A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mount Sinai

Gateway to British Art Prize 2022
Second place: Yasmina Elsayed

From seeing a painting like this, I felt so much about it because it reminded me so much of the history of my great country. I see in the picture a big difference between East and West, and we see this illustrated in the painting where the Egyptians stand tall in the hot sun with camels, and camels were their means of transportation, and on the other side are the luxurious foreigners under the Bedouin tents around their books and food and dogs. Whenever they are in Sinai, they suffer from wars and crises, and I can see where the sheikh appears uncomfortable in front of the stricken Westerner who carelessly looks at the whole world as if he owns the desert by himself. At the same time, he cannot speak or object to this because it is their custom to respect and appreciate strangers, no matter who they are. 

It also seems to me that these animals may have died from the harshness of the sun, or they are hunting these animals for food. Frederick Lewis wants the painting to be richly detailed in its depiction of ancient Egyptian life and the landscape of the sacred area around Mount Sinai and tells the viewer much about the ideal life of European travelers who go there. Lewis entered a real relationship with Cairo. The city gave him color, light, and architecture—the materials he needs to become a great artist. Cairo is a powerful and beautiful place, and maybe it made Lewis question himself, the artist’s relationship to his materiality, his social and political role, his integrity, and his historical responsibility in the world. 

When I looked at this art, I thought about everything related to that painting. Lewis lived through an extremely uncomfortable period for the West, and he witnessed a lot of tragedy because this was not an easy period in the Sinai, and Egypt was unstable and did not enjoy luxury like the West, but Lewis was able to transform this into the hard life and suffering of the East to such beauty in the artistic painting. Some people may think that there is no balance when the West is painted in the authentic Arab dress, while they are not treated like the East. This contradicts the comparison between East and West and diminishes the aesthetic appreciation of art, which is something I learned in my art history class, but I do not agree with this. While my taste may not be as refined as that of an artist, I like to think that I can appreciate the beauty evident in Lewis’s work because it is my homeland. So for me, my appreciation for the history, story, and inspiration behind a piece of art only adds to the awe.

Top image
John Frederick Lewis, A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mount Sinai. 1842 - The Convent of St. Catherine in the Distance (detail), 1856, watercolor, gouache and graphite on slightly textured, beige wove paper mounted on board, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection