Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 March 2012
Issue No. 1088
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sculptures on display at the open air museum

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Sculptures on display at the open air museum; Clockwise from top: Abu Seada, Henein and artists during the closing ceremony; Bulgarian artist carving his sculpture and Egyptian Forham putting his final touch to her piece of art

In Aswan, the scene is as normal as it can be: a warm winter breeze blowing off the Nile, a large crescent moon sparkling over the water and feluccas (flat-bottomed boats) coming in to dock on the shore.

Yet the atmosphere this evening is overshadowed by a despondency bordering on gloom. Aswan is quieter than usual, an indication that the people are suffering financially. Most of Aswan residents work in or depend directly or indirectly on the tourism industry, which has been in the doldrums since the 2011 Revolution.

A stroll along the Corniche and through the bazaars reveals how desperate felucca owners, hantour (carriage) drivers and shop owners have become as they solicit pedestrians to buy from them or to take a carriage ride. How else can they feed their horses?

The gloom has even taken its toll on the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (AISS), which is now in the 17th year. The area where artists formerly carved their sculptures was empty except for 11 pieces of art, which were scattered randomly as though taking part in a mute conversation with nature. Every piece on display was an abstract that reflected its creator's vision and mood. Here were a sailing boat, an animal, an insect, a man hand-in-hand with a woman. Other images represented an abstract idea: a reflection of a dynamic nature, a portrait of Egypt's culture and the lotus revolution.

The artists have already completed their sculptures and left the field. The lovely scene that we enjoyed in former years, that of sculptors sheltered behind gowns and iron masks taming glimmering granite blocks with drill and hammer to meet their deadline, no longer exists. Ever since the AISS was launched in 1996, each artist would carve more than one piece or a piece with several parts. This year, however, to accord with the lack of budget, every artist carved only one sculpture.

"Holding the 17th round of the AISS was really a great challenge, but it proved a successful attempt to win a battle against the security fears that have been reported with such exaggeration by the media," AISS commissar Adam Henein, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that Aswan was quite safe, as was Luxor, since most of the residents depended on the tourism industry and were determined to keep it that way. "Working forward is the only way to face the problems," Henein added.

The lack of financing was a third challenge, he said, and the AISS board had been forced to cut the symposium budget to two thirds of the previous one. "The reduction has had an effect on the size and quantity of the granite blocks used for sculpting, but not the quality," he said. He explained that every sculptor was offered only one small block to carve his or her piece of art, and the duration of this year's event was 40 days instead of the usual 45.

At the closing ceremony, however, Henein said that in the last 17 years the AISS had succeeded in reviving "Egypt the sculptor, and the art of sculpting and architecture which are Egypt's identity." He admitted that he had had certain qualms about holding this year's symposium because of those movements and political and religious currents that consider such pieces of art as graven images or deities.

Henein called on national communities and Egyptian artists to adopt the idea of transforming the AISS into an authority, as they do in Great Britain. He said he first visualised the idea of a symposium when on a tour of Europe, he proposed the idea when he saw former minister of culture Farouk Hosni, who was then Egypt's cultural attach³© in Paris. Henein told the Weekly that Hosni was enthusiastic about it and promised to implement it if one day he became a minister. Several years later, when he was minister of culture, Hosni fulfilled his promise and launched the first round of the AISS in January 1996.

In 2009 Henein carved a special sculpture and offered it to Hosni as a way of saying thanks for his leading role in bringing about the AISS. This piece is now on display at the open air gallery in the parched desert at Shalalat in Aswan, where the work produced over the past 17 years is exhibited.

This year the open air gallery witnessed a great development. Every sculpture exhibited was perfectly lit in a way that showed off its beauty, while other sections of the rocky backdrop were lit with a violet light that formed delicate shadows on the stones. A gallery constructed of wood and glass offered a showcase for the smaller pieces, while other small pieces were placed in a passageway leading to a theatre with a granite stage to hold cultural performances. The larger pieces were scattered freely on the desert floor to act and react with the wild nature of the surrounding mountains.

The site of the open air museum is a magical marriage of desert and Nile, with the green of the valley standing out like a string of emeralds beside the dusty desert plain.

"Only few more steps and the open air gallery will be ready to welcome visitors," Mohamed Abu Seada, head of the Cultural Development Fund (CDF), told the Weekly.

This year, Abu Seada continued, they had managed to overcome the last obstacle to opening the gallery after completing the infrastructure and installing lighting, sewerage and drainage systems.

"Facilities and services can be easily provided there," he said, adding that a multi-purpose building would now be constructed with toilets, a cafeteria and a bookstore. It will also include an exhibition gallery displaying sketches drawn by the artists before they started on their carvings; all the previous AISS catalogues; photographs of artists working and scenes of the open air museum that show how the pieces act and interact with the surrounding nature.

Abu Seada says the museum development project, which started three years ago and is led by artist and architect Akram El-Magdoub, is unlike any other project on the go at present. "The more you work on it, the more you develop it and find new means and areas that might be put in the spotlight," he says. Security gates, a ticket kiosk, guiding plates and paving more pathways are on the list of work projects for next year, but the budget shortfall could lead to delays.

