Undoubtedly the pioneer of Modern Egyptian sculpture, Mahmoud Mokhtar left behind a legacy of artistic practice that continues to inspire Egyptian sculptors today despite his short-lived life. Born in 1883 in a small village in El Mahallah El Kobra, he was immersed in Egyptian Folk art through tales, storytelling, old myths and traditions, yet as a child was led to believe that sculptures and images of people and animals were idolatrous and sinful. When he enrolled in the newly established University of the Arts in Cairo in 1908, he had noted that there had been no practicing sculptors in Egypt for around 1300 years and as a testament to his wayward character, went on to acquire the skills of a sculptor.
Trained by the French Master Laplagne in Cairo, Mokhtar was able in his early age to reflect a unique mixture of the folkloric Egyptian art and spirit induced by the political nationalism, independence and freedom using modern international concepts and techniques. He eventually received a scholarship to Paris where he remained for several years and became a regular exhibitor at the Salon des Artistes Français. Through his artistic practice, Mokhtar came to be considered one of the foremost nationalist heroes of Egypt. This is demonstrated by perhaps his most famous work, Nahdat Misr (Egypt Awakening) a monumental group in pink granite, which stands opposite the University Bridge, representing a sphinx rising and a peasant woman unveiling. It was the first monumental granite sculpture to be created since antiquity and exceptional in that it expresses not the likeness of a ruler, but an abstract ideal. It evokes both continuity and transformation within Egyptian society. The elements in the present piece are clearly related and highly symbolic. Most importantly, the female becomes significant in both a national and social context - with her rise comes the awakening of a nation.
Consequently the woman became a recurrent theme in Mokhtar's works. The use of a graceful woman came to symbolise Art, her veil a reference to female emancipation and her presence a representation Egypt and Egyptian nationalism. By representing contemporary subjects and bestowing upon them the nobility of the antique, Mokhtar's sculptures symbolically unite the distant past with a longed-for progressive future. The influence of Pharaonic art permeates much of Mokhtar's mature work. Using the language of ancient sculpture, in particular the massing of forms, elegant abstraction and idealisation, in some ways mirrors the contemporary trends of Art Deco.
In Civil Woman, one of the most outstanding examples by the artist to come to auction, Mokhtar manages to capture a sense of movement and tremendous spirit and energy in a rather solid structure. Using refined yet soft lines, he models the woman with acute realism that celebrates her individual character and physicality. She stands defiantly with her head turned towards the right as if to highlight the promise of a better future and in doing so she emits a god-like confidence that exudes a sense of pride that can only be associated with the Egyptian Nationalist cause. Civil Woman triumphantly honours a great national heritage, history and culture while offering a sense of tenderness.