Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The inward journey

On the launch of a prize in his name, Rania Khallaf seeks out Egypt’s greatest living sculptor

The inward journey
The inward journey
Al-Ahram Weekly

On my way to the Adam Henein Museum in Haraneya – the celebrated artist’s Cairo residence – my head was boiling with questions about the octogenarian: how much he would want to talk and whether there were questions he had not been asked. The place is located just behind the Wissa Wassef Museum, in the quiet Giza countryside. 

In the garden, where we were to meet with the legend, Henein’s large Ship takes pride of place among various pieces: three horses facing a man, a stray donkey, a bird... The three-floor building, which took an hour to navigate, sets out the artist’s fantastic 50-year voyage with over 4,000 pieces in different materials and sizes. The ground floor includes paintings, mosaics and sculptures mostly from the early stages of Henein’s career. The exhibits are well and excitingly displayed, moving from simple to complex, from tiny to giant and from beauty to beauty. 

At a garden table Henein received us with big smile, appropriating my sunglasses and making faces for the benefit of the photographer. He apologised for his faint voice, explaining that he had been ill. 

We started at the beginning, with his graduation from the sculpture department of the School of Fine Art in 1953 and before he moved to Paris. “The 1950s was a rich cultural period,” he cites impressionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism – “and what else. I learned about them all, but I had no inclination to join any movement, political or cultural. I had my own experience and emotions, so I did not have time for such activities.” 

That experience included, notably, a school trip to the Egyptian Museum at the age of eight. “Seeing the ancient sculptures had a magic effect on me. I went home on that day and modelled a small clay figure of Ramsis ll. This was the start of my intellectual and artistic journey, how I learned the concept of art. Art should come from within, it should not be imposed by theories or concepts. Art is a dialogue between the artist and nature, or the surrounding environment; a dialogue between the artist and his subject...”

Henein talked with passion about using different materials: granite, bronze, metal, wood, clay, stone. “The museum includes sculptures I made when I was a student,” he explained, “a wood sculpture in particular. Art is a strange experience that knows no boundaries, so you should not judge a work by its maker’s age; great work can be a result of zero experience. This is what we call spontaneity, which is the law ruling art.” Still, it is the thoroughly original modernism of Henein’s work, its simple lines and abstract figures, that have gained him international recognition.

One piece is made up of a rectangular glass window in which the small, abstract shapes of women, birds, men and tools appear on thin iron sheets. Cheerful-seeming, they come across as a group of dancers. The work is entitled Invitation to the Beyond: 47 Shapes. And, once you step back, it becomes clear that this is a vision of human joy in the afterlife, free from earthly pain. 

“I was playing like a happy child with my tools,” Henein explains, “ and itfelt great, playing with nothing in particular in mind. I didn’t like my professors’ teaching methods, with their focus on European art trends. It was okay, but I always felt there were closer and greater patterns in ancient Egyptian art.” 

On graduating Henein spent two years in Luxor, in the artists’ colony of Gourna, amid the necropolis and within sight of the temples. “I had the opportunity to watch the people living there, the simple details of their daily routines, their animals, their attitudes. You compare this to images of ancient times, and you realise the meaning of art. People who lived there in the company of the great abstract ancient monuments helped me to understand how to make art in my own way.” 

Later Henein ended up spending 25 years in Europe, based mainly in Paris where, on his arrival, he participated in a group exhibition with sculptures made in Egypt. “At the exhibition, I met a female artist, who happened to be the wife of Vasily Kandinsky, and she was very impressed by my work. That woman, I just cannot remember her name now, asked me bluntly, ‘Well, what are you doing here in Paris?’ You should go back to Egypt.’ And it was true. The good thing about being in Europe was learning about different art schools, seeing outstanding masterpieces and honing this Egyptian originality as a fingerprint of my own.” 

It was a time of spirituality. At the museum, in a hall named Annunciation and containing works made in Paris, a group of works entitled “Meditation, Spiritual Experience” (1975-76) and Saint George (1987), a painting in pigment and gum Arabic on papyrus, testify to the almost devotional quality of the sojourn. But, whether he did it in Paris or on his return to Egypt, how did Henein model his sculptures of later years? “I draw a lot,” he says. “Drawing is easy and fast. Sculpture is slow. But I don’t draw sketches. Sculptures come out after many different sketches or as the completion of a given sketch.” 

In 1995, Henein established the Aswan Symposium of Sculpture, an international annual event of which he talks with great enthusiasm. “This is one of my better contributions to improve the art of sculpture,” he said. “The event has helped create new generations of sculptors, who learned to use different materials and new techniques from international participants. The positive thing is that it also encouraged a number of female artists to join in this tough field. Before the establishment of this event, there were hardly any Egyptian sculptors working in stone and granite, so it was important to teach and train them, because this is a normal extension of our ancient heritage.” 

As for the annual Adam Henein Prize for Sculpture, introduced this week, it is “one way to support the art of sculpture, and to help young and creative sculptors to find their way in this field. I used to work for 15 hours a day – but not anymore. My stamina has diminished in the last few years...” But is he satisfied with the local art scene on the whole, now that the number of galleries and artists has dramatically increased? “Definitely not,” he snapped. “Good things are happening, but the art scene is very far from what it should be.”

He cited the quality of public statues of famous figures like Naguib Mahfouz. “It looks like a portrait of a beggar,” he said in a sarcastic tone. “The unfortunate situation of art today is largely due to the disconnection between art and people,” he paused, thinking, “and this is what pushed me to establish this museum, to make art from different stages of my career available for people to see. I am soon leaving this world, and it is good to leave something behind, as a message.” And, indeed, Henein is the first artist in Egypt to have turned his house into a museum of his own work. “I want to keep my art in a safe place” 

On the second floor are dozens of portraits on papyrus collectively called “The Witnesses”. Their facial features are veiled in colour, but you can make out expressions of anger and revolt. “They’re witnesses to the period preceding the 25 January Revolution. I just conveyed people’s feelings and the atmosphere of that peculiar stage in our history. People expressed their resentment through demonstrations and harsh political criticism in newspapers and there was faint hope for change. So I chose to express those impressions by drawing portraits, as an easy, swift thing compared to sculpture,” Henein told me in a quiet tone suggesting a deep resentment of the outcome. 

“I am keen on reading daily newspapers, following the local news. What’s happening now is really sad. Egypt is a strange country; you can find all sorts of absurdities: the very poor and the very rich; beauty and ugliness,” his voice trailed off as, with a polite nod, he ended our two-hour conversation.

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