Abu Seada said the 10 per cent provided to the CDF out of the income of the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) was now on hold, as the MSA was also facing a budget shortfall owing to the downturn in tourism. Following the revolution and the ensuing security breakdown, the number of tourists has fallen as foreign countries have withdrawn tours and services to Egypt.

This, Abu Seada continued, had badly affected the revenue of the MSA, but Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim promised to continue providing an income percentage when the situation improved.

Until that happened, he said, the CDF would make every effort to raise its budget by calling for support and help from civil communities, businessmen, artists and intellectuals around the world. This tactic proved such a success at this year's Luxor International Painting Symposium (LIPS), Abu Seada said, that two artists and a publisher gave the CDF a grant of LE15,000 to furnish appropriate ateliers in New Gourna village on Luxor's west bank to accommodate artists and provide them with the means to ensure creativity and learning. A gallery selling LIPS paintings will also be established, and there will be a small fee for visitors to CDF cultural events, which up to now have been free of charge, as another means of increasing the budget.

"The fee will not be more than LE1-2 per person, because the CDF is a service authority that aims to develop the cultural awareness of Egyptians and raise their tastes in culture and creativity," Abu Seada said. Selling documentaries, books and catalogues produced by the CDF would also help boost CDF revenue. Abu Seada stressed that these move were all intended to help make up the budget shortfall.

"Signing a collaboration protocol with the Egypt Tourism Authority [ETA] is another tool," Abu Seada said, adding that the ETA would help support the CDF's four main symposiums as well as providing suitable promotion worldwide.

This year's mood echoed through the closing ceremony of the AISS when, to the rhythms of Nubian music, the AISS mourned the late set and stage designer Salah Marei, a staunch AISS supporter and one of its board committee members, who passed away last year at the AISS closing ceremony at the age of 63 after a strenuous battle against cancer.

Marei, who was professor of history of architecture and art direction at the Supreme Institute of Cinema, worked on about 30 feature films and signed off his career when he volunteered to help out with the independent film In the Last Days of the City by Tamer El-Said. Marei collaborated closely with his mentor, director Shadi Abdel-Salam, and one of his first experiences in art direction, The Night of Counting the Years (Al-Momia), is considered among his finest.

"Marei is the absent and present person," Henein told the Weekly. "He left his own special fingerprints on the AISS and the open air museum, and this will ensure that his presence will be remembered by AISS members and participants."

Marei's involvement with the AISS began as early as the first round, when he decided to register as an artist in an event that he described as "a historical momentum in Egypt's art and cultural life". He subsequently directed a 20-minute documentary on the AISS and depicted its theme from an idea created by Shadi Abdel-Salam, who directed a documentary, Afaq (Horizon), which featured the various facets of Egyptian cultural life. When the AISS was launched Marei saw in it another step forward for Egyptian culture, and underlined it by resurrecting Abdel-Salam's idea with the new documentary which he called Afaq 1996 (Horizon 1996).

Marei was enthusiastic about the artistic location of the AISS open air gallery and arranged the first design, installing the 15 carved pieces of the first round in such a way that it would interact with the natural background. He also played a major role in the selection of artists and their works.

This year, however, the Arab Spring added its own momentum to some of the works. Spanish artist Nando Alvarez, who believes that "art is the concrete and true resurrection of peace, as it is an international language that does not require translation," did not hesitate to come to Aswan in spite of warnings from his country and the media not to visit Egypt. "In Aswan I found the peace that many artists are looking for," Alvarez told the Weekly. He said he was very enthusiastic about coming to Egypt after the revolution to see the country's resurrection, and he had enjoyed Aswan's peaceful atmosphere and its interaction with his soul. This had led him to carve "Fauna", a non-figurative animal that would give an audience the opportunity to create his or her own interpretation. Alvarez told the Weekly that before his arrival in Aswan he was at a sculpting symposium in Syria, and although he witnessed the political unrest there he did not find it a problem. "On the contrary, art carries a message that peace can be attainable," he said.

Egyptian artist Horeya El-Sayed was also inspired by the January Revolution. She carved a composite work of a bird and a lotus, the sacred flower of ancient Egypt. She told the Weekly that the bird reflected freedom and the lotus was the name initially given to the revolution. "My piece highlights the long awaited freedom gained by Egyptians after the revolution," she said.

Meanwhile, the artists escaped the harsh political events in Egypt and gave free rein to their imagination to plunge into the world of art and fiction. Egyptian artist Mohamed Abdallah carved an insect because he wanted to show the secret life of the insects living among us. They have a parallel life to human beings, he said. "It is impossible for an artist to express his feelings towards the revolution in a piece of sculpture, but it is very possible in painting."

Another artist from Egypt and the youngest sculptor in this round, Mohamed Ziada, lends supports to Abdallah's point of view. Although he is a political activist and was a protester in Tahrir Square, he believes that, "an artist should carve a piece that he feels and not a piece for a special occasion."

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