Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 March - 4 April 2012
Issue No. 1091
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

For the love of sculpture

Inspired by the 25 January Revolution, Houreya El-Sayed's sculptures celebrate the values of freedom and love for the homeland, writes Reham El-Adawi

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Flash: Love, Justice, Peace is the latest exhibition by the emerging sculptor Houreya El-Sayed, held at the Mahmoud Mokhtar Cultural Centre. The 35-year-old, a brunette with typically ancient Egyptian facial features to match her fascination with the civilisation of the Pharaohs, is a 1999 graduate of the Faculty of Art Education ̉ê" and a member of the Creativity Front founded to struggle against Islamist encroachment on the freedom of creative expression. The exhibition showcases her latest works in basalt, Carrara marble and glass.

Concerning her philosophy of sculpture, Sayed has this to say: "I rely on the sacred geometric calculations that are based on the mathematical sciences on which the ancient Egyptian arts were based; and this is through creating modern geometric forms preserving the spiritual essence of the ancient art and its inner energies that are produced through a comprehensive study of the geography of the place, its history, astrology and nature, as well as of the natural and earth sciences and aesthetics."

She points out that the sculptures on show are made from different media: basalt, glass, gypsum and polyester. For her, basalt and glass are two contradictory materials reflecting human contradictions: the transparency and fragility of glass, and the toughness and darkness of stone.

The set piece of Flash is a bust of an Egyptian girl in black basalt with Horus (courage and sacrifice) embracing her from behind; the girl is Isis, who signifies wisdom, loyalty and love.

"I am in continuous pursuit of noble humane values to depict in my sculptures and I always find those values in birds, flowers and animals. The female figure in most of my work stands for giving and tenderness; she is sometimes embodied explicitly as an Egyptian girl and at other times in an implicit style as a flower or the wing of a bird̉ê¦"

This year was the sculptor's second experience with the the annual Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (ß÷¥AISS); this time she is participating as a mature artist, not a member of the workshop. The idea of organising a workshop on the fringe of the symposium started with the first round then stopped for a long time and was revived once again three years ago.

And it was in Aswan while carving her block of rose granite wearing special eye glasses and covered in a film of white dust that Sayed spoke to me. She pointed out that she has benefited much from AISS, whether learning to cut a stone block with the machine or interacting with world-renowned sculptors. The friendly atmosphere of the southern city always proves inspiring.

Sayed started her art career carving glass, a material she adores ̉ê" believing that it mimics the transparency of the soul. She also uses granite, basalt and other natural media. She was honoured to be selected to participate in AISS, she said, a symposium that celebrates granite: that very ancient Egyptian stone which the deceased often took along to the hereafter: "Granite exudes a sense of awe; it is full of spirit."

Sayed believes that sculpture is more closely human than painting because there is a Sufi link between the artist and God who created her and granted her the talent to carve stones. Her first participation in sculpture symposiums was in the Madinty International Sculpture Symposium where she carved Carrara marble. "The ecstasy you feel after finishing a piece of granite does not compare with anything you do with any other type of stone," she asserted. Last year's round gave her the chance to carve granite for the first time, so the second experience gave her more confidence: "In my first encounter with granite there were a lot of feelings such as fear and anticipation and the challenge of a new material; this year I am more confident and better trained to know the shortest ways to the design in my mind instead of making many attempts as in my first experience," she explained.

Sayed's love of ancient Egyptian civilisation is as clear in her works as it is in her PhD, on the same topic. All her readings are about the history and life of the ancient Egyptians. Her work for last year's round of the AISS was totally abstract, creating a sort of a harmonious relation between a fully organic form and a totally geometric one, and having the organic form flying. However, this year the geometric and the organic are totally interwoven and attached to each other.

Sayed never has a name for the work at the beginning; she carves the stone in an abstract style until it hands itself over to her. This year's design is a lotus that can be seen from the back as a bird. "The idea of the bird is very close to my heart and I've worked on it several times before, because I love the bird in the state of flight and even in a static position, specifically Horus who symbolises courage.

This year's block of granite is bigger than last year's because she feels more confident in dealing with the stone. The statue needed a base because more than half of it is flying in the air. It is actually inspired by the 25 January Revolution; the bird in general signifies freedom, which is the peaceful and positive side of the revolution, while the lotus is the flower that was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians: "A lot of Egyptian writers called the January revolution the Lotus Revolution..."

In 2010, Sayed showed a glass sculpture in the Egyptian Cultural Centre in Vienna; it was Shajarat Al Khaliqa (The Tree of Creation); a tree with human figures coming out of its branches which toured different countries including Egypt, Scotland, Japan, France and Denmark with the Cube art gallery. Some figures in the tree were carved with wings and other figures with gold touches that stand for the Sufi as opposed to the materialistic approach to life; in general the tree stands for the good that is deeply rooted inside us; the whole sculpture is in transparent glass except for the Sufi figures ̉ê" in gold.

With the rise to power of Islamist trends and their control over different institutions in Egypt after 25 January, Sayed's belief in the freedom of creativity and expression is all the stronger; she is against any sort of censorship on art production in general; her own creativity should have no limits. Concerning current fears that Islamists will prohibit sculpture altogether, she responded, "Egypt is the cradle of sculpture and the cradle of granite; the ancient Egyptians were the first masters of sculpture and even Greek and Roman sculptures were not carved until the statues of the Pharaohs had been studied thoroughly."

She added that the art of sculpture in particular requires stability and the more stable the environment around the sculptor the more capable she is of creativity; the work is tiring, requiring complicated tools and tough materials: "Facing any sort of attack against sculpture or any kind of Salafi thinking must be through the intensive work and the production of more and more sculptures; for instance, the continuation of AISS this year despite all the difficulties sent a message that creativity will survive despite all these political or social changes. I will continue to carve human figures and portraits as long as I do what I feel from inside. When the sculptor is in a state of meditation or creation, she is worshipping God and His amazing creations so there is no contradiction between sculpture and faith."

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