Mabrouk: Salt of the earth
By Pierre Loza
"My mother gave birth to me in the wake of my five-year-old brother's death. She gave me his name to save herself the hassle of obtaining another birth certificate. On paper, I'm five years older than I really am..." Thus Mabrouk, the Western Desert's best known sculptor -- visual or rather plastic spokesman for a community which, though remote and isolated, encapsulates some of the most refined values of this part of the world -- especially in this person, whose Upper Egyptian family origins are apparent in the dialect he speaks, however influenced it might be by the Arabic of the desert dwellers; he addresses people almost exclusively as "my son", "my father", "my brother". Significantly, it is old-fashioned goodness that marks him -- a quality present equally in his demeanour and clay creations, many of which are elderly figures whose wrinkles seem to be engraved by the desert wind. With the occasional word of English supplementing the flowing cadences of his narrative, he betrays years of travel and triumphant journeys during which his sculptures made an impression abroad.
Mabrouk's fascination with the elderly, he explains, is a result of his attachment to his grandparents all through childhood. He recalls how, at the tender age of four, he was drawn to the ancient temple of Ibis, next to his grandfather's field, with its elaborate wall painting and sculptures. "I used to go inside the temple and imagine myself living with the people on its walls. Sometimes I would even sleep inside the temple's holy of holies. It was at that point that I started imitating what I saw, using mud." After the temple guard took him home wrapped in a blanket late one night, word of his mud sculptures spread; and his family concluded that he must be possessed by an Ancient Egyptian spirit. "My father would beseech God for protection every time he laid eyes on me; he used to beat me in vain attempts to exorcise the spirit." He still has a vivid memory of his grandmother taking him to the village sheikh for the same purpose. "But I knew there was nothing wrong with me," he chuckles. "After all this trouble I resorted to drawing instead..."
In other respects he felt better integrated. At the village kuttab (Qur'anic school for children), he remembers, "Our Sheikh Adam, though physically blind, had a heart that could see. He used to stamp our hips with red paint to make sure we couldn't swim in the water holes dotting the oasis without being found out -- in which case you could come under his wrathful cane. To get away with swimming, I made a fake stamp. So one day I stamped myself after a lovely swim and went confidently to the kuttab -- only to receive the most delightful beating." Sheikh Adam had been told by demons, everyone thought: "I discovered many years after he passed away that he used to mix a little sugar into the paint and take a little taste from our hips as we came in, wetting his index finger." It was not until his military draft in Cairo that Mabrouk encountered sculpture again, watching sculptor Mustafa Naguib's Tuesday TV programme on the topic. He never continued his education, which was to save his exquisite talent from unwanted influence. Instead he, on his return to Kharga in 1959, became an archival clerk at the Desert Cultivation Authority. Moving his grizzled eyebrows, endearingly impish, the 62-year-old explains how his artistic leanings surfaced even in such a mundane situation. "As an archival clerk, I was entrusted with keeping every employee's personal dossier. So, to kill the time, I made caricature portraits of every employee on their dossier. I knew I would receive salary cuts for my efforts, but I couldn't help doing it to pass the time."
Thinking he was to be appointed, finally, when he was summoned by his boss, Mabrouk discovered that said boss had found his own cartoon on the dossier. "I had drawn him naked except for an overall with a butcher's knife in one hand and a turkey's neck in the other. He was a plump man, so the rolls of flesh on his belly had a really comic effect." Rather than a salary cut, however, Mabrouk was transferred to the Centre of Environmental Industries, where, as luck would have it, he would begin his sculpture career for real, starting with a figure of that same old boss. When he won an arts and crafts competition organised by the Ministry of Tourism, Mabrouk had to be pulled onto the podium by a friend. He wore his galabeya even then; that is probably why he felt a little out of place. But even when he won the Press Syndicate competition, which brought him into contact with the legendary painter Hussein Bikar, it never got to his head. Initially, indeed, the exhibition patrons ignored the slight unassuming man at the door, mistaking him for the cleaner: "When Bikar asked me if I was Mabrouk, I said that I was Mabrouk's brother, so as to find out what he really thought of my work..." Taking Bikar on an explanatory tour of the exhibit, Mabrouk became loquacious when the painter stopped at the statue of an old woman, Mabrouk's mother, as it turned out: "This is Umm Mabrouk, who has recently lost her eyesight. She believes it is God's punishment for her son making idols. But she prays for him anyway." Comparing Mabrouk to the great sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar, Bikar finally found out it was him, not his brother. And, embracing him, he asked if he owned trousers. Why, asked Mabrouk. "So I can take you to the Minister of Culture and get you an official grant."
