“I lie observing fine plants under the warm sunshine. I see roots penetrate the surface of the earth. Small leaves rise towards the light in unlimited shapes and small insects look like sparkling jewellery. You are in a world that has its own laws and how beautiful it is to discover some of these laws. It is a world where fiction combines with reality and it is impossible to separate them.”
Adam Henein, from Botanical Meditations, 2013
Since that revealing moment during childhood when he lay down in a garden with his face touching the grass, Adam Henein (b. 1929), the Arab world’s most prominent living sculptor, has never ceased to observe, dissect, and explore mother nature. Seemingly eager to escape from man-made matters, a part of Henein found comfort and peace in an underground-inhabited universe that silently exists parallel to the more apparent and contrived world. Henein’s perception of reality was challenged once more, when as a pupil at the Tawfiq Primary School he was introduced to ancient Egyptian art during a history class field trip to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. “I went crazy as soon as I stepped in,” recounts Henein, adding. “Suddenly I was discovering another world and I didn’t know if this was reality or imagination.” The two worlds, mother nature and ancient Egyptian art, would shape and have a significant influence on Adam Henein, his art and prolific international career. To transcribe the secrets of the Art of the Valley, Henein chose sculpture as his primary medium. In contrast, painting, according to Henein, would be the means to tell the story of mother nature and her relation with man. But painting would also be the means to make ends meet, when as a mid-career Egyptian sculptor, Henein moved to Europe “to learn everything about art” in 1972. Together with his wife, Afaf, he stayed in Paris for 25 years – until 1996 and produced a large number of paintings.
Best known for his sculptural works such as Fatma (1953), Cat (1961) or the legendary Om Kolthoum (2003), one could be tempted to break down Henein’s artistic oeuvre into periods, themes or relevance to society. But in essence, form manifests itself as his foremost preoccupation. In a profile feature by Youssef Rakha for Al-Ahram Weekly in 1999, Henein explained, “A life in stone is over and above everyday existence – individual and ritualistic, inexplicable, almost divine.” Henein goes through phases where he extensively experiments one particular technique or medium, proceeds to something new and yet consistently revisits the former. In a more recent interview, Henein is quoted as saying, “What I am producing now looks a lot like what I was producing then. It is an itinerary pursued along a single road, which I took right from the outset and from which I never strayed.”
In “The Sweetest Haven”, the 87-year old Adam Henein returns to painting with six new works produced in Harraniyya between 2015 and 2016. This time, however, he chose to explore the use of egg-based tempera, a painting technique found on early Egyptian sarcophagi decorations and many of the still existing Fayum mummy portraits dating as far back as the first century AD. Throughout his career, Henein has repeatedly reminded us of his love for Egypt with its fascinating ancient civilisation and its unparalleled legacy of abstraction (Islamic art) before it opened up to the Western art experiment starting in the 18th century. True to his commitment to modernity, Henein constructs works that are sparse and minimalist, yet are striking because of the contrast between vivid and rich colours and space and perspective. With comparatively large blocks of colour, the work touches on forms found in both nature and ancient Egyptian art and produces an impressive geometric Suprematist effect to render softness and rawness at the same time. In Samraa, Mabrouk, Le Saint Esprit and La Troisième Étoile, the four pieces painted on linen canvas on wood, Henein depicts abstract human figures subtly blending with the earth and the sky as if they were one entity. At times they could suggest the life-force in nature itself, at others they could evoke man’s entrapment – in the body, in the anxious mind, and in the newly frightening modern world.
Mother nature is a kind of capricious goddess who wreaks havoc throughout the earth, but she is also the female figure behind every creation. And hence, Henein concludes with a lone reclining naked woman, El-Mahroussa (La Protégée), his most recent addition to a fascinating nude series, which he began to produce in the 1980s and which represents one of the most original bodies of work. El-Mahroussa, which literally means “the protected”, is the popular name commonly used to designate Egypt. It is also Egypt’s famous royal yacht built on the order of Khedive Ismail to be the first boat to cross the Suez Canal during its inauguration in 1869. Ironically, El-Mahrousa carried three Egyptian rulers to their exile abroad, namely Khedive Ismail, Khedive Abbas II and King Farouk I, along with his son, Fouad II, the last ruling members of the Mohamed Ali dynasty. Henein’s fascination with boats is well known, so is his unequivocal attachment to his homeland. And yet, it seems that El-Mahroussa is the first of its kind, as it directly names Egypt and depicts the V shape of the Nile flowing along the body contour of the woman.
It is as though Henein seeks to make a statement. If anything, he is sending us the message that details are never interesting, and that we should rather look at the bigger transcendental picture and life’s barest essentials, as decoded in his sixth and final drawing, Black and White. In one of his travel sketchbooks on display at his eponymous museum, one reads, “This is a story of a black line and a red line and how they met and what happened between them.”
