Paris exhibition 'Divas' shines light on women artists of Arab world's golden age

·2-min read

"Divas, from Umm Kulthum to Dalida" at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris pays tribute to the women who made up the golden age of Arab cinema and music, from 1920 to 1970.

Umm Kulthum, Warda al-Djazaïria, Asmahan, Fairuz, Laila Mourad, Samia Gamal, Souad Hosni, Dalida...are just a few of the many names brought together in the Divas exhibition, a mesmering journey, complete with personal objects, sparkling stage dresses, period photographs, extracts from mythical films or concerts, rare interviews and film posters.

The 1,000m² exhibition space is divided into four parts. It moves from the pioneering women to the feminist avant-gardistes and then to the success of musicals.

A section is devoted to four great divas of Arab song: Umm Kulthum, Asmahan, Fairuz and Warda.

"They are charismatic characters, incredible stage performers, capable of leading the crowd in musical ecstasy, known in Arabic as tarab", says Hanna Boghanim, curator of the exhibition.

Boghanim and her co-curator Elodie Bouffard, worked for about three years and travelled from Magreb to Cairo and Beirut to collect photos and objects that belonged to the artists.

Umm Kulthum has thus an entire space dedicated to her, a kind of dressing room behind a red velvet curtain, which retraces her life through photographs, dresses, reconstructions of her dresses, jewellery and an interview.

"She tells a very interesting story of the Arab world. She was a small peasant girl born in the Nile Delta who rose to the top of Egyptian society and who revolutionised Arab music.

"With her, we went from an orchestra with four instruments to one enhanced with violins and cellos," explains Boghanim.

The exhibition also highlights the political role Umm Kulthum played at a time when Egypt was seeking independence.

"She also embodied the pan-Arab spirit with Nasser [former Egyptian president], so she had a huge political role.

And it is precisely because she had this impact on society, this political and artistic role, that she is considered the greatest singer."

The exhibition ends with the views of today's artists on these divas, whose legacy is a profound source of inspiration for a whole new generation.

"Contemporary artists have been inspired by the way in which these women emancipated themselves from patriarchal society, whether they be singers or actresses, in order to live their dreams and succeed in their careers,' says Boghanim.

"In the exhibition, we show just how important their heritage is today."

► Divas, d’Oum Kalthoum à Dalida at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris until September, 2021.