A dozen dancers wearing vivid costumes in shades of red, green, yellow and black dance to the rhythm of the Toshka Folk Group’s Nubian songs. And captivated spectators clap to the rhythm of the drumbeats reverberating on the honey-coloured hills of the open-air museum overlooking the Nile near Shallalat on the outskirts of Aswan in Upper Egypt.
The dance was part of a ceremony to mark the end of the 22nd Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (AISS), attended by culture minister Helmi al-Namnam and Aswan governor Magdi Hegazi, the newly appointed head of the Culture Development Fund (CDF) Ahmed Awwad, AISS commissioner Nagi Farid, and the event’s founder sculptor Adam Henein.
This year’s entries brought the total number of sculptures entered since the Symposium began to 305, with 215 showcased in the open-air museum and 90 distributed in squares and roads leading to it as well as 16 in Cairo and Alexandria, five in Giza, and three in Mansoura. A collection of seven works has been given to the Media Production City in Six October City.
This year, women were pre-eminent among AISS entrants, showing distinguished granite pieces. This led al-Namnam to describe their participation as “doing women proud.”
He also called on the AISS committee to double the number of women participating in following rounds in order to offer them greater opportunities to express their creativity. Five women this year have succeeded in carving solid granite blocks and transforming them into figures depicting a feral cat, the moment of giving birth and witnessing an embryo come to life, and a kite flyer.
“I would like to see the ministry call for the participation of 12 to 18 young artists under the age of 35, half of them at least being women,” al-Namnam said. He pointed out that collaboration with the government to beautify squares and streets in Egypt was necessary and asked for an AISS work to be erected in every square in Egypt in an attempt to defeat ugliness through art.
This had already been done by the open-air museum, he said, considered as a unique example in the world. The museum is 30 feddans in size and is located on top of a hill overlooking the Nile.
“The Symposium has revived interest in the art of sculpture and its power to transform a silent block of stone into a contemporary artwork that speaks volumes and responds to the needs of the present,” al-Namnam said. He added that the AISS had also raised awareness of the significance of sculpture in society and culture. “The Symposium will continue to inspire year after year,” al-Namnam said.
Awwad described the 22nd round as containing “sculptural symphonies that vary with the different sculpture schools in one of the most beautiful spots in the world – the city of Aswan.” He told the Weekly that the CDF would continue to sponsor this international event which emphasised the importance of Egyptian granite, from which was built the greatest temples and colossi of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.
“The march continues in the hands of Egyptian and foreign sculptors under the sun of Aswan, producing sculptures that dazzle the world,” Awwad said. He told the Weekly that due to the economic austerity policies adopted by the ministry, as well as its requirement to invite more artists to its events, the CDF was re-evaluating the activities it supports. This would create a new policy that would enable the CDF to continue funding these events without affecting their cultural quality and value, he said.
“Applying this policy at the 22nd AISS has saved LE79,000, which can now be used to publish an encyclopaedia on Siwa and its heritage,” Awwad said. He added that another encyclopaedia on Arabic calligraphy was to follow. A new vision for the National Film Festival was also to be implemented soon, he said, with some of the films being shown in the Upper Egyptian cities of Assiut and Luxor.
“New measures to increase the CDF’s budget are under legal assessment as a step towards implementation,” Awwad said.
He added that the open-air museum’s board chairman would shortly complete plans to finish the site and open it to tourists.
Newly appointed AISS commissioner Nagi Farid, previously the deputy commissioner, said the Symposium was in “critical condition,” however. Without it, sculpting in Egypt would stop. “A long queue of junior artists is waiting for a turn to join the AISS sculpting school,” he said, adding that AISS was the only such event in Egypt that had survived over many years.
Over the past 30 years, he explained, sculpture symposia such as those in Italy, Germany, Abu Dhabi and Dubai had all flourished for shorter periods. The AISS’s financial returns were too low, Farid said. One artist had offered a piece for US$1,300, but this had been lost owing to delays and had ended up being entered in another symposium abroad. Even so, the AISS had undoubtedly helped to revive Egyptian sculpture, he said.
Farid suggested that the AISS should leave Aswan and visit other cities in Egypt before returning to Aswan. Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada could be good venues, he added.
Artists’ works: Back at the AISS plateau, the artists had transformed the area’s legendary hard granite into 15 works of art.
This year’s sculptures, like those entered in previous rounds, reflect the artists’ visions of life, featuring the Nile River, a wild cat, a mobile phone, childhood stories, a portrait expressing a state of peaceful contemplation, and a contemporary piece aimed at capturing eternity and the journey of light.
The work of Egyptian artist Therese Antoine had taken a personal turn at this year’s Symposium, where she saw an opportunity for experimentation. Since graduating in 2014, Antoine has been influenced by ancient Egyptian art, seeing in it a precursor of the geometric forms of cubism. Her subjects have since developed from abstract works to the human figure. “I was always working with subjects that were distant and wanted to explore something more personal and directly related to me,” she told the Weekly.
This new direction, she said, fell under the theme of identity as she had sketched herself in different forms mixed with her earlier style of cubism. Her figure was caught mid-action, as if trying to rise from a seated position, she said.
Sculptor Reem Osama has been seeking ways to express nature without imitation. She had carved an enormous cat in a crouching position that seemed poised to pounce or ready to play. In contrast to the curves of the cat’s body, the cubistic paws look like stairs when seen from the side, while the slant depicting the body is like a slide.
“Geometric shapes are best suited for stone sculptures,” Osama told the Weekly. She added that the play of light and dark that fell on the angular surface of the sculptor had attracted her.
Georgian artist Valerian Jikia had carved a piece in two separate parts that depicts the sun setting and rising. It expressed the concept of duality in nature, she said. “Granite is a very powerful stone. If you put positive energy into it, it will return to you and to the viewer,” Jikia said.
Chinese artist Liu Yang had been inspired by the Aswan landscape, while Japanese sculptor Hiroyuki Asakawa had carved a stone telephone that brought together the most modern and the most ancient forms of communication – technology and sculpture. It consists of two large round pieces, and at a certain vantage point if you speak towards Asakawa’s piece the sound will travel like the acoustics of a telephone.
He is interested in creating interactive works that are more than just objects and can reach beyond the heavy material of which they are made to create experiences for those who encounter them. Mathematical equations are at the heart of his complex designs, not only to produce the visual aspect of his sculptures, but also to get the correct ratios needed for the acoustics to work.
He also highlighted the contrast between the age-old material of granite used by the oldest civilisations and the contemporary object of a mobile phone.
Egyptian artist Ola Moussa had carved a female figure with a long neck supporting a feminine head falling back in a moment of surrender. Moussa’s work expresses a state of peaceful contemplation, while Egyptian artist Sherouq Helal had been inspired by her childhood stories and had carved a kite flyer.
“I work on my concept regardless of which material I am using. Every material can be manipulated to do what you want, so that you are the one who controls it, not the other way round,” Helal said.
For German artist Klaus Hunsiker, form precedes concept. “When the idea comes first, you could get too absorbed in it and maybe end up with a form that does not reflect you,” he told the Weekly. He added that a work could have two or more meanings attached to it. In a sense, his process liberates form, he said. Nevertheless, his work is also rich in precise ideas.
His sculpture, entitled Keep It, stands vertically and is characterised by a central vertical oval and horizontal stripes on the top and lower half mirroring each other. The top part is shaped like the crown of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti, while the stripes evoke ancient Egyptian burial masks. The horizontal stripes are to the artist mentally linked to Egypt, which in previous years had hosted him for two other symposia.