Anticipating his latest exhibition, opening this week at the Ahmed Shawqi Museum, the self-made artist Mabrouk speaks to Ali El-Guindi
Notwithstanding his status as one of the more compelling "spontaneous" figures in the Egyptian art scene, the Bahariya sculptor Mabrouk is one of those characters who go straight to your heart. He is kind, unpretentious, modest, hilarious; above all he is indelibly sincere. A conversation with him makes for a uniquely rewarding experience.
"This," he points to a sculpture of a man reading, "is Amm Mahmoud, while here next to him," he indicates the figure of a donkey with three children on its back, "we have Morgana. She is very wild, untamed -- something that people in my village will usually avoid -- but it seems she makes special allowances for children." As he goes on pointing to clay figures and explaining their origins, it becomes clear that the vast majority of Amm Mahmoud's work mirrors daily life in Bahariya Oasis, where, with the exception of two years in Cairo, he has spent the 65 years of his life. "I depict poor, simple Egyptians," he says, "of whom I am one. They are people," he adds, "who hold onto the vestiges of virtue."
Indeed his clay figures radiate almost as much warmth as his face. Somehow they cut through the surface appearance of the subjects, revealing their inner features in a given situation. Some are direct, symbolic projections that reveal a touching naiveté that remains capable of irony nonetheless. "This," Amm Mabrouk points to a handcuffed woman, seated, "is Egypt." He starts humming the famous Umm Kulthoum love song Al-Atlal (The Ruins), written by the late romantic poet Ibrahim Nagui: Give me my freedom/Unleash my hands... Quickly he points to another sculpture: a weary young man blowing into a punctured bag. "And this," he says, "is the Egyptian situation. I have another sculpture with the same theme," he goes on, laughing, "but in it, instead of the punctured bag, the figure has a huge, overblown right testicle, and it's as if the left testicle, withered and shrunken, is wondering why it isn't similarly inflated. Meanwhile the right testicle looks like it's about to blow up... You see, the conditions under which young people live in this country are like a time bomb that will explode any minute now."
Once again Mabrouk's laughter echoes through the otherwise silent halls of the Ahmed Shawqi Museum. "These sculptures give me the necessary chance to breathe," he attempts an overall explanation of his creative impulse, "to exhale..." This brand of psychic respiration began some 50 years ago when Mabrouk effectively established a unique new school of sculpture, his themes and technique having remained unaffected by current trends in the visual arts ever since. This kind of sculpture has, sadly and inevitably, been widely imitated and mass- produced, yet such developments do not seem to bother Mabrouk. "I can only be glad if others are benefiting from something I had to offer them," he says.
Mabrouk is self-made through and through. Beyond learning the Quran by heart at the local kuttab as a child, he had no formal education whatever. Growing up in Bahariya, however, in the middle of the Western Desert (which occupies some two thirds of Egypt's entire surface area), he was exposed to a wide range of relics of bygone ages from the ancient Egyptian to the Roman, and from the Coptic to the Byzantine. As a child Mabrouk would sneak into the Pharaonic Temple of Hebes at night and sleep in the holy chamber where he contemplated the ancient wall inscriptions and traced them with his fingers for hours on end. The next morning he would crouch by a stream, picking up handfuls of mud, and recreate the shapes that remained fresh in his memory. Such odd behaviour led to complications: observing his behaviour, Mabrouk's father initially believed the little boy was possessed by an ancient spirit, a temple jinn; concerned, he promptly took him to a local sheikh for exorcism.
"His name was Sheikh Bakr," Mabrouk recalls. "He would recite the Quran over my head to drive the demon out of my body, and I would think to myself, What's this crazy man doing?" he laughs. He pursued his endeavours despite the family's disapproval, he explains, sometimes destroying the finished work once he satisfied his desire to create it. "I never dared to take the sculptures back home. My father would have divorced my mother at once. My poor blind mother thought she lost her sight to atone for the sin of her son making idols," Mabrouk looks down. "I mean for God's sake," he gestures angrily, "statues need not be objects of worship the way they were in the Jahiliya (pre-Islamic times), 1400 hundred years ago..."
