Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Spiritual sculptures

Gamal Nkrumah is held spellbound by two Alexandrian artists

Spiritual sculptures
Spiritual sculptures
Al-Ahram Weekly

The encounter with the past is the very crux of the works of Alexandrian sculptors Sarkis Tossoonian and Alfonse Louis. They exhibit a sample of their works in SafarKhan gallery, Zamalek, Cairo. The exhibition averts the gaze from present to past and the two artists are complimentary in a most peculiar fashion. The intermingling of the physicality with the spirituality is simultaneously eye-popping and mind-boggling. 

Rome was the ruination of ancient Egypt.The tragic grandeur of Ptolemaic Egypt survived, nevertheless. Sensual Egypt overwhelmed austere Rome. Cleopatra VII Philopator’s glorious legacy was wrecked by Octavian, and the rest as they say is history. 

Perceptibly, I heard the timbre of the voice, the inflection of those sculptures. the Alexandrian artists are not the sort of interpreters of their respective cultural backgrounds who dawdle. 

With Louis, the sacred acacia and the sycamore sculptures of yesteryear are an inspiration, beauteous and bountiful in a land where wood was and still is a scarce resource. He handles depressed wood sculpture with astounding dexterity. 

Tossoonian and Louis are Alexandrian artists, and there is a faint recollection of the most famous Alexandrian of antiquity in their works. Cleopatra was nicknamed “Queen of Kings” by Mark Anthony and Alexandria was both the setting of their love nest and their doom. Cleopatra, the last queen of ancient Egypt represented herself as the reincarnation of an Egyptian goddess Isis. She called her son Caesarion “Theos Philopator Philometor, or Father- and Mother-loving God” and in a a manner of speaking this concept permeates the works of Tossoonian and Louis.

Alexandrian knickknack and bric-a-brac? Not quite. That their works are metaphors for transformation, the transition from past into present, is hard to miss. The artists are Alexandrian, but one is ethnic Armenian and the other is Coptic Christian. Their works reflect their ethnicity and religious backgrounds. The works offer an invigorating cultural background of the cosmopolitan Alexandria. 

Tossoonian’s bronze figures reflect the furore and frore of frosty Anatolian winters and the fury of the annihilation that followed. His figures are withered, but their is an unmistakable strength in The decimation of Armenians in the Armenian Genocide that was started in 1915, under the cover of World War I, led thousands of Armenians to settle in Egypt. But, Armenians had been resident in Egypt for hundreds of years before the genocide. 

Tossoonian’s fine bronze figures demonstrate a unique mastering the impression of movement in bronze. The facial expressions are varied, a few tortured souls and the others serene. The statuesque pose of most of his works are something of a trademark of Tossoonian.

Sculpture has been central in religious devotion in many cultures,even though in monotheistic religions, with the notable exception of Christianity, sculpture is closely associated with idolatry especially in Judaism and Islam. 

Louis, on the other hand, prefers to work with distressed wood and his passion, panel painting. He draws inspiration from the Greco-Roman period’s funerary art. And, the Fayoum portraits are the only large body of art from the panel painting tradition to have survived.The wooden surface was sometimes primed for painting with a layer of plaster. Louis leaves Alexandria in this particular genre and travels south to the oasis of Fayoum southwest of Cairo in search of authenticity. His sculptures are almost an embodiment of the classical scholarly monograph.

The portraits and the busts against a monochrome background is a technique that Louis employs with distinction. 

I am reminded of Trevor Carlton’s paintings that combine a distressed, wood-like appearance with a fresh, contemporary style. 

“I want people to imagine they found my artwork in some old run down movie theater basement. Unpreserved and forgotten, an antique bearing the nostalgia and character that only time can bring,” Carlton expounded. 

Ancient Egyptian woodworking was a fine art, intricately intertwined with religion and funerary rituals. The past begets the present. 

Exhilarating climaxes is the result of years of a labour of love. There is a deliberate choice to highlight the ancient and the ancestors. There is scant evidence of the pharaoh’s regalia, but the ankh reigns supreme. The ankh, the symbol of life in ancient Egypt, crops up from within the woodwork. 

The ankh theme recurs like a nightmare in this exhibition. It is all about the afterlife, the forever after. One of the most common purposes of sculpture is in some form of association with religion.Some of the sculptures on display are curiously reminiscent of the Yoruba head sculpture found in Ife, Nigeria, 12th century AD, or the Benin bronzes. But, that should come as no surprise since bronze sculpture in Africa date to the late 4th millennium BC. The two communities, Armenian and Coptic Christian have lasted for millenniums.They rarely lined up for someone else’s war, but survived precisely because of their own freedom struggle.

