Romancing the stone in Aswan
The age-old Egyptian art of granite sculpture experiences a stunning rebirth in Aswan. Nevine El-Aref looks over the shoulders of artists at the eighth International Sculpture Symposium
Aswan is an old favourite holiday destination of mine, but this year, however, it had an added attraction which pepped up my weekend even more. I experienced what it feels like to be an artist and sampled the emotions and passion which an artist needs to transform a hard block of granite into a bird, an ancient god or symbolic design.
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Assistants at work outside the Basma Hotel, where the spirit of cooperation and hard work epitomised the symposium's theme of unity. The background statue symbolises the unity of the south and the north
In an empty lot on top of a hill opposite the Nubian Museum 15 sculptors, armed with gowns and iron masks, came face to face with glimmering blocks of granite. Standing or bending, they anxiously drill, hammer, cut and polish, adding the final touches to their works of art. They see nothing except their work.
I approached quietly in admiration and wondered what they were doing. Salah Saqwir, head of the Cultural Development Fund, who was on site checking the work in progress, asked "isn't that a beautiful sight? They have a deadline to meet. There are only two days to go before the closing ceremony of the eighth Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (15 January-15March). It will be a magnificent event and certificates will be awarded to the winners."
"It is one of the best known international annual events in Aswan," Atiya Moharram, a symposium executive, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He explained that since its inception in 1996, the aim of the event had been to introduce a new generation of granite sculptors to Egypt, since this is an art form which has all but died out here. There have been few granite artists since the death of the famous Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar, who carved the Egyptian Renaissance statue located in Midan Al-Gamaa in the Giza area of Cairo.
Moharram said the symposium had also become one of Aswan's main tourist attractions, drawing more than just artists.
"I am very happy to be in Aswan participating in this symposium," said Polish artist Andrezej Lemiszewshi, as he polished is work. He said Aswan was an interesting location for the symposium. "Being in the place which the Pharaohs used as granite quarries for building their splendid monuments is quite inspiring," he commented. "It is a rewarding feeling, and I'm enjoying it so much."
While putting the final touches to his piece entitled The Summit of the Desert, Canadian sculptor Darrell Petit said that in last year's symposium the overriding theme seemed to be "windows and gates", while this year the artists are involved in expressing the idea of "uniting", almost as if the works of art from 2002 were the gates through which this year's sculptors met and embraced.
Petit is one of the artists taking part in the event, and his work consists of two stones meeting at a single point in space. "I am not interested in illusion, but reality. I visited many monuments, I wondered about the statues of the kings and queens and how they are positioned side by side in straight lines. I imagined them meeting at a single point. This was the idea behind my sculpture," he explained.
Opposite him stands another young man hammering away at a block. He is Ahmed Nassar, an 18-year-old Palestinian artist. "It is my first time to take part in this symposium. It all happened by chance, but my passion got me here," he said.
His sculpture is of a woman rotating in spiral motion. It is interesting to observe that "woman" is a common theme at this symposium, with this sculpture depicting a dancing soul arising from a dead woman's image. To execute this idea in granite is both challenging and ambitious, for which Nassar chose red granite. The stone, however, turned out to have two black polished spots, which added a pleasing visual effect to the crude rough red granite. "I had the idea for the woman and the soul before I started working, but when I actually started carving, things changed. I became more interested in the form and shape rather than the idea. So I removed the head of the statue to express the soul more than the body," Nassar told the Weekly.
The Bahrain artist Khaled Farahan sculpted female genitalia, reflecting the spirit of a new millennium where the norm is to be different. Next to this stands Hani Faisil's sculpture of two lovers.
Some sculptors, like Hisham Abdel-Mo'ty from Egypt, were heavily influenced by the ancient Egyptian monuments. His sculpture, The Flying Obelisk, depicts an object wishing to return home. "I imagined it to be like the birds flying south," he said.
Taking in all this culture in the heat makes for thirsty work, so I headed to the Basma Hotel for a cool, refreshing drink. How do the artists stand the heat? This hotel is also the artists' residence. I met Ahmed Abdel-Dayem, from the Cultural Development Fund, who promised to take me on a tour around the Open-Air Museum, the site of the majority of the art works produced during the last eight years, where the magnificent landscape, as well at the works of art, could be enjoyed. I was so looking forward to it that we decided not to wait for the following day. It was five o'clock in the afternoon, the sun was about to set and, armed with a huge bottle of water, off we went. We parked the car in an abandoned area surrounded by mountains of stones and blocks. Where are we? Near Shallalat, said Abdel- Dayem, worried also that I might be afraid of being in a remote area. We had to hurry to the top of the hill where the museum is located. It was not a difficult climb but I was really exhausted by the time I got to the summit. Reaching our destination, all my pains were forgotten when I took in the sight: the magical marriage of desert and Nile, with the green of the valley standing out like an emerald beside the dusty plains of the desert. I stood there for quite some time, almost forgetting why I had originally come. The scenery is simply breathtaking; an entrance to another dimension.
I saw plenty of distinguished works of art in the museum. A Swiss artist had sculpted an unusual statue with the face of an animal and a back shaped like a ladder; there was an abstract sculpture of Jesus' last supper, and a fascinating flightless bird. Combining art and engineering, Egyptian artist Armen Agoup suspended a huge bird-shaped granite block on the top of a second block, with the laws of physics keeping the sculpture intact. The figure see-saws gently, never falling. While admiring the bohemian statues in a parched landscape, I heard the sound of, what I initially believed to be, someone playing a flute. Abdel-Dayem said, however, that this was a sound produced by nature.
I crossed my eyes in disbelief. He just laughed and showed me a huge square granite block sprinkled with holes of different sizes. "This is the work of a Canadian artist. He was inspired by the landscape surrounding Aswan and decided to create a sculpture expressing the magnificence of the place," Abdel- Dayem explained.
On one end of the museum I saw a lonely man busy at work: French artist Patrice Belin. In last year's symposium he designed a structure for meditation. People can enter, remove themselves from the world, and meditate. It has two balconies to visit and drink tea at sunset while observing the Open-Air Museum and drinking in the beautiful desertscape. "I chose a place in the desert to carve my sculpture from nature itself," said Belin, who explained that he came back this year to complete his work. "I would have died if I had not been invited to finish my work. It is like my child; I felt that I left my life right here in Aswan," he said.
In this piece, the French artist was inspired by the Ancient Egyptian sculpture of Naos, which was built to receive offerings for the gods. Belin wanted to build a room inside the hill to provide a private place for people to bare their souls. This unique structure, far removed from the outside world, is a place of relaxation and inspiration.
"If a person comes here and enjoys the view, then I have achieved my goal," he said.
The sun set and we had to leave the site. Arriving at the hotel I found the 15 new art works wonderfully illuminated and Culture Minister Farouk Hosni taking a tour. "I am very proud of these works of art. When you have a vision, nothing should stand in your way," said Hosni. He explained that the symposium had achieved its goal of reviving the art of granite sculpting which had all but disappeared.
EgyptAir offers round trip flights to Aswan for LE450 for Egyptians and LE1,940 for foreigners. Aswan's Basma Hotel offers double rooms for LE250 per night per person.