Artist Maged Mekhail’s latest works of sculpture are being shown at Karim Francis Gallery in an exhibition running through 4 May.
Ten polished bronze pieces are on display, each on average 50cm high and 30cm wide. they are spread throughout three main rooms at the quaint downtown gallery.
A well-established artist, Mekhail’s solo exhibition comes months after he completed his third round at the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (AISS). The symposium is the most important sculpture event in Egypt, recognised internationally and as a member of the International Sculpture Symposium Alliance.
His work on display at the exhibition dovetail with the concept Mekhail presented at the Symposium: the seated figure, the sitting position, or the chair.
Journeys and units
“What put me on this track were two sculptures I made for the SODIC Second Sculpture Symposium in 2012, which was themed around chairs. I looked to ancient Egypt for my research,” the artist told Ahram Online.
A common ancient Egyptian theme, the seated figure is often used for kings, gods and scribes to evoke their power and majesty.
“I've stayed with this concept since then and developed it. My 2015 piece at the 20th AISS is an important one to me because in retrospect you can see how the concept was still at an unripe stage, still developing,” Mekhail said.
The first piece he created for the Karim Francis exhibition was El-Sayed (The Master) developed from an older work in 2015 titled El-Khadem El-Amin (The Faithful Servant).
Sometimes Mekhail’s pieces are based on hieroglyphic words or initials. He studied the language, along with ancient Egyptian history, with his professor and renowned Arab plastic artist Abdel Ghaffar Shedid.
Mekhail’s design for a sculpture titled Praying Man was drawn from the ancient Egyptian word Maat, the goddess of truth and justice.
Praying Man shares the thick upward stem and backward facing bump of the ostrich feather that typically symbolises Maat.
The pieces are what the artist described as "simplified," with lines and curves that capture the bare essence of his subjects. The titles give hints, such as El-Maleka (The Queen), El-Qamar (The Moon), El-Arousa (The Bride) and El-Korsy (The Chair).
“When I started off on this new direction, I made a plaster mould and cut it into parts. I wanted to simplify my work, so I removed the figurative aspect and ended up with units,” Mekhail said.
Some of these units are recurrent in the exhibition, such as the curved V-shape resembling the top of a heart, seen in pieces including Horus, El-Omda (The Mayor), and Zahra (Rose).
In one piece, the V-shape distinctly serves as a bridal strapless dress, in another it less directly captures the essence of Horus’ falcon features.
Mekhail commented on how “looking at the negative space of this shape reveals the lotus flower,” another central ancient Egyptian symbol. This however was somewhat serendipitous.
“Some references are intentional, while others are not. You discover yourself also through the work and find yourself repeatedly drawn to certain things,” he said.
El-Sayed sculpture by Maged Mekhail, at the exhibition opening (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
Most of the works at Karim Francis gallery are slim, vertical forms, with the exception of El-Zahra (The Rose), the one shorter, wider, horizontal piece.
A version of his symposium piece titled El-Omda is also present in the exhibition, this time much smaller and cast in bronze instead of carved in granite.
Although the form and conceptual language are the same, the different mediums will naturally result in very different effects.
Looking at the same form by the same hand, presented in different mediums directly spotlights how each material can give different flavors.
Some of these effects can be manipulated by the artist’s hand, something which Mekhail described as "visual weight."
The weight of the sculpture seems to differ to the viewer depending not only on the medium, but on the treatment of the surfaces.
“Polishing the bronze makes the piece look lighter. You can find examples in ancient Egypt where seated stone figures are made to seem light and graceful despite the heavy material,” Mekhail comments.
While El-Omda in granite gave a sturdy, heavy presence which demanded respect, the golden gleam of the bronze exudes a different power