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Your First Look at the ‘Divas, from Oum Kalthoum to Dalida’ Exhibition in Paris

The women of the Arab Golden Age are celebrated in an exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

Shirin Neshat Ask My Heart, Looking For Oum Kulthum 2018

A familiar warmth, a voice that echoes, and eyes heavy with bliss. Such are the piercing remnants of the Arab Golden Age. There’s something to be said of an era that resonates beyond its years; a distant lullaby that once was, moving listeners, still. When pertaining to that of Arab history and lyricism, visiting the Parisian Institut du Monde Arabe is a must. For in the midst of this nostalgia lies Divas, from Oum Kalthoum to Dalida, unveiling this month.

With this ode to a time and a devotion to its women, the institute opens passage to the most treasured artists of Arab music and cinema from the 1920s to 1970s. In narrating the nuances of an epoch, the lives and hearts of these women are assembled like never before. Among its most moving pieces are some personal belongings of Algerian singer Warda, Lebanese chanteuse Sabah’s extravagant gowns, and never-before-seen photographs from Egyptian-born French-Italian singer Dalida’s early days. These intimate items give way for a window into their value, and also includes rare interviews, classic movie ads, and excerpts. Through these, visitors are invited to reflect on their creative expressions, along with their influence within a discourse of emancipation.

Fairuz’s 1960s record Fairuz at Ba’albak

For what is a “diva?” To Hanna Boghanim and Élodie Bouffard – curators of the exhibition – their essence transcends that of mere performers to pioneering women, with “unparalleled gifts and exceptional charisma.” As they reflect, “The exhibition raises the question of their heritage, in contemporary, artistic creation. Along the way, Divas pays homage to powerful women who revolutionized artistic fields by establishing themselves in patriarchal societies.”

From Cairo to Beirut and Algiers, these women advocated for the hopes of their people. Emerging from different faiths and origins, their unwavering legacies continue to charm. Oum Kalthoum was hailed as “the star of the east.” A queen of improvisation, her voice remains unmatched in power. As the Lebanese Fairuz later perpetuated Kalthoumian heritage – with a depth of her own – Warda renewed the style with sounds from the Maghreb. In the realms of film, one could hardly forget performers such as Samia Gamal or Taheyya Kariokka. Enduring in their eloquence, they were the first to popularize sharqî-style oriental dance.

Egyptian singer Asmahan in Beirut, 1930s

Following a period of optimism, which saw the Arab identity forged and anti-colonial struggles triumph, the influence of such women persists even today. Over the last 20 years, contemporary Arab art has evoked a feeling of nostalgia towards this golden age. As noted by the curators, “It is by listening to the popular heart, by following the gaze of contemporary artists and the musical avant garde, that we wanted to implement this great project.”

Such reverence for the past is evident when observing contemporary works, such as Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s 2017 film Looking for Oum Kulthum. The drama attests to her fascination with the icon, who established herself in a male-dominated society. Also reclaiming the iconography of the past, Youssef Nabil’s I Saved My Belly Dancer (2016) is a 12-minute-long video installation inspired by the 50s era of Egyptian cinema and starring Salma Hayek and Tahar Rahim. The work of the duo La Mirza and Waël Kodeih is also exemplary in this respect. The artists offer a musical installation based on extracts of Gamal and Kariokka, who come to life in the form of holograms.

Algerian singer Warda in Algiers, 1970s

These are women who continue to be recognized as the foundation of a shared Arab culture. Visionary and emancipated, their strengths and sensibilities are what elevate them still. As they linger within a collective cultural consciousness, the institute becomes a place to murmur their words and sway to their rhythms. To immerse oneself in their essence once more. Divas D’Oum Kalthoum à Dalida is on from May 12 to July 25 at Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

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Originally published in the May 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

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