Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 March 2002
Issue No.578
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

The hard rockers of Aswan

When he heard the sound of hammering coming from somewhere between the deep blue river and the granite cliffs of Aswan, artist Gamil Shafik, his sketchbook at hand, went down to investigate

The noise was almost deafening. Anvils and hammers slammed against unwieldy stone. With ironclad subtlety, they chiselled it into smooth-lined sensuality.

It was only an hour or two after sunrise, but they were all up, dozens of dishevelled artists with calloused hands, experienced rock-tamers from all over the world. Their sculptors' symphony seemed to be welcoming me to a full-blown stone-age fantasy. Welcome, it was saying, to the Aswan international sculpting symposium.

This ambitious, open-ended gathering is now in its seventh year. In each of those years, artists from Africa, Latin America, North America, Asia and Europe have gathered in the southernmost, pre-Cataract reaches of Egypt, to hammer sense into unwieldy monoliths.

As I approached the site, I seemed to be entering a mythical world. Even the mechanical equipment had taken on a menacing, pre-historic look. The ancients, one cannot help thinking, would have approved.

Date palms cringe in the background, their fronds brushing against a skyline which is sharp as stone knives. The Edfu temple sits, rather sensibly, at a distance. It looks on approvingly, the handiwork of ancients who honed art into religion -- or was it the other way round?

One hundred giant statues loiter around in this open-air museum: modern-day artefacts, intoxicated by the splendour of the deep blue river.

Colourful birds swoop down and land on the rocky river banks, flaunting their eccentric itinerary. An impeccable location, and not just for birds. The mastermind responsible for this open-door sculpting fest was himself a man with a dream. Years before any of this happened, the artist Adam Henein explained his vision of a sculpture workshop in Aswan to a painter who ran the Egyptian Academy of Rome.

The painter had a good memory.

Once in office as Egypt's minister of culture, he -- Farouk Hosni -- provided the funds. The governor of Aswan provided the site. The rest is artistic history.

Ancient modernity: sculptors gather from all over the world to celebrate ancient Egyptian art at Aswan; Heavy-weight cranes rub shoulders with simple sculptors' chisels in sketches of the event by Gamil Shafik
photos: Abdel-Hamid Eid

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