Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

On earth as it is in heaven

With its 21st round, a new era begins for the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium, writes Nevine El-Aref

On earth as it is in heaven
On earth as it is in heaven
Al-Ahram Weekly

Under the cobalt skies of sun-soaked Aswan stand ten granite sculptures, sparkling as the light catches the tiny crystals embedded in the rock out of which they are made. Though these are not ancient but contemporary art pieces, they allure the viewers with their powerful symbolism and evocative associations: a desert flower, a gate to heaven, a cat breast-feeding its young, a rural woman baking bread, new homes for the sun, the wind blowing, a talking stela, a love story, a musical instrument. 

For 45 days solid blocks of granite were being transformed into these pieces by sculptors from all over the world who painstakingly cut, carved, drilled and polished the unyielding material. As the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (AISS) closed on Sunday, it is clear that despite the change in management – a new Minister of Culture, Culture Development Fund head and AISS Commissar – the event has not lost its spirit. In fact many commentators feel this has been the best round in the last ten years. 

According to novelist and art critic Mohammed Baghdady, the skill of the artists who were able to transform granite into soft figures full of details and decorative elements makes this round “very distinguished”. A serene mysticism is evident in every one of the sculptures, clearly the influence of Aswan. 

The Romanian artist Ana Maria Negara, who is participating for the first time, produced a rectangular prism-maze called Catharsis,  inspired by the ancient Egyptian myth that the earth and the heaven started out as a single whole, separating only later when the god Shu created the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut, who then gave birth to the celestial bodies and begat Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. “Since that happened,” Negara said, “man on earth has been trying in vain to reach the sky.” 

It is a journey that requires passage through a complex structure like the Minotaur’s labyrinth in Greek mythology, designed by the architect Daedalus with his son Icarus on the  commission of the Cretan King Minos. In the Middle Ages, Negara added, walking through a labyrinth was a substitute for going to the Holy Land. “It remained a symbol of suffering, and the difficult path to God,” Negara said. 

Drawing on all these esoteric ideas, whose origin lies in ancient Egypt, Negara depicted “man’s striving after the source of light”, carving grooves into the granite to emphasise the diversity of its texture, the multiplicity of human races and belief systems being at bottom a manifestation of the same predicament, intensifying the play of light on its surface and mimicking the labyrinth. She carved Islamic calligraphy inside Christian and Jewish symbols, to stress the unity of the Abrahamic faiths.

Likewise The Gate by Mohammed Al-Labban, who is taking part for the second time: a seven-metre tall red granite piece decorated with Aten’s sun disk and a rectangular crown, it is the passageway into civilisation and from one culture to another. Working on the grand scale of ancient Egyptian sculpture, Al-Labban adopts a Coptic art style and Islamic design elements, uniting Egypt’s three traditions. “I’ve really missed the presence of the renowned sculptor Adam Henein,” Al-Labban said of the AISS founder and commissar for 20 years, who when Al-Labban first took part in 2010 was on hand to give advice and discuss the work. Former minister of culture Farouk Hosni too used to visit, making for a pleasant surprise. 

For his part Tarek Zabady, the newly appointed AISS Commissar – a previous participant whose 2007 piece is now on display at the Damanhour Opera House – said he did not accept the position in order to change the AISS but to continue with what his predecessor had started: “Since its establishment in 1996 by the Cultural Development Fund (CDF), the aim of AISS has been to establish a new generation of granite sculptors in Egypt – a genre that had all but disappeared following the death of Mahmoud Mokhtar. Now, after more than two decades of annual meetings, the AISS has become more ambitious, envisioning new goals.”

Zabady continued that the symposium’s success in re-establishing stone sculpture in Egypt and contributing to its development worldwide has meant giving sculptors the opportunity to produce large works in granite, and instilling in young Egyptian artists the drive to regenerate Aswan as the international arts hub it once was: “The AISS is already very remarkable for its skilful sculptors’ assistants, the distinguished historical atmosphere of Aswan and the high quality of granite, the same used by ancient Egyptians to build pyramids, obelisks and shrines.” Zabady went on to say that this year’s only innovation was online and social media promotion and the introduction of the web as a means to select participants.

