Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

The joy of the inanimate

Rania Khallaf finds out about the latest trends in local sculpture

The joy of the inanimate
The joy of the inanimate
Al-Ahram Weekly

Is it a mere coincidence that three different sculpture exhibitions should open in the same week in Zamalek? Perhaps the form is witnessing a renaissance. All three exhibitions were powerful though they reflected not only a variety of viewpoints and conceptions but also of generations.  

The first, which has no title, was held at the Ubuntu Gallery.It showcased new work by the established sculptor Halim Yacoub, one of the leading lights of sculpture in Egypt. In this new collection of small to medium-sized pieces, in bronze, he resumes a project begun towards the end of 1960s. Since he emigrated to Canada 15 years ago, his abstract expressionist style has changed somewhat. He still focuses on horses and women, however, releasing a spirit of freedom and happiness that finds expression, more than anything, in the figures’ movement – women dancing, for example, or a horse with only three legs, suggesting flight.

Born in 1937, Yacoub graduated from the set design department of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University, in 1960. In 1964, he went to study at the Fine and Applied Arts Academy in Zurich. In that time he studied steel engraving, a new field at the time, and indulged his love of contemporary art in museums and galleries. 

“I met Picasso on the premises of the college,” he recalls. “We had a quick chat while I led him to the office of the faculty dean.” Giacometti, on the other hand, was his mentor, and he found endless pleasure studying his work. He has since held exhibitions in Rome and Paris as well as Switzerland and Egypt, where his last show – held at the Gezira Arts Centre – included some 180 pieces between paintings and sculptures. For the latter Yacoub has used a range of materials including clay, gold and wood, but bronze remains his favourite medium. 

One particularly powerful piece in the front room is a medium-sized sculpture of a figure whose upper half is a horse and lower half is a woman. The harmony between both components make for an impressively seamless whole.

“I spent my adolescence in Zagazig, famous for its original breeds of horses. My fascination with horses dates back to my early years. They were true friends. Their beauty is peerless among animals. Even male horses have a unique beauty that recalls a woman’s shape: the smooth body, large eyes and long hair. I have a passion for the female figure, you see, and this is partly due to this fact that women are unfairly treated in our society...”

Yacoub is among a handful of artists who have no recourse to tools in their work, using only his fingers to shape his pieces in wax before the bronze is poured. When he decided to immigrate to Canada, he found  recycled paper easier to use than wax; he forms the initial paper mould with his hands, casting them in bronze when he comes back to Cairo every year.


At the Zamalek Art Gallery, I was anxious to see another style of contemporary bronze sculpture, by the prominent – younger – sculptor Nathan Doss: “Introduction to the Void”. Born in 1971 in a Menya village very close to Akhenaten’s 18th-dynasty capital Tell Al Amarna, as a child Doss imbibed both the architecture of the tombs and the beauty of the Red Sea mountains adjacent to the Nile. He never left Menya before completing his studies at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Menya University, and his proud bearing reflects his attachment to this ancient land. He gave his first solo exhibition in 1997 at the Cairo Atelier, with many others following.

Even at primary school, Doss was already making sculptures out of the plaster and stone he found abundantly in the landscape. His work focuses on human and animal skeletons, with themes in one of four categories: the landscape and its elements, politics, human frailty, and religious mythology. Except for a ten year period in which he worked only in stone, from the age of 33 – this work was exhibited at the Gezira Arts Centre in 2011 – he almost always uses bronze. 

“It was a good investment of health and strength,” he says. “As you get older, it becomes more difficult to work with such a hard material. I am one of those artists who focus intensely on one theme. Abstract themes. I usually ask myself weird questions; Can I mould air? Water? A volcano? A dream? I always put myself in a visual challenge. Pretty sculptures should normally end at the first stage of any sculptor’s career. Working on themes is the more difficult challenge...” 

It took Doss three years to complete the present collection, during which time he also established his own bronze foundry. Each piece reflects a special way of dealing with the void. This is the artist’s first all-bronze exhibition, with previous shows also including clay, polyester and stone. One powerful political sculpture, A Mental Cast, portrays a man imprisoned in a rectangular shape. 

“It is a cry against stereotyping,” he explains, “that we all should be similar, have the same attitudes and clothes, and the same political views. I am not just for freedom of speech, I am also like a fisherman for new ideas. I am a good reader, especially in literature and comparative religion. And once the idea is there, I can deal with it in many different ways.”  

