Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Lingering hope

Rania Khallaf spoke to the veteran sculptor Mohamed Al-Allawi 

Lingering hope

Mohamed Al-Allawi’s sculpture induces a sense of bewilderment with its exotic blend of symbolism and abstraction. Currently at the Akhenaton Gallery, attached to the Mahmoud Mokhtar Museum, he contributes a piece in which a man wrestles with a giant eagle to the group exhibition Al-Mahrousa (or “The Well-Protected”, an old name for Cairo). I had known Al-Allawi’s work for years but meeting him had eluded me, largely because he is a humble and reclusive artist. It was therefore doubly exciting to visit him at his home in Sheikh Zayed, outside Cairo, and have this conversation in the presence of some of his most significant sculptures.

Born in the Nile Delta town of Samannoud in 1947, Al-Allawi grew up in the sprawling popular neighbourhood of Imbaba in Cairo, where his father helped to found a major textiles factory in the 1950s. He discovered his talent when he was told to make a drawing on the Tripartite Aggression of 1956 at school and it was warmly received by his art teacher. 

When he enrolled in the School of Fine Arts in Zamalek, he had intended to become a painter, but it was sculpture that he fell in love with; and he was soon apprenticed to the celebrated sculptor Gamal Al-Seggini (1917-1977), whom he assisted on such enormous pieces as the 1975 “Al-Obour”. Al-Allawi became a permanent resident of the master’s studio. They soon became fast friends, going to the cinema and to the park together; Al-Allawi’s love for his mentor is such it is Al-Seggini he enjoys discussing more than anything. They spoke the same language and felt the same love for art. 

“He was not just a great artist. He treated me with respect as if I were one of his colleagues. One day he told me, ‘I wonder if, when you become a famous artist, you will still remember me.’ This was very surprising. But it showed his nobility and humility.” Al-Seggini’s influence was intense, but when he graduated in 1970 Al-Allawi consciously excised it. “A true artist cannot be a replica of another, I knew I had to have my own style and character. Before graduation, I spent many hours at the Egyptian Museum, trying to study the ancient sculptures and their hidden secrets: their size, movement and the relationship between different elements within the same piece...” 

In 1973, Al-Allawi gave his first solo exhibition at the Akhenaton Gallery in downtown Cairo, one of the best spaces to show work at the time. The exhibition proved very popular, and the pieces showed a connection with ancient Egypt. Al-Seggini helped Al-Allawi set it up, and a few days into it Al-Seggini told him in a neutral tone that he’d escaped his influence. The 1978 piece “Childhood” — a Fine Arts Faculty Museum acquisition — features a child playing on a chair, and marks the artist’s early interest in figures and his attempt to benefit from ancient Egyptian sculpture. It was a connection he would maintain. His 1984 PhD dissertation, submitted at the Academy of Arts in Leningrad, was entitled “The structural styles of animal shapes in ancient Egyptian civilisation”.

Lingering hope

In 1985, on his return from Russia, where he pursued further education, Al-Allawi started a collection of sculptures, “The Wall”, on the theme of “man and wall”. In one such piece, dated 1993, two men are pushing against a wall in opposite directions. The combination of masterful technique and symbolic statement make the piece haunting and provocative. Al-Allawi, what is more, has always worked in a variety of media: wood, clay, cement, polyester, stone and bronze.

“I am an avid reader of literature and art criticism,” Al-Allawi confesses. “I read all works of Abbas Al-Akkad and Mahmoud Taymour, among others, and I believe their philosophies had an enormous impact on my concept of art.” The origins of the wall collection date back to the early 1970s, he recalled, when he first incubated the ideas that would later “burst into poetic sculpture”. “I recently found some pencil sketches that illustrate anxious people hiding behind wiry walls, expecting something to happen. The wall is a dramatic symbol: it could be protection against danger or an obstacle in the way of development.” 

Other pieces, like the 1992 “New World Order”, on show at the Museum of Modern Art, are even more direct reflections on the contemporary human condition. It features a UN building with an entrance and an exit; figures pass through, and they come out devastated. The 2010 “Departure”, a giant sculptures displayed at the entrance to one of Cairo International Airport’s terminals, shows a man and a bird poised for flight. Other pieces reveal a humorist or a cartoonist. In the 2001 “The Chair”, a man cowers underneath a chair made up of an eagle and two dogs. Movement is also essential to his work, and has become more so in his later collections. But it is a quiet, measured movement far more akin to Egyptian than to Greek sculpture. 

“Lost Hope” is a woman flying with her arms in front of her, a cloth covering her body and face. The piece, made one week before the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution in 2011, reflected the artist’s despair of the political and economic situation. “I was a keen Nasserist,” he recalls. “However, with time, I developed an awareness of the mistakes [Gamal] Abdel-Nasser committed. Nevertheless, the best thing about the Nasserist era is that he knew how to infuse hope in his people.” In 2014, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art brought Al-Allawi’s work together with Al-Seggini’s for the first time.

Now a professor of monumental sculpture at the Faculty of Fine arts, Al-Allawi is 70 this year, but he is going hard and has just started a new collection, “The Ladder”. He is eager to speak of “the priceless value of studying how to draw a nude model”, which has been prohibited since the late 1970s. In his “Flying Carpet” collection, which he started after 25 January, an abstract man is trying to fly using a carpet. 

“It was a time when I felt hopeful,” he recalls. “But since any piece takes time to materialise, when I started the final production of the sculpture, I realised that the revolution had been hijacked by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood and that the situation was getting messier and more confusing than I could ever have imagined. The piece was an attempt to chase hope. A kind of a hide and seek game...”

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