the work of Jackson Pollock’s No. 31 from the Museum of Modern Art. Even though the mainstream understanding of Pollock focuses on the formal “genius” of Abstract Expressionism, I asked them if they thought Pollock too reflected on the current issues facing America. A Latinx student in a bright pink shirt raised his hand, and said: “The painting has a mixture of black, brown, and white paint. Maybe that symbolizes the different races in America – sometimes it’s violent and chaotic, but we are all here mixed up together for better or worse.” Even though I have been looking at Pollock’s paintings for over two decades, this interpretation never crossed my mind. This perspective, which acknowledges the profound diversity, and violence, of the United States and its history, represents the future of the field of art history.

MoMA90 Party attendees standing in the midst of a work by Haegue Yang (Korean, b. 1971), Handles, 2019, in the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium

Many museums across the country, and the globe, have been working to diversify the perspectives represented on their walls to strive towards this new future. On October 21, the Museum of Modern Art re-opened its doors after a four-month renovation and re-installation, with the claim that it would “share exhilaratingly broad views of the art of our time.” Because my book, Modernism on the Nile, argues that modernism in art was not solely the product of white, male Euro-American artists, I jumped at the opportunity to visit the “#newMoMA” at the MoMA90 party on Saturday, October 12th.

True to its mission in the re-installation, two leading African-American artists –Betye Saar and Pope.L – have temporary exhibitions on view, a tremendous step for the museum. The fourth and fifth floor permanent collection galleries, tracing 1880-1940 and 1940-1970 respectively, have also been reimagined. The overwhelming difference in these galleries is the presence of women. (So. Many. Women.) The galleries show old favorites, like Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night or Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory, alongside a plethora of artwork by women artists who were actively involved in those art movements, like Mary Cassatt and Frida Kahlo. The curators have also often juxtaposed contemporary works with classics, like this canonical Henri Matisse painting, The Red Studio, with a work by the African-American abstract painter Alma Woodsey Thomas:

Party attendees sitting before Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954), The Red Studio, 1911 (left) and Alma Woodsey Thomas (American, 1891-1978), Fiery Sunset, 1973 (right)


While it was thrilling to see these new imaginings in a party atmosphere, I was disappointed in the lack of global diversity in the installations. Most of the artists were still European and American, with a handful of notable outliers. The juxtapositions of Matisse and Woodsey Thomas and of Pollock and Neel were intriguing. Yet, these inclusions did little to complicate the canonical narrative of modernism built in the twentieth century, as these female painters did double duty, representing both a female and an African-American perspective, differencing them from the mainstream “masters,” not once, but twice.

While the inclusion of female and racially-diverse voices into these installations is most definitely a step in the right direction, art historians must endeavor to also rethink the underlying narratives of modernism. In my book, Modernism on the Nile, I present a theoretical concept – “constellational modernism” – to chart twentieth-century art in Egypt. However, I also hope that this concept, which argues that artists were hyper-aware of their interconnected, transnational artistic networks and visualized those in their artwork, can also help to dismantle the outdated story of modernism, in which white, male artists still occupy the center. Like my pink-shirted student highlighted, we must work to recognize racism, colonialism, and sexism in art histories, especially in artworks that were once exalted.


Photo by Shelly Edelman

Alex Dika Seggerman is assistant professor of Islamic art history at Rutgers University–Newark. Follow her on Twitter.