"Nazreen, 1880s" Ancestral Graphite Portrait, 8x10 in.


"Nazreen, 1880s" Ancestral Graphite Portrait, 8x10 in.


A young Alma, or dancer, poses in studio for a portrait. Her waist-length hair is braided into dozens of tiny brads, one of which you can see falling forwards in this drawing. The rest are tucked under the striped cloth that is her head covering.

Life & Times: Her image was captured in Cairo in the latter half of the 19th century. The city had a diverse population of over 300,000 people including many religious minorities from around the Mediterranean. This was a time of large modernization projects in the city including beautification, the building of theaters, museums and schools as well as utilities projects that connected the city to bordering settlements and brought gas and light.

But for female performers, this was a tumultuous century. The awalim, educated women with a talent for singing, poetry and composition were a highly regarded class through eighteenth century Egypt. There were also the ghawazi who performed unveiled in the streets and who’s dancing was a crucial part of festivals like Saints Day. However, over the next century the reputation of both these groups would suffer as they were put in tough conditions by taxation of performers to fund a war with the French, and a cracking down from the government as they sought to keep the dancers away from the view of an increasing number of foreign travelers. The government went so far as to banish women that danced in the streets. You can imagine this would give a woman even less opportunity for income. The word Alma which originally meant ‘learned woman’ changed to imply ‘dancer-prostitute’ by the 1880s. For more information on female performers in Egypt start at page 136 of
Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader by Karin Van Nieuwerk, or view a painting of a dancer from the same era; An Almées Admirers (Egyptische Tänzerin), 1882 by Leopold Carl Müller.

“Nazreen” 1880s
Graphite on paper
Sierra Lowe | 2018

Creating these portraits, based upon real people from the past, is an opportunity to explore a life and time other than our own. Lovingly working on their portraits, I am rendering them as carefully as I would my own ancestors, while preparing them to be a source of strength and foundation for whomever chooses to bring their memory into their home. The calm faces from the past at once offer comfort but also a broader perspective that removes us from the hyper-focus of our day-to-day. If ‘Nazreen’ speaks to you, if she represents the story of someone you can care for, I invite you to bring her into your family.

Original artwork
Lightweight, off-white frame
Polystyrene protective face for safe shipping
Saw-Tooth hanger

(Note: Frame, mat and paper may vary between arctic-white and off-white)

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