The late novelist Youssef El-Seba'i, then the minister in question, helped Mabrouk organise a joint exhibit with Bikar at the Diplomatic Club. "It was the first time I received money for my work," Mabrouk recalls, recounting with fondness the almost maternal care with which Bikar showered him, overseeing his bus journeys back to Kharga, knowing that it was living in the oasis that made Mabrouk's work what it was and aware that life in the big bad city would destroy that. But Mabrouk's real break did not come until 1978, when he agreed to produce a statue of the late cultural figure Zakaria El-Higgawi 24 hours before it was to be presented to President Anwar El-Sadat. "The minister of culture at the time was Abdel-Moneim El-Sawy, he would pop in his night robe in the middle of the night, to check on the progress I was making with the statue." Impressed by the statue, Sadat was incredulous when he realised that it had been made free of charge in only 24 hours; and he gave Mabrouk the State Merit Award, Egypt's highest official honour, the following year. Yet only a year later, inaugurating an irrigation project in Kharga, Sadat was ambivalent about the statue Mabrouk made of him, "wearing a galabeya and holding a stick, the way he always appeared during visits to his home village of Mit Abul-Kom". When a journalist interpreted the piece as a statement about political oppression, indeed, Mabrouk was subjected to harsh National Security interrogation, then released.
Aside from official support, Mabrouk managed to take his work around the world. Even in Rome or Brussels, he recalls, he would produce figures of fellow oasis dwellers. In contrast to the vast majority of Egyptian art -- one predominant critique was that it was mere imitation of its Western counterpart -- Mabrouk developed a distinctly Egyptian form, incorporating elements of symbolism and caricature to communicate his messages about day- to-day village life: one piece contrasts the healthy mayor's donkey, which carries the mayor supported by minions from behind, with the puny peasant's donkey, which carries a heavy load, its muzzle gagged with a tin can. Simplistic work, according to some critics, particularly after imitations of it became ubiquitous as souvenirs. Yet the sculptor is unrepentant. Since being exposed to the current culture minister's abstract paintings during a 1968 stay in Rome, Mabrouk has felt the same about "art that cannot reach the common man", requiring, as it were, "a written explanation". His own self-explanatory work has represented Egypt more often, indeed, though he seldom exhibits in Cairo: the kind of support that would make that possible has long since fizzled out, with the result that he could not even afford a LE4,000 surgery. "When I sit and think of all the offers I was made to live and work abroad, it pains me to realise that my family and I could have had a much better life." Rather than asking the ministry for a grant or an exhibit, indeed, he markets his work individually through friends. To this day he dreams of turning the ancient homes in the oasis into an open-air museum, a project the mayors have not supported. "I was offered a project just like that in Las Vegas in 1981," he recounts. "I said no."
Mabrouk stops answering questions after he starts working. He can chat informally -- the warmth never leaves him -- but as he wrestles with the little mound of clay in his hands, it is impossible for him to concentrate on the answer to a question. Soon enough, rather, the mound turns into an old man -- yet another companion of Mabrouk's, to whom these little people are not silent pieces of clay but rather living, breathing people with real aspirations and dreams. They are the friends he talks to in times of loneliness. Idols? "I don't make statues for people to worship," Mabrouk responds readily, with admirable succinctness, "but for people to contemplate God's beauty while looking at."