Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The ostrich feather

Rania Khallaf enjoys a postmodern artistic representation of the popular goddess Maat

The ostrich feather
The ostrich feather
Al-Ahram Weekly

The bond between ancient Egyptian mythology and contemporary art is usually just as fragile the majority of Egyptians’ awareness of their ancient history.

Maat Changes Colours is the title of one of the most interesting exhibitions held recently in Cairo. It is the work of Khaled Sirag, the professor of ceramics at the Faculty of Applied Arts, Helwan University, and the Hungarian artist Anita Toth. The artists bravely construct a relationship between Maat, the goddess of justice, and the concept of justice in contemporary life. Held at the Ubuntu Art Gallery in Zamalek, the exhibition includes a number of highly intellectual pieces, each with a different story to tell. Sirag’s exhibitions require more than one visit. On the first visit, you open up to new ideas, and to the artistic spirit and distinctive taste. In the second, you start to ask questions.

“When and how did you get this unique idea?” I asked.

“It started a long time ago, almost 15 years ago. I usually take time to think about my theme,” Sirag started. He had already worked on similar themes from Egyptian mythology, like the goddess Hathor. “I made a big ceramic piece in Hungary in 2008, it was called The Eternal Hill, the legendary creation of Atum, the ancient Egyptians’ very first god believed to exist on earth, in which he put the feather of Maat on top of the hill, and gave her the power to create the gods.” In his exhibition An attempt to go out, Sirag used the same symbol in an abstract way. Maat, represented as a woman holding a feather to her head, is also the goddess of healing – a very rich symbol to work on.

Brainstorming sessions between the two artists started a few months ago. “I started sending Anita sketches of my pieces via e-mail while she was in Hungary. We actually started working together when she came to Egypt about two months ago. In some pieces, like The Sealed City, I asked her to complete the idea during the working process. Never in my career have I allowed another artist to collaborate with me, but Anita and I have a common language,” he winks. The brainstorming usually involved more than sketches. They wrote poems, free-associated through drawings, read about mythology and listened to music. “I usually draw very simple sketches, nobody at all would understand how such a simple shape could lead to so complicated a piece of work,” he smiles.

Maat is the main theme of the show: a symbol of justice, wisdom and balance. The artist used these concepts to construct his own pieces of art in ceramics and other materials. The artist added one more symbol: ostrich wings, as the feather of Maat was always taken from an ostrich.

“I did some research into why the ancient Egyptians chose the feather of an ostrich to represent Maat, and I found out that the ostrich feather is the only one whose hairs are equal on both sides. I also knew that there is a certain feather on the back of the ostrich which, if you pluck it out, the ostrich loses motor control and can’t move until it grows back.”

The ostrich is also the fastest bird on the ground. In an interesting piece that features different shapes and sizes of the ostrich legs, the artist used the legs of Maat to symbolise strength, since the ostrich leg is strong enough to be used as a weapon. Known to his students and colleagues as the king of colours, Sirag has taught the use of colour in ceramic arts since 1988, and he is the inventor of new techniques in this field.

“I developed this love for clay in childhood, I believe. It is not just a job, it is a passion.”

In each new exhibition, Sirag shows a new firing technique. In this exhibition he uses glaze reduction and Japanese raku. Most of the colours used are faded, but under the surface there is a hidden layer of silver or gold, granting each piece a very high value. This is what he calls the lustre effect, which a result of glaze reduction. There is a rich variety of colours in the show, so much so it looks as a rainbow, a garden of beautiful and colourful pieces.

One outstanding group of pieces is called Abandoned Roots: plants with their roots growing upside down, using earthenware bodies and fragments, using reduction and oxidation firing techniques. The artist used real roots to present his idea, in a reference to the mad world we live in, where almost everything is held upside down, allowing every kind of injustice to spread. All of which must seem a little complicated to viewers.

“In most cases my audience is my colleagues and friends; artists who are involved in the art of ceramics or like this unique art,” he said. “This is my third solo exhibition, and now I feel it is getting more popular.”

The masterpiece of the exhibition, The Brave Ostrich, features two large ostrich wings, one in black and white and the other in bright colours. Each wing consists of small pieces of mosaic placed on a large white board. The bravery of the ostrich is reflected in its bright and powerful colours. Why would an ostrich like to colour itself? Perhaps it wants to change itself or the life it lives, or to introduce a new image of itself, declaring a new concept of “coloured justice”.

The exhibition’s only flaw is that the exhibits are displayed in no particular order, giving the impression of a number of different artists and unrelated projects. The catalogue has no information to help the average viewer understand the idea of the show.

“But this is how I usually manage my exhibitions,” Sirag says. “The bond is the theme.”

Similar to painting and other media, ceramics has developed conceptual and postmodern styles. Sirag and Toth belong in this new area, with a slight difference: Toth’s work is driven more by the emotion, Sirag’s by the concept.

Toth, an established ceramist in Hungary, held her first solo exhibition, Fragility, in Budapest last year, where she used a new technique, mixing wet paper with clay under specific conditions. Toth won third prize at the Biennale for Ceramic Arts in Spain in 2012. This is her first collaboration with an Egyptian artist, and she participates with one piece of her own.

“When I was a secondary school student we studied ancient Egyptian history. And I have developed a passion for it since then,” she said with a lingering smile. “I am most interested in the idea of the balance represented by Maat.”

Her piece is small, comprising a temple with a small feather of Maat inside. Toth kept the ceiling of the temple open to indicate that “people should seek protection from up above, the sky, God.”

The Sealed City is a title of two complementary pieces, one large and the other small. They resemble twin towers, but their shapes were invented separately before they were brought together.  Though ceramics is the oldest technique known in art, it is the least popular medium among art fans and collectors. Why?

“I guess it’s because most people think it’s a handicraft, not an independent art form,” Sirag says. “They do not realise that it is a strong medium for contemporary art which costs a lot of money. And this is also one of my biggest challenges: to show art lovers that ceramics is an independent art. As I participated in many international symposiums and art festivals, I found out that the awareness of the significance of ceramic art is still young all over the world – not only in Egypt,” he noted. Toth agreed that even in Europe ceramic art is not so popular.

After five rounds, the Cairo International Biennale for Ceramic Art ceased in 2002, according to Sirag, due to lack of interest on the part of officials. Interest in ceramics in Turkey and Iran is growing fast, and it is time for Egypt to regain its pioneering position in this field before it is too late – a message from Sirag to the new Minister of Culture Helmy Al-Namnam.

Sirag’s next project will revolve around Sekhmet, the daughter of the sun god Ra, who represents both good and evil, black and white, offering a rich concept to work on.

For her part, Toth plans to hold her second solo exhibition in Cairo next year, this time with minor collaboration from Sirag, who will help her develop some of her pieces.

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