His style reflects no particular influence, though he lists such Egyptian masters as Sobhi Girguis and Abdel-Hadi Al-Wishahi as influences. Even when he is depicting animals or inanimate objects, Doss’s work has a special poetic – or else dramatic – flavour, recalling literature indeed. His human figures have bent backs with elongated and crooked bodies, denoting his awareness of suffering though no sense of pain comes across to the viewer. He suggests this could be because of the high level of abstraction, though suffering it is. Jesus face behind a crown of thorns is the subject of Christ, which forces the viewer to come face to face with pain, drawing very close to the sculpture.

“In almost all my exhibitions, I show a new version of Christ. It is a pivotal character, whether as a religious symbol or an artistic inspiration. Many visual artists around the world were equally influenced by this icon and the story of the Crucifixion. In this exhibition I chose to visualise a nest, where the eye of the viewer should go through cavities until it settles on the safe haven of the face and thus feels the peacefulness of the spirit.” 

This need to draw closer and contemplate before you can fully appreciate the piece is common to most of Doss’s sculptures. In Against the Current, this process takes on a dramatic orchestration as a woman on a boat has her hijab blown away as she struggles to reach her destination. 

It is one of many reflections on women’s struggles. The huge Fertility, for example, shows a woman whose lower half is much bigger than her upper, reflecting the land, goodness and grace. Hanging from the ceiling is a round shape with overlapping tracks in which a woman – imprisoned – is trying to find her way out. The tracks represent the the taboos of sex, religion and politics. Drought Years features a cow whose body is a skeleton. You cannot help but pity it – until you begin to understand it is a representation of Egypt, robbed of its resources and reduced to poverty.

It is the exhibition’s largest piece that has inspired the artist’s next project, however. It is a larger-than-life, hollow figure of a defiant woman with her hands on her waist. In the new project, Doss says, this figure will be adorned with calligraphic elements evoking the negative thoughts and restrictions on Arab women’s minds.


Opposite the Ubuntu Gallery stands the Misr Gallery, best known for injecting the art scene with fresh blood. In its present, untitled group exhibition, eight young sculptors showcase a variety of trends, from hyperrealism to neoclassicism. 

Facing you as you enter is a hyperrealist portrait of a bald man with an astonished face. It is as if the man is discussing something with the viewer. The conversation is unfinished. Made in polyester by sculptor Ahmed Abdel-Fattah, the face looks real with incredibly intricate details. Focusing on the head, the sculptor manages to make it stick in the mind – and then you wonder about the conversation. Naguib Mouin’s expressive human figures are humorous although they look sad. Made in coloured wood, a figure of a woman with an upset face and a long body is made to look like a wall, with small windows at the bottom, giving her space to breathe new air. 

Islam Ebada’s funny animals are headless figures, with their smooth black bodies evoking a smile. A 2000 graduate of the sculpture department at the Faculty of Fine Arts, and by now a professor of sculpture there, Ebada mastered his craft and managed to obtain his PhD in 2012. He participated in the Aswan International Symposium for two rounds, in addition to other local events. He has a strong passion for animals, producing expressionist figures, some with many legs, as if they were insects, playing with his figures. His mentors are established sculptors Farouk Ibrahim and  Abdel-Hadi Al-Wishahi, who taught him how to watch the landscape and produce his own version. 

“I also learned that the core of art is to raise questions, not to solve problems,” he says. “Unfortunately, we live in an environment that is not friendly to animals. It is normal to find children on the street torturing stray dogs. In a larger context, it is human beings who invade the peaceful world of animals, not vice versa. This is inhuman. And this is what inspired my current concept. I chose to escape the world of humans and research distinct and hybrid species because it is limited to only two genres, while the world of animals and insects is very exuberant. My philosophy is to add a mythical and funny spirit to animals. I want them to look happy. As in ancient Egyptian mythology and art, which made gods and goddesses out of the symbols of animals and birds to reflect their spiritual significance like wisdom, fertility, and strength, I do the same. I try to bring meaningful values out of these amazing creatures.”

Commenting on the sudden surge in number of sculptors during the last two decades, he said, “Unfortunately the art market for sculpture doesn’t assimilate this relatively huge number of sculptors, compared to the 1980s and the 1990s. Instead, the new generation is trying to find channels in the art market in Gulf countries. The problem with most galleries in Egypt is that they stick to certain famous names, and ignore new trends and generations...” 

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