In “The Sweetest Haven”, Adam Henein chose to exhibit alongside the 39-year-old mid-career surrealist painter Bahaa Amer. Where there is flux, Amer searches for continuity in that together with Henein, he has found a haven, a place of safety or refuge, in mother nature. More importantly perhaps, both artists are committed to the preservation of ancient Egyptian heritage. In 1990, Henein led the restoration of the Giza Sphinx. Throughout the past decade and parallel to painting, Amer has taught restoration and developed conservation plans for archaeological sites such as the Isis Temple in Luxor and the ceiling of the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
Working out of Luxor or in Harraniyya with Henein in the museum, Amer seeks to express the self in the face of the world and his world resembles an animated ancient relief or a modern puppet theatre. Deformed human figures, animals and insects float, stand on the earth or sail over a sea, interlaced into a complex web. Movement through space and time seems to occupy Bahaa as though he is waiting for an imminent departure or return. Yet he appears to be rooted, as he faces obstacles to respond to the shifting tide. Different from Henein who prioritises form, but similar in his firm reference to ancient Egyptian art and culture, Amer exposes the perks of being young in today’s shifting sociopolitical climate in Egypt and builds on his extensive knowledge of the fundamental myths and beliefs of his ancestors to recount present day problems. Migration, romance, livelihood and the afterlife feature as elements of hope and challenges.
In The Northern Night Sky, a reference to the belief that the rulers of ancient Egypt lived in the sacred and heavenly North after their death in contrast with the dream of today’s youth to immigrate to the West, three figures seek to find balance as they stand on a gigantic animal that resembles the iconic medieval sculpture, She-wolf, suckling Remus and Romulus. In The Hunting Chase, a heroic act exercised by the ruler and a basic livelihood means for the people in Dynastic Egypt, a main figure with arms wide open stands tall on a boat-like object that seems to have just crossed through a block of stone coming out of the sea. In Bird From the South, a reference to Upper Egypt where the capital of Egypt was located during the period of the New Kingdom and which today stands economically deprived, a massive crow stands on a tree, with sparse leaves, staring at its prey coming out of a boat-shaped pot. The tree floats on a sea and there is no sign of a border. Dreaming the possibility of a better life, Amer mixes surrealism and abstraction and plays with soft and sharp lines to create a poetic atmosphere that eventually replaces despair with hope.
Though their aesthetic renderings of mother nature as a haven stand in stark contrast to each other – with Henein offering abstract blocks of hope and Amer representing elements of the universe as an integral part of the psychological torment of the youth – both allow the imagination to turn things upside down. Mother nature was the starting point, the common sanctuary between both artists. But one of the most intriguing words in the scriptures is also Egypt, which served as a place of refuge in the Bible to Abraham and Jesus and which was mentioned four times, more than any other country, in the Quran. Egypt and mother nature intertwine fluidly in “The Sweetest Haven” and appear as symbols of spiritual bondage. Both Henein and Amer seek refuge somewhere else and invite us to think about how we understand our identity as guests in relation to the bigger world, where Egypt and mother nature are cemented as sweet havens.
Born in 1929, Adam Henein grew up into a family of silversmiths from Asyut and lived in the neighborhood of Bab Al-Shaaria. He earned a degree in sculpture from the School of Fine Arts in Cairo in 1953. After graduating, he was awarded a two-year grant to stay in Thebes at the Luxor Atelier, established in 1941 by the Alexandrian painter and diplomat Mohamed Nagui (1888-1956) to promote the study of ancient Egyptian art as part of the curriculum of art schools in Egypt. There, Henein studied pharaonic tombs and witnessed daily life in Upper Egypt. In 1996, he established the annual Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (AISS) in Aswan, a city that since Antiquity has been famous for its granite quarries, and in 2014 he founded his eponymous museum in Harraniyya, a first of its kind in Egypt, housing over 4,000 works. A modernist artist of international note, Henein’s work is part of the founding collection of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha and his monumental sculpture The Ship, conceived as a metaphorical alternative to the museum space, is permanently installed in its piazza. He was awarded the State Award for the Arts in 1998 and the Mubarak Prize in 2004.
Born in Gharbiah Governorate, north of Cairo, in 1977, Bahaa Amer received an MA in restoration from Cairo University in 2010. His thesis focused on the ‘Bio Deterioration of oil paintings and method treatments and conservation applied on Khedive Ismail Pasha painting’. He holds a Bachelor of Art Education degree from Helwan University (2005) and a degree in Art Criticism from the Fine Arts Faculty in Cairo (2005). Parallel to painting, he teaches and practices restoration. He has participated in over 35 group exhibitions, locally and internationally, and works and lives in Cairo.