A door was to open for the precocious child a decade or so later, by complete coincidence. While serving his term in the army, during the Nasser era, Mabrouk was assigned the task of keeping the personnel files of a major construction project underway in the Western Desert. To pass the long hours sitting at a desk he would set his imagination loose, drafting pictures of the employees on the covers of the files containing their papers.
"Once I drew the director himself, wearing an open pair of overalls with his tummy bulging out like a watermelon, holding a cockerel in one hand and a knife in the other." The file was placed in the archives and duly abandoned, but several months later the director had the file brought to him and on noticing the drawing demanded to see Mabrouk immediately. "When they told me the director wanted to see me, I thought I was getting a promotion. Had I known it was about the drawing, I would have fled right away; he was a very heavy-handed man..." And yet it was to commend his talent that the bureaucrat in question summoned Mabrouk: he was quickly transferred to the Ceramics Factory, where he learned to use quality clay and finish his pieces in the kiln; the factory sold hundreds of masterpieces by him.
That was in 1964. Soon enough Mabrouk stood out in a national competition in which he represented the factory, winning first prize. The newspapers were quick to spot this natural talent from Bahariya, and in 1974 Mabrouk was invited to put together a solo exhibit at the Press Syndicate in Cairo, his debut.
"I would sit on a chair and watch while people looked at my work, with the vast majority of them taking me for the farrash (office boy): a dark man with a goatee wearing a galabiya and just sitting there. Some would even ask, 'Where is Mabrouk?' And I would say, 'He's not here now.' I guess I wanted to find out what they truly thought of my work..."
Enter the late artist Bikar, who on seeing the exhibition demanded to meet Mabrouk. Initially posing as the artist's brother, Mabrouk spoke to him intimately of how the sculptures came to be made, emphasising the story behind a sculpture of his mother, something that gave the game away: Bikar announced he would sit and wait for Mabrouk, whereupon the artist, distressed, was forced to admit that it was indeed him.
"At once he stood up and hugged me. He asked if I had trousers to wear because, he said, he was going to take me to the minister of culture and demand that I have an artist's grant..."
Bikar lived up to his word, and so began Mabrouk's career, with exhibitions in Egypt and throughout the world (Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Canada are but a few examples). This was the happiest period of Mabrouk's life, and he cherishes numerous memories dating back to it. Hosted by the then Egyptian Art Academy director Farouk Hosni in Rome, Mabrouk was called on to represent grassroots Egyptianness at a time when Egyptian artists were widely accused of mechanically replicating Western schools.
"They put me in a 14-day camp, my son," he tells me. "I was like a hen that must hatch as many eggs as possible as quickly as possible, and I must have made over 35 statues right in front of the Western audiences."
The event was a resounding success, with every piece sold to the admiring crowd. Nor did exposure to Western art affect his outlook.
"When I was invited to exhibit in faraway, foreign lands, I would make sculptures of my family and the people I loved back home and take them with me, as if to keep me company during my stay abroad." His face saddens. "It is difficult to leave home even if you are going to paradise. I missed my people in Bahariya, I felt homesick. So I would make a sculpture of my mother praying for me, or my father asking me to stay with his finger pointing to heaven. Amm Mahmoud, Amm Barakat: I would place them around me and talk to them at night." Each sculpture he left behind, he explains, felt as close, as familiar, as a member of his own family. "They are a part of me. I have many sons and daughters all over the world," he refers to sculptures sold at international exhibitions. "And it was never easy leaving them there..."
The present exhibition (17-24 November) is his first since 1987, the year in which, inexplicably, the artist was abandoned by the cultural establishment. A few years ago he lost his left eye because he could not afford the cost of the required operation. Yet, fortunately for a new, growing coterie of admirers, Amm Mabrouk still works prolifically, undeterred by the material and moral defeats of the last 15 years.
"As soon as I put my hand in clay," he says enthusiastically, "my friends recognise the person I'm about to portray." It is among such friends that he wants to stay: "Cairo is all cars and crowds. The big fish eat the small fish and there is too little water in the pond. If a car hit me here, no one would know about it. I like to live in Bahariya where people are simple and good, where they keep their principles and values." Mabrouk looks at his watch. "Here in Cairo time passes so fast. Over there you have the time to contemplate and respond to your surroundings..."
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