On Being an Independent Coptic Studies Scholar

by Helene Moussa

Published at 2012-10-28

In her blog of August 12, Beth referred to my publication Marguerite Nakhla: Legacy to Modern Egyptian Art. I first learned about Ms. Nakhla (1908–1977) when I became the Volunteer Curator at St. Mark’s Coptic Museum in Scarborough, Ontario. While we had six of her biblical scenes we did not have much information about her except a few letters indicating that she was a highly respected artist in Egypt and abroad.

So, on one of my trips to Egypt to attend a conference and visit family, I decided to see what I could find out about her… never thinking that it would take four more trips to gather enough information from people who knew her, dig up documentation and over 100 images of her works to fill up a book!

My book was launched at the Annual Coptic Festival the second weekend of September in 2009. The festival is held close to the date of the Coptic New Year, which falls on September 11 in the Gregorian calendar. This year our festival weekend was held on September 7, 8 and 9. It was a chance for our museum to feature several “new” artifacts in our collection. For example, we now have two beautiful sixth-century terra cotta pilgrim flasks with St. Mena engraved on them. St. Mena was a highly revered saint not only in Egypt but also in all of the Mediterranean countries.
We also have on display two stamps commemorating our late Pope Shenouda III who passed away in March. One of these stamps was issued by the Egyptian government and, yes, the second stamp was issued by Canada Post!
We regularly rotate our second-to-eighth century textile fragments and in our display this year we focused on the intricacies of the designs and the source of the natural colour dyes.  
I never imagined that retirement would offer such a rich and stimulating learning experience. And I certainly thrive on the research that curating such a museum requires!
New Research
On September 15, I went to Rome to attend and present a paper at the Tenth International Coptic Studies Congress. My recent research topic explores a very new area of Coptic icon art history. I am analyzing selected icons and wall paintings of the thirteenth, eighteenth to nineteenth, and twentieth centuries to show how the artists and patrons who commissioned these works must have intentionally sought to reflect, in rather subtle ways, how Copts as a marginalized people were renegotiating cultural identities.
Upon my return from the conference, I’ll be finalizing my research and preparing the paper for publication. And, of course, returning to my curating duties at the Museum.