16 - 22 March 2000
Issue No. 473
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Special Focus Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles
Plain TalkBy Mursi Saad El-Din
I have always had a weakness for Aswan. Apart from being Egypt's southern gate, opening up to Africa, and the cradle of the art of sculpture for a millennium, it has the largest granite quarries in the world producing a rare, rose coloured stone.
Aswan, to my mind, is also the cleanest city in Egypt, with an almost pristine environment. Standing on the hill housing the open museum -- an innovation of the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium -- and looking down on the beautiful lush green panorama of Aswan, I felt I was inhaling the purest and most bracing air.
But I seem to be deviating from my main topic which is the 5th Aswan International Sculpture Symposium, the reason for my visit to Aswan. Let me quote Farouk Hosni, minister of culture: "The Aswan Symposium can be considered an open academy for all those who wish to come closer to the granite and learn from it. For it is in granite that the artists from the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Rumania, France and Japan negotiate and produce magnificent works."
I had the pleasure of sharing that unique experience with the foreign artists and the Egyptian sculptors who participated. I watched them at work from early morning until nightfall, with a lunch break, and saw the strange intimacy they have to that solid stone.
"You look at the block of granite and you feel attracted to it, like a man is attracted to a woman, said Armen Agob, an Egyptian Armenian and the youngest artist participating this year. In fact Armen had to visit the quarries several times until he managed to find his ideal, a granite block weighing several tons.
Living through this experience is something I shall always cherish. Moving from one work to another to the sound of chisels and hammers I was reminded of the Anvil Chorus in Il Travatore.
Together with the foreign and Egyptian artists were many whom we might term the backroom boys, the local helpers, those who execute the instructions of the artists. More than once did the foreign artists question the absence of machinery to cut the tough stones, but in less than two weeks they were convinced of and surprised by the ability of the Aswan helpers to cut and shape the stones.
What characterises this symposium is that it does not impose any theme on the participants. They are completely free to choose the subject. In fact in most cases they have no pre-thought of subject. It is the stone which dictates the end result. And watching the process of give and take between the artist and the stone I could not help falling in a kind of trance.
Now is the time to give some details about the organisation of the Symposium. The idea started in 1996 as the brainchild of Farouk Hosny, minister of culture. He entrusted Adam Henein, one of Egypt's leading sculptors, to realise the idea.
"The Symposium," says Henein "is a unique experiment that cannot be repeated anywhere in the world. It is an invitation to all sculptors to revive working with granite."
Watching the artists from different nationalities at work one comes to appreciate a variety of national characteristics: how different was the Japanese from the Swiss or the French or the Dane, while somehow, the Egyptians could deal with all of them and establish contact and a sense of camaraderie.
I would have liked to present the artists and their concepts and evaluation of the symposium, but this is an almost impossible task. One thing, however, I would like to emphasise, the efficiency and clock-work precision of the Cultural Development Fund. Its director, Salah Shaqwir, was on the spot all the time, moving from one artist to another. Nothing was spared to make the symposium a success. The public relations department, headed by the dynamic Iman Oqel, is an example of just what such a department should be like.