The idea of modern art began in Egypt shortly after its development in Europe. In 1908 the first college of fine arts opened in Cairo, introducing the modern understanding of art as an activity distinct from craft and industry. The first students to graduate from this college are widely recognized as the pioneers of modern Egyptian art, partly because they built the founding institutions of the art world—colleges of fine and applied arts, museums, galleries, and societies and government agencies for the arts.

They also established the long tradition of government grants for young artists to study in Europe. Over the years artistic activity continued to grow as the numbers graduating from art colleges increased. New public and private spaces for producing and exhibiting art were established in Cairo and other cities.

Today there are well over one hundred exhibition spaces throughout the country , several colleges of fine and applied arts and art education, an artists’ union with over six thousand members, art columns in major newspapers and magazines, art books, art conferences and a growing art market.

Egypt hosts several international biennials and triennials, and regularly sends representatives to biennials around the world. International dialogue is further encouraged by the many government grants for artists to travel abroad, often to an immersion program at the Egyptian Embassy in Rome.

Just as pioneers from the beginning of this century laid the groundwork for much of this institutional activity , their art also set the stage for the kinds of challenges future generations would face. First, artists still have to negotiate a balance between the tremendous fame of Pharaonic and Islamic visual forms and Egyptian folk arts with the euro roots of modern art (which where originally learned from the professors who first staffed the art colleges). Furthermore, the dominance of Euro-American modern art history must often be reconciled with the desire to create art that is distinctly Egyptian.

From the 1920s through independence in 1952 and the socialist period that followed, this desire among artists had clear roots in political nationalist discourse. From the 1970s onward, however, artists have moved away from direct political expression to a more general search for Egyptian identity.

At the same time, other artists seek more dialogue with the international art scene to counteract what they see as an overly inward search for Egyptianness. Some go on to argue that “identity” itself is an imported concept that compartmentalizes artists according to national origin at the expense of their full participation as artists (not only Egyptian artists) on the international scene.