Anyone lucky enough to be in Paris between now and 26 September should get themselves over to the Institute du Monde Arabe, currently staging an exhibition called ‘Divas: D’Oum Kalthoum à Dalida’. The show is a celebration of some of the iconic women singers of the Arab World, including Asmahan, Warda, Fairouz, Dalida and, of course, Um Kolsum. It’s beautifully presented with lots of old magazine covers, records, posters and photographs. There are film clips of trams rattling along Cairo streets filled with men in tarboushes and of café terraces thronged by elegantly dressed couples to set the scene. Plenty of clips from classic movies, too, as the golden age of Egyptian cinema was intimately linked to music. Early displays highlight the achievements of early Arab feminists, including a room with period desk and furniture devoted to Hoda Shaarawi and displays on Rose al-Youssef, but it’s really all about the emotion, the joy and, above all, the glamour, particularly on the exhibition’s upper floor, reached via a processional staircase draped with crimson-red. Up here, in a procession of theatrically spotlit spaces, are dresses and jewellery worn by Um Kolsum, kitschy costumes fashioned for Sabah, and personal items once owned by Warda, along with displays devoted to dancer-actors including Samia Gamal and Tahiyya Carioca. And then there’s the music, which plays constantly, changing from room to room.
The final rooms of the exhibition look at the divas’ influence on a younger generation of artists and musicians. There’s a film by Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil, who began his career shooting portraits inspired by early Egyptian cinema, and footage of composer Wael Koudaih and visual artist Randa Mirza who together perform as Rayess Bek, sampling music and dialogue from classic Egyptian movies and setting them to contemporary beats.
For anyone who can’t make the exhibition and who speaks French, there s an excellent catalogue, which can always be ordered through Amazon – search for Divas, d’Oum Kalthoum à Dalida. Even if your French isn’t great, it’s worth buying for the images alone.