The Coptic Museum (photo by Eihab Saeed)

TORONTO — On the corner of Glendinning Avenue in Scarborough, Ontario — removed from the bright lights and bustling city life of downtown Toronto — lies an unimposing church of deep significance to the Coptic Christian faith. Founded in 1987, the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church was the first Coptic church built in North America. Now in its 33rd year of existence, the church is no longer just a historically significant house of worship, but home to one of Toronto’s best kept secrets: the Coptic Museum of Canada. It houses a collection of Coptic art and heritage, including unique works by one of Egypt’s finest modern artists, Marguerite Nakhla.

Located on the second floor of the church building, the Coptic Museum was established in 1996 by Father Marcos A. Marcos, the first Coptic priest commissioned to North America. The museum grew out of Father Marcos’s aspiration to showcase Coptic culture and cultivate its heritage in North America. Copts make up the largest Christian denomination in Egypt, Sudan, and Libya, and are one of the oldest Christian communities in the region. They historically spoke the Coptic language, which is a direct descendant of the Demotic Egyptian script used in late antiquity. They are also a distinct ethnic identity with a rich artistic history that includes wall paintings, textiles, manuscripts, and metalwork dating from the 3rd to the 12th century CE.

After being ordained in Egypt in 1964, Father Marcos moved to Toronto shortly thereafter and began collecting Coptic artifacts, which he continued to do for more than 25 years. His collection, which included important objects donated by other Coptic families, made up the basis of the museum’s holdings.

Despite its inauguration in 1996, the museum did not open to the public until July 2000. It began to train interpreters and coordinators to help manage the facility and its contents. By 2001, Helene Moussa, a retired executive secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) became the Coptic Museum’s first volunteer curator — a role she continues to fulfill to this day. Her responsibilities include archiving and documenting a wide range of precious objects, such as the Iota Cross painted by Pope Makarius III, an illustrated manuscript of the Psalms of David written on goatskin in Ge’ez, an ancient South Semitic language historically used by the Ethiopian church, and religious icons drawn by famed neo-Coptic iconographers such as Isaac Fanous and Seham Guirguis.

While Moussa first began as an interpreter and coordinator of museum activities, her promotion to curator meant that she needed to learn about managing a museum and the curation of Coptic art. “I needed another degree like a hole in my head but took on the challenge of the Ontario Museum Association’s Certificate in Museum Studies,” Moussa told Hyperallergic. “Attending Coptic Studies conferences in Egypt, Europe, and the US became my ‘university education’ in this emerging and rich field of studies. Eventually I was able to publish numerous articles on Coptic art, icons and the museum.”

Marguerite Nakhla, “Le baptême du Christ” (1974), Tempera on plywood, 138 x 117cm (courtesy of the Coptic Museum of Canada)

Prized among the museum’s fascinating collection are six biblical scenes painted by Marguerite Nakhla, a Coptic artist recognized as one of the finest Egyptian painters of the 20th century. The works were acquired by Father Marcos, who met with Nakhla and asked whether he could buy one of her biblical works in installments due to the small size of his congregation. While it took Nakhla a while to be convinced that Father Marcos would actually start a Coptic museum in Canada, she eventually offered six of her biblical works as gifts to the museum on the condition that they remain on display to be studied as part of a renewed interest in Coptic art.

Included among the six biblical works is Nakhla’s rendition of the baptism of Christ (“Le baptême du Christ”). Painted using tempera on plywood, the scene is a simple folkloric image featuring eight Egyptian fellahin (peasants) in colored smocks and tunics closely observing John the Baptist baptize Jesus. The beauty of the piece lies not only in its inner peace and spirituality but in Nakhla’s profound ability to reproduce classic Coptic religious art in modern form.

In late 2019, the Coptic Museum opened Beyond Museum Walls: Marguerite Nakhla, an exhibition curated by Moussa that features Nakhla’s works along with archival material including exhibition catalogues, newspaper clippings, awards, and letters.

When asked about Nakhla’s place in modern Egyptian art history, Moussa — who also authored a book on the artist called Marguerite Nakhla: Legacy to Modern Egyptian Art — believes Nakhla’s importance lies in the range of subject matter she covered, which included the stock exchange in Paris and Egypt, duck hunting, public markets, horse racing at country clubs, the construction of the High Dam in Aswan, and the Six-Day War.

“Many Egyptian artists in her period tended to focus on a particular subject matter, such as the ‘fellaha’ or a historical/political figure or event,” said Moussa. “Most of them took on government positions or depended on the family wealth to survive. With the exception of two years teaching at the Women’s Higher Institute for Pedagogy in Arts, she devoted her whole life to painting and depending on sales of her works at exhibitions. This ‘independence’ also allowed her to be a free spirit in her artistic expressions.”

On until May 2020, the exhibition is an earnest encapsulation of the museum’s status as a platform for research, exploration, and critical engagement of Coptic art and heritage.

Karim Zidan is an Egyptian-Canadian journalist, writer, and translator with bylines at The Guardian, VOX Media, Foreign Policy, openDemocracy, and World Literature Today. He also manages the estate of...