Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Continuity in stone

Once again at the Aswan Sculpture Symposium, Nevine El-Aref marks a special round

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top left: Dutra carving "The Boss"; AISS plateau in action; Hicham Abdel-Moeti transforming granite into a scene from the countryside; Czapska putting the final touches on " Dream"; El-Baroudi working on the "Lamb"; François impressed with time

Like desert stones with articulate shapes -- a boat, three wolves, a millstone -- 13 granite sculptures were beautifully lit on the hill opposite the Nubia Museum, outside the entrance to the Basma Hotel, the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (AISS) venue since it was established in 1996. Products of the annual 40-day AISS were evidence of the artists' very physical toil -- a long interlude spent entirely in the presence of stone. (Two more sculptures had already been transported to the Open air Museum, where all AISS products end up).

The closing ceremony would have been the same as every year if not for the strange surprise awaiting loyal audience members: as of next round, AISS will move permanently to a site adjoining the Open air Museum, a spot of elevated land overlooking the cataracts where work produced over the last 11 years is kept. A long awaited step, the move is greeted with much enthusiasm.

"The move," announced Ayman Abdel-Moneim, the Cultural Development Fund's newly appointed head, "will save us a lot of expenses -- accommodation in the hotel, and the cost of transporting finished pieces to the Open air Museum. Besides which the location is a very charming place that offers sculptors the perfect atmosphere in which to work combined with breathtaking scenery."

Happily construction is already underway, according to engineer Gamal Amer, who is overseeing the process: 15 of 20 domed bungalows not unlike those found in the majority of Hurghada beach resorts will accommodate the sculptors, while five will house a restaurant, a café and other facilities. Street signs will guide visitors to the location, while brochures handed out at the Nubia Museum will promote the venue among tourists.

"Nor is this the only development," according to Abdel-Moneim: a larger budget, more flexible bureaucratic system and closer exchange programmes providing for coordination will bring back the local artists workshop -- on hold for two years before this round -- raising the per diem of invited artists (from LE3,000 to LE5,000 per artist per round) and accounting for newly instituted rivals like the Emaar International Symposium in Dubai and others in Syria and Lebanon.

"I've been reviewing AISS proposals since I assumed this post and I'm doing all I can in the light of one very important aim: to introduce a new generation of granite sculptors to Egypt. The art form has all but died out, with Mahmoud Mokhtar, whose Egyptian Renaissance lives on in Giza, being its last famous champion. And this is no redundant art form..."

Many, like artist Omar Tosson, insist that Aswan and its abundance of granite are compelling enough for serious artists, who are eager to participate regardless of per diem. According to Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, indeed, the AISS has managed to re-introduce stone sculpture to Egypt and gain a worldwide reputation for supporting it.

"The AISS offers sculptors the opportunity to produce large works in granite," Hosni said. "It educates young Egyptian artists in an open and inspiring environment; it turns Aswan into an international arts centre; and it makes an impact not only on the salons and art galleries of Cairo but on the lives of the simple people who populate the villages of Aswan. The symposium has recovered the Egyptian sculptor's confidence," he went on, "endorsing exchange and opening up a perspective on the international scene. This is a veritable academy of sculpture."

Commissar Adam Henein's deputy Nagui Farid suggested that the symposium should extend its activities to Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh, where there are large granite quarries. He also believes art pieces should adorn the country's major squares rather than staying in the middle of the desert; businessmen should be invited to sponsor and promote the symposium.

The spectacular closing ceremony at the Nubia Museum, unlike any since 2000 was intended, according to Abdel-Moneim, to provide media exposure, entertain the sculptors and introduce local artists; it is "yet another improvement to take place again and again each year". Participants received newly designed honorary certificates depicting the façade of Abu Simbel and four seated colossi of Ramses II. Viewers first followed Abdel-Moneim and Aswan Governor Samir Youssef to the working area to inspect the 13 sculptures.

Of time and diplomacy

Some participants introduce themselves and their pieces

Turkish sculptor Kemal Tufan's Sun Boat comes in a long line of sea vessels conceived as symbols of life. Tufan has wandered all across the globe working in innumerable ways, all in the hope of building international bridges. In Scandinavia he even plunged into the frozen sea to create a giant ear underwater, the transparency of the ice on top of him allowing viewers to see him work. The piece was called "Do you hear me?" The site of the Pharaohs' granite quarries proved right up his alley, too, and he has enjoyed his stay in Aswan tremendously.

Sculptor Elim Dutra, also Brazil's ambassador to Egypt, has sustained two parallel careers since joining the diplomatic corps: "Being a diplomat has given me the opportunity to travel and live in other cultures. Being an artist, on the other hand, acted to temper and widen the scope of my diplomacy." Before being posted here, he had thought of Egypt as "a far-fetched dream", one that was realised for the second time when he came to work in Aswan. The short duration of his stay prompted him to improvise, and in "The Boss" he produced a universal figure of authority: the chief of a tribe in Brazil, the Pharaoh in Egypt, the Viking leader or indeed the Godfather.

The Three Wolves created by Czech sculptor Czapska constitute a "Dream", the product of meditating on Aswan's thrilling atmosphere: "I am searching for human sympathy in animals. I only sculpt joyful sentiments," she asserts, expounding the belief that art must boost the spirit. As a newcomer to Egypt, she feels Aswan is the ideal venue for sculpture.

Syrian sculptor Maher Al-Baroudi, an art professor in France offered a visibly disgruntled "Lamb" imprisoned in a black frame -- a reflection on the turmoil of Middle East politics. "Working with granite is no easy task," he said, pointing to the resilience of Egyptian granite in comparison to the small blocks he had previously worked on, which forced him to eliminate some detail.

Moroccan sculptor Ikram Kabbaj's two separate "Male and Female" figures were not originally intended to have a link connecting them. That developed, rather, out of her encounter with Aswan. "I learned a lot from my assistant, who follows the methods of his ancestors," she said. "In my country, I had tended to depend wholly on machinery. After 45 days with my assistant I became an expert at using the hammer and chisel." Of the many various media she used, Kabbaj fell in love with stone: marble and granite. Subduing them, she says, she experiences a transformation from struggle and anger to respect, love and peace -- even vanity, she adds.

Obsessed with the meaning of time, French sculptor François Weil produced two stones inspired by the ancient Egyptian belief in eternity. Connected vertically with an iron bar, the lower stone is fixed in the parched desert, while the upper one, almost triangular, is turning clockwise. "Time," Weil insists, "is endless."

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