Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
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A degree of over-compensation

By Youssef Rakha

The fifth Aswan Sculpture Symposium was to end with a bang. Revelling in its newfound stability, it housed 10 sculptors from nine different countries (the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Jordan, Mexico, Romania and Switzerland). It also incorporated Egyptian work (veteran painter-turned-granite sculptor Esmat Dawistashi's Ship of Secrets and young sculptor Hisham Nawwar's The Last Supper) that was more overtly figurative than before.

Perhaps in response to such success, the Cultural Development Fund -- the symposium's principal sponsor -- set its mind on a spectacular closing ceremony, conceived as an example of the more daring, avant-garde side of the Ministry of Culture's activities. (Mis)guided by criticism of last year's beautifully simple closing ceremony -- staged unobtrusively by Salah Mar'i in the Greek-island-like village of Baharif, and drawing solely on authentic performance traditions of the governorate -- the fund opted for a grand spectacle depicting not only Aswan, but the art of sculpture, granite rock formations, Nubian civilisation, ancient Egypt, modern dance, experimental theatre, the governorate's newly appointed administration and probably a handful of more equally complex topics to boot. Director Intisar Abdel-Fattah, who topped the bill at the Cairo Experimental Theatre Festival in 1998, was duly mobilised for the undertaking, with instructions to incorporate both the award-giving ceremony and at least some indigenous performances into the fabric of a large-scale contemporary show.

Nubiat, an exhibition of 28 photographs by Randa Shaath -- the result of two weeks' work in five of the original Nuba's eight remaining nojou' (small villages or hamlets of Upper Egypt) sponsored by the Cultural Development Fund as part of the symposium's activities -- was added to the programme, to be opened by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni directly after the show.

With both events held on the Nubian Museum grounds, directly below the Basma Hotel which provides the symposium sculptors with accommodation and working space, the entire fare seemed to be focused on the Nuba. Such, at least, was the impression one got from looking at the invitation cards and programme announcements. But what the Cultural Development Fund did not foresee was that any latter-day spectacle of the Nuba is prone to turning into an overblown "post-colonial" attempt at reconciliation on the part of the Egyptian government and people who, by fully endorsing the building of the High Dam in the 1950s and 1960s, thus drowning the Nuba's villages and hamlets in the artificial Lake Nasser, effectively put an end to almost all that remained of this ancient and distinct civilisation. What with the symposium and the rest of Aswan, as well as Abdel-Fattah's own voluntary contributions all taken into account in the staging of The Stone Monk (Abdel-Fattah's somewhat predictable title), the task of successfully pulling it through seemed a touch too Herculean for comfort.


photo: courtsey of Randa Shaath
All was going impressively well in the Basma Hotel until the last few hours before the show, when Hosni was obliged to take a last-minute trip to Abu Simbel where, he later said vaguely in the course of the impromptu speech he delivered in the performance space at the back of the Nubian Museum, "I had to deal with very pressing obligations -- but, mind you, the obligations in which I was embroiled just now are positive ones and, sooner than you realise, I hope, many of you too will be embroiled in them in the same way."

Scheduled to begin in the sculptors' working space outside the hotel at eight pm, the show was consequently postponed two and a half hours -- during which time the predominantly young Egyptian sculptors who were present felt increasingly resentful. There was even news of a planned boycott in protest, but concern for commissar Adam Henien's position vis-à-vis the minister and Salah Mar'i's appeasing intervention quickly put an end to such plans. The resentment, however, persisted to the end, edged on no less by the structure of Abdel-Fattah's show -- which unwittingly placed both the sculptors and their work in the least prominent position throughout -- than by governor Kamal Amer's decision to impose his own prize-giving agenda.

The Stone Monk comprised a procession of invitees inspecting the finished sculptures outside the hotel and walking down the slope towards the Nubian Museum, encountering several groups of performers on the way, finally to sit down in an amphitheatre-type space and follow Abdel-Fattah's five theatrical "illustrations" -- Contact, Rebellion, Unity, Paper Boats and The Award-Giving Ceremony -- depicting, one would guess, the history of humanity from a Nubian perspective.

Due to inadequate lighting -- unlike Mar'i's, the show was not scheduled to begin in daylight, a necessary condition for the viewing of stone sculpture -- many of the finished artworks were barely visible to the small yet disorderly mob that formed on the upper end of the slope below the hotel's small garden; some, like Nawwar's Last Supper, were not visible at all. The delay also resulted in a very rushed pace, as if, in the subsequent words of one calm and level-headed member of the audience, "the show was designed so that only the minister could see the sculptures but nobody else." Certainly the supposedly Nubian men holding little lanterns with which to guide the audience, looking sternly imposing and clad in elaborate black robes reminiscent of those worn by members of the Horabat tribe in Shadi Abdel-Salam's 1968 film, The Day of Counting of the Years, were moving too fast for the audience to catch up at any sober pace.

At the gate of the Nubian Museum only those with invitations were allowed in, a condition that not only prevented every-day Nubians and Upper Egyptians from attending but broke up the procession unrelentingly. It also resulted in the present reporter, invitation in hand, being shoved around by the museum security for a few minutes before emerging on the other side ruffled and distraught, at no point having been asked to produce his invitation.

Neither the lantern-bearers nor the performers lodged on either side of the path drawn up within the museum grounds necessarily reflected authentic costume or performance traditions of Aswan, but rather embodied a mawkishly stylised amalgam of disparate conventions, only some of which were Upper Egyptian at all.