Cleaving to ancient sources, the two Alexandrian artists are conscious of their respective Christian identities in an overwhelmingly Muslim world. Yet, pagan symbols abound in their works. Christianity proved to be a most uncompromising religion in the Greco-Roman period. The Romans were less inclined to adopt Egyptian religion and arts than the Greeks who were more enamored with Egypt and indigenous Egyptian culture. With the spread of Christianity in Egypt in the Third and fourth centuries AD Alexandria became the scene of great anti-pagan riots with public and private religious imagery destroyed. 

Ancient Egyptian temples were transformed into Christian churches. Nevertheless, the ancient arts were converted to Coptic Christian art without entirely surrendering the original essence of ancient Egyptian art. 

Louis is most concerned with the ancient Egyptian culture, and in particular with the swan song dying pangs of the ancient Egyptian civilization when it metamorphoses into a Greco-Roman pastiche, a hodgepodge of Egyptian, Greek and Roman. 

Portrait sculpture began in Egypt, and Louis peppers his works with the occasional panel painting. They oddly stand out. Be that as it may, the collage is delightful. In Egypt, there is an age long artistic culture of wood-carving and depressed wood sculpture. The Coptic Christian tradition of wood sculpture in Egypt is impressive. The doors of the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome is a prodigious example of the tradition of Coptic monumental sculpture in wood and it dates back to the Greco-Roman civilization as well as the Byzantine and Islamic heritage. 

Illustrative scenes and public functionaries were depicted in ancient Egyptian sculpture dating from pre-dynastic times. 

The polished bronze by Tossoonian do not draw necessarily on the ancient Egyptian sculpture tradition, but it does have an eerily familiar Greco-Roman feel. 

His lexicon is Anatolian, the land of his ancestors. The word bronze, the Armenian płinj “copper” ia indicative of the rich bronze sculpture heritage of Anatolia, the Armenian appellation is itself derived from the Old Persian birinj, biranj. bronze artifacts. 

Strangely enough, the work is evocative of the bronze treasures of Chinese Ding, Western Zhou (1046–771 BC). Bronzes are naturally very ductile alloys and Tossoonian’s mastery of the art of working with bronze is clearly evident, especially when one recollects that  bronze is harder than wrought iron.

Cutting an arm across a bronze statuette it seems as bent as a machete. With tin bronze the alloying process could be more easily controlled than arsenic bronze. copper sulfate. Tossoonian’s works exude an exuberant finesse. The range of bronze alloys is astounding, but typically modern bronze is 88 per cent and 12 per cent tin. And, with Tossoonian the accursed past is frozen into a sonic statuette. 

The depressed wooden sculptures of Louis resemble a supercharged charcoal sketch of sorts. The distressed wood, metals, panel paintings and the occasional engraved stone reflect a yearning for freedom of expression within the bounds of propriety. 

Coptic woodwork is distinguished by the bride joint known as open tenon, open mortise and tenon, or tongue and fork joints. There is rarely any use of fasteners, bindings, or adhesives, while others use only wood elements. A feature adhered to by Louis in most cases. Typically Coptic woodwork features include the technique where the end of a piece of wood is butted against another piece of wood reinforced with dowel pins. Coptic woodwork is also renowned for its dovetail joints and pronounced with the joint fortified with interlocking fingers.

Wood is a perishable material, although it is known for its longevity. Sculpture in stone survives far better than works of art in perishable materials, but neither of the two Alexandrian artists use stone profusely. 

That said, Tossoonian’s works depict human-like creatures who one would imagine that their most civil conversations would descend into a row. Sculpture is the branch of arts that operates in three dimensions. Carving or the removal of material. modelling or the addition of material. 

Artists have traditionally used bronze to create intricate statues, and Tossoonian is no exception. The ancient Assyrian King Sennacherib (704–681 BC) claimed to have been the first to cast monumental bronze statues. And, historically, the Assyrians overrun Armenia. 

I search in vain for metal  connectors. Tossoonian’s sculpture in the round, free-standing sculpture is imposing.  A basic distinction is between the works of Louis and Tossoonian is the use of the symbolic eagle and grape vines as far as Louis is concerned. Louis used the wood from train tracks built in 1890. Egypt was one of the first nations in the world to construct railways after England. 

Alexandria was once a pagan Sodom on the Mediterranean Sea, but there is nothing sensual about the works of these two unconventional Alexandrian artists. Their works are primarily spiritual. Another basic distinction is between the subtractive carving techniques deployed by Tossoonian, which remove material from an existing block or lump originally a liquid material, a melted metal such as bronze, copper, aluminum, iron. In his case it is decidedly bronze. Do not expect ancient Egypt’s Second Dynasty records the making of a royal statue in copper, the forerunner of bronze. 

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