Posted March 3, 2008

Anthropologist Jessica Winegar's book honored as best in Meddle East studies for 2007


Jessica Winegar, assistant professor of anthropology, has been awarded the Albert Hourani Book Award for 2007 by the Middle East Studies Association for her recent book, Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2006). The award, established in 1991, recognizes outstanding publishing in Middle East studies.

The book is the first academic study of a contemporary art scene in the Middle East. It examines the visual arts world in Egypt and the way in which the arts provide a window onto understanding a society in transition.

“Egypt is a society that was formerly colonized by the British, and then went through the socialist experiment after the colonial era ended,” Winegar said. “Now, the government is moving the country more to a neoliberal capitalist economy.

“I wanted to understand how that historical transition, and related contemporary problems facing the Middle East, could be understood through the visual arts and the particular issues that faced the different generations of Egyptian artists.”

Jessica Winegar | Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt

Winegar, who joined Temple’s anthropology faculty in 2007, said she was surprised to receive the award because her book offered an unconventional look at the Middle East, and she was unsure whether it would be well-received. “So many scholars have looked at the Middle East by focusing on religion and gender,” she said. “I think my book is asking different questions by looking at something that hasn’t been examined before.”

She wanted to examine the arts and culture of the Middle East and chose Egypt because it has the oldest arts scene in the Arab world, in addition to a famous ancient tradition in the arts.

“When you think of Egyptian art, you think of King Tut,” Winegar said. “Egyptian artists are struggling against the fame of their own artistic history, as well as against the power of the West to determine what defines good art. That struggle has been shaped by Egypt’s colonial and socialist histories, and now by the move towards neoliberalism.”


Winegar spent 3 1/2 years in the mid- to late 1990s in Egypt researching her book, and said that while she was there, the government began to dramatically increase support for young artists as a way to counteract what was perceived as a threatening Islamic trend or Islamist politics among the country’s youth.

“There suddenly began to emerge this generation of young, avant-garde artists, who developed this whole art movement within Egypt that is now being exported internationally,” Winegar said. “Young people that I met and hung out in coffee shops with in the mid-1990s are now suddenly internationally known artists.

“It is a success story that I feel I was privileged to have witnessed,” she said.