Despite beautiful, traditionally inspired live music orchestrated by Mahmoud Abdel-Latif, pretty set designs by Esmat Dawistashi and an effective contemporary dance performance choreographed by Samia Allouba, Abdel-Fattah's first four "illustrations" -- betraying the director's trademark obsession with unaccustomed rhythms like those produced by hitting a pair of clogs against each other or replacing Western drums with cutlery, pots and pans -- did not fit together in any convincing way. Aside from Abdel-Fattah's own irritating presence within the performance space, there was the fact that he failed to make effective theatrical use of the massive numbers of Upper Egyptian performers available to him, and added a number of superfluous features (e.g., the figure of the African Slave, Arabian-Nights-style, which if anything only reinforced stereotypes of mindless physical power and exotic fascination). The sentimental yet confoundingly nebulous message about the goodness of the Nubians and their forming a profound part of the national heritage was thus somewhat lost on a disinterested audience whose primary concern, it seemed, was the late dinner that was awaiting them at the hotel and their comfortable beds.

The final "illustration" was likewise thrown into disorder when the presenter/translator's speeches started being cut short by an increasingly unpredictable rote of speeches and awards honouring officials who work in the governorate and the Ministry of Culture, some of whom had barely any connection with the symposium, the Nuba or experimental theatre. The sculptors themselves were left to the last, and by that stage there was hardly any applause. With one exception, moreover, all the foreign sculptors had already left Aswan two days before the ceremony. So the one heartening moment was when all the Egyptian sculptors present stood up in honour of the self-educated Upper Egyptian sculptor Abdel-Badie' Abdel-Hayy as soon as he was called to the stage to receive the first ever lifetime's achievement award granted by the Aswan Symposium. It was the one moment throughout the evening at which the purpose of the ceremony finally dawned on the audience. Slowly, tediously, the speeches eventually drew to a close.

That the show lasted until 11.30 pm meant that Hosni could not stay in Nubiat, Shaath's photography exhibition, for longer than a few minutes; and as soon as he was gone the audience dispersed, whereupon the museum security were eager to shut down and go home -- a pity, because where Abdel-Fattah's show failed to evoke the Nuba effectively, Shaath's small black-and-white prints celebrated present-day Nubian life in a vital and relevant way. Drawing on traditional Nubian culture and the influence of modern city life on the Nubians in a seamless and loosely chronological scheme of presentation, Shaath documents houses and women, the two subjects that continue to abound in the Nuba (most of the men live and work elsewhere) and preserve its distinctive characteristics in an immediate and impressive way.

Here as elsewhere Shaath achieves an intimacy at once absorbing and contrived. As documentary, her images are sufficiently incidental to sustain an illusion of objectivity. Aesthetic considerations are intentionally downplayed, the tension between the limits of the frame and the infinity of reality moderately accentuated. One is tempted to conclude that the photographer has left herself out -- except that the images are captured nonchalantly, as casual and familiar objects of observation: an old Nubian man in traditional headgear against the backdrop of a plain white wall; a young Nubian with no headgear, his face juxtaposed with posters of the Nubian pop star Mohamed Mounir and Michael Jackson; and in between, functional examples of the Nubian architectural tradition the principal characteristics of which have been handed down for centuries, women, both young and old, in traditional dress, preparations for a wedding, the incessant play of light and shadow in incidental combinations of vegetation and housing, kitchens and living chambers -- and the stunningly painted, domed ceiling of a dwelling place.

One consequence of such nonchalance is that much depends on the exact instant being reproduced and the technical manipulation of the light. As self-expression, the pictures benefit from a carefully calculated distance and an immense willingness to accommodate the subject. Despite the appearance of neutrality, both devices require a determinedly purposeful -- but never imposing -- intervention on the part of the photographer herself. Such intervention is genuine but never straightforward. And in the absence of an integrated vision the process becomes both topical and convincing. Shaath's Nuba is as much a detached photographic exercise as a traveller's tribute to a people with whom she partly identifies. And if not for the delay and its party-pooping consequences, the exhibition is something of which the Cultural Development Fund could have been proud for a long time to come -- some compensation for the failure of their grand plans for a Nubian spectacle.


A world unto itself

In the symposium's two published newsletters, stress was placed on the role of the sculptors' Upper Egyptian assistants, uncovering this age-old occupation as the exclusive prerogative of a handful of families -- a skill neither easily acquired nor easily deployed. Also included were in-depth reviews and interviews dealing with each of the participating sculptors' works -- the concept behind each sculpture, how it developed and how it compares to other works by the same sculptor in the light of the influence Aswan exerts over those who come to it. Whereas German sculptor Joe Klei's propensity to "build towers," for example, had previously centred around small groups of hollow sculptures, forming little clusters of "buildings" with hollowed out windows, in Aswan it found expression in a single solid structure inspired by ancient Egyptian obelisks and representing a series of ascendingly smaller Nubian houses with windows and doors engraved on the surface. Japanese sculptor Yunishi Sato similarly found inspiration in ancient Egyptian statuary, contributing a huge, smooth, featureless figure whose gesture, rather than ritualistically celebrating a great civilisation, insinuates perseverance in the face of hardship. Young Egyptian sculptors participating for the first time, like Sherif Abdel-Badie, spoke of the sense of comradeship that the symposium engenders, stressing interaction with sculptors from other parts of the world; while sculptor Adam Henein, commissar of the symposium, discussed the difficulties of curating for each round -- whereas the sculptors promoted through government channels are always the easiest to contact, he explained, they are not necessarily always the best. Many of this year's works, rather than joining their predecessors at the open-air museum, will grace streets and squares in Aswan and beyond.

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