The soul is often described as an elusive, shapeless mystery. If there is one way to describe the shape of a soul, where science has fallen short, it would be through art.
In search of a common feature, an essence linking our architectural heritage, a timeless thread to identify with, sculptor Ahmed Karaly borrows from the past to bridge the identity crisis in current city design, as he fears loss of heritage under overpowering commercialism of architecture and increased western influences.
In his exhibition titled "One Artpiece" currently on display at Hanager Arts Centre in Zamalek, Karaly tackles a brave question: how to find the soul of things that have no life, and how to capture the fleeting soul of solid buildings made of stone, pillars, and domes.
Seven sheets of transparent white chiffon are carefully layered in front of one another, dropping vertically like curtains.
Like a stage set, with cut-outs in the fabric shaped like gates and windows, the final effect materialises like the ghost of a building. The layers evoke a depth, with no horizon in sight; they conjure a sense of serenity, lightness, and a safe, enveloping freedom.
The viewer is tempted to walk in and experience the feeling of being within the soulful fabric. The artist, however, has chosen to distance you from it, as he engages light as a medium working with the fabric. From where you stand you can see the effect of the backlight through the translucent cloth, making it glow ethereally, emphasising its sacred spirit.
This installation is part of a bigger long-term project Karaly has been working on since 2006 which deals with creating a hypothetical dream city.
Karaly’s previous works have explored different aspects of this city, where he created a sculpture series of gates, and envisioned a mosque which was presented in the exhibit “Architecture by the Hands of Sculptors” in 2012 at the Mahmoud Khalil museum.
Karaly believes that the spirit of Islamic architecture, as seen in historical sites like Cairo's famous El-Moez Street, is an integral part of Egypt’s identity that must be kept alive and incorporated into modern design.
Echoing Hassan Fathi’s environmental architecture, Karaly’s thoughts ring with a nostalgic appreciation for a time when elaborate and beautiful architecture employed nature to the best practical use.
“There was intuitive architecture that understands you as a human, leaves you room to breathe,” the sculptor told Ahram Online.
In agreement with Karaly is one of his visitors, Aziza Saeed, a professor of French literature at Cairo University.
“It is no coincidence that you feel the cool breeze flowing through the rooms in places like Beyt El-Oud in Azhar,” says Saeed.
Traveling to places with Islamic influences like Spain and Turkey, Karaly notes that the architectural features may differ from one place to another, but it all feels familiar once you step in a mosque.
“It is like a memory of being in this place before, a memory of belonging,” says Karaly.
It is these features, catering to the senses, that Karaaly wishes to express in his latest work, in search of a unified spirit to be preserved.
Karaly’s work dances on the line of practical art, where his designs of mosques and gates could be implemented, and his dream city realized on the ground.
Yet as a sculptor he does not identify as an architect, and prefers to express his vision from where he stands, outside the rigid schools of thought prevailing in modern architecture.
His responsibility as an artist lies in inspiring, expressing defiance against the current dominance of cement, in hopes that one person at a time will share his vision and start implementing more heritage-relevant designs.
The exhibition runs until 4 December
Hanager Arts Centre, Cairo Opera House grounds, Zamalek, Cairo