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Book Review: El-Wishahi conquered space with his sculptures

Art critic Ezz El-Din Naguib offers new insights into the life and work of Egypt’s greatest sculptor, Abdel-Hadi El-Wishahi

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 18 Jun 2014
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El-Wishahi…Horizons Revealer (El-Wishahi…Kashef El-Aafaq) by Ezz El-Din Naguib, General Egyptian Book Organisation, Cairo, 2013. pp.155

This is an exceptional book from many perspectives. It could not have been published while Abdel-Hadi El-Wishahi (1936 – 2013) was alive, for the formal cultural establishment was adamant about ignoring him throughout his life. For instance, it refused to make one of his dreams come true, which was erecting his Taha Hussein statue in one of Cairo's main squares. It also ignored honouring him on a number of occasions, and he did not receive the State Appreciation Award in the Arts until just before his death.

Although the book was finished after El-Wishahi's death, in a few weeks in an unprecedented feat, its release was delayed for six months for printing and technical reasons.  

The Arabic library truly lacks specialised books on the Fine Arts and books that deal with Egyptian artists' biographies. Perhaps this drove Naguib to write Artists Martyrs (2002) comprising short biographies of more than 30 artists from different generations who suffered throughout their lives and after their death from injustice, disregard and oblivion.

Naguib sees that El-Wishahi is on top of the artists list who endured injustice and marginalisation from the formal establishment despite being one of a very few who succeeded in making the third leap in the field of modern sculpture after Mahmoud Mokhtar and Gamal El-Sigini. In addition, he suffered a severe health crisis during the last twenty years of his life which he faced totally alone without money or even family.

The book consists of four chapters. The first chapter is devoted to El-Wishahi's childhood in which he lost his mother early on. Then came the breakup of his marriage from which he begot a child who became estranged from him. As for his formative student period, his Fine Arts College years (1958–1962) presented an excellent opportunity for him to get to know the intellectual and political movements engulfing Egypt at that time.

The atmosphere in his college years was extremely open to world art and the currents of Modernism, besides the atmosphere of cosmopolitan Alexandria was stimulating towards freedom.

In the subsequent chapters, Naguib tackles the major achievement of El-Wishahi, namely his rebellion which was so radical to the extent that he turned the usual balances of sculpture and visual reception upside down.

Naguib adds that the pyramid in its essence is a sculptural work and it is always inspiring to artists from the angle of firmness of the mass and predominance over space. As for El-Wishahi, he rebelled against all this and simply invaded space through his sculptures.

The author wrote:"He transferred the point of gravity in the statue from the base to the top. He made it stand resting on a column or on extremes that seem fragile but in fact it has an architectural function with its weight and centrality, its extremes and voids pointing towards space until it captures and confines it so that it becomes in its clutch after it was in the grip of earth's gravity."

Naguib concludes in his study that El-Wishahi underwent compulsory isolation which resulted from depriving him of communicating with society through erecting his statues in public places. This in its turn made him less interested in searching for new styles more acceptable to wide popular appeal.

But El-Wishahi attempted this indeed and entered an official contest by means of his Taha Hussein statue which can be considered coming close to the widespread taste without forsaking his incessant attempts to break free from predominant reality in modern sculpture. However, his statue was refused as is well known.

Anyway, there is a possibility to rehabilitate El-Wishahi through erecting some of his statues in squares – their rightful place.


 

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