Previously, Zabady said, the selection of artists was based on personal invitations from the commissar or members of the board, which meant that some artists attended three or more rounds. This year, he announced, the AISS attracted five Egyptian artists and four new foreign artists from Romania, Brazil, Mexico and Sudan who are participating for the first time. Every artist was carefully selected according to the criteria put down by the board. “Although I was not supposed to participate in this round, when I saw the work I was jealous, so I made a tiny piece of red granite,” Zabadi confessed; it depicts insect metamorphosis like the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

In addition to Ahmed Magdy’s sun houses, inspired by the ancient temple, Mexican artist Jorge De Santiago produced a Snake Cloud inspired by Mexican mythology. He had wanted to participate for many years, he said, and he drew a design for a piece back in Mexico, but on arrival he was inspired by the setting to return to his own – similar – legacy. His red granite piece is decorated with a black Eye of Horus.

For her part the Brazilian artist Marcia De Bernardo Foltran created a red granite cube rolling through a desert history with an old flower on one of its surfaces carved by the wind and sand. “That is why I left all the surfaces in rough stone and carved the flower on one of the surface,” she said, adding that she attached a base to the flower in an attempt to represent the desert. Foltran had worked with granite and marble in several symposiums but never with such a skilful assistant. In this and other ways, she said, the AISS was a turning point in her career.

As for Yasmina Haidar from Alexandria, granite had not been her cup of tea but when she started taming her piece she decided against inlaying it with glass as she had planned and instead kept it a pure. Influenced by the wind and its effect on clouds, Haidar carved a shapeless piece of granite reflecting the different forms of clouds in the sky: “a flying granite”, as she calls it.

The Sudanese artist Khaled Abdalla, who first visited the AISS eleven years ago – when he became a stone sculptor – took part for the first time in this round. It was his first time to work on a huge, six-tonne block of stone. “For me the AISS is a new sculpture school,” he said, also praising the skill of his assistants as artists. “I learned a lot from the them,” he said, “about the use of the chisel and other tools.” His piece is based on a musical instrument from eastern Sudan, whose tribal name means “beautiful girl”: “I created the shape, adding the feminine features in abstract form.”

Ali Saadallah, who participated in the AISS workshop, described the experience as great experience that added to his professional skills. He learned how to correctly hold a hammer and tame granite without breaking it. Combining very rough with very smooth textures, Saadallah produced a two-metre tall abstract column decorated with contemporary foliage motif. “I was supposed to carve two columns to create a dialogue of nature but the short time of the workshop, only 15 days, prevented me from reaching my goal,” he said.

Inspired by Egyptian and Greek mythology like Negara, Abdulrahman Al-Burgy carved a black granite owl, carried out smoothly and with super softness. According to ancient Egyptian myths, the owl is the guardian of grave. In Greece it was a good omen, a symbol of wisdom and a sign of victory in war, and for the Romans it was a sacred bird. In Arab myth the owl was an evil spirit that kidnapped children: “The owl will always remain shrouded by mystery,” Al-Burgy says. That is why I chose it.” 

The 70-year-old amateur Jalal Masoud also participated in the workshop with a black granite block depicting a farmer sitting on her knees baking bread. Although the piece lacks dimensions or perspective, the decreasing accuracy with distance bears all the rules of native art.

For her part CDF head Neveen El-Kilany described this AISS round as a narrative sculptural symphony about belonging and devotion: “These efforts were really distinctive and linked to the land and the roots of Egyptian soil.” Despite the diversity of artistic trends and styles in taming granite, pioneer sculptors from all over the globe have  authentically expressed immortality of human values: “Thus sculpture reformulates the features of human history over the millennia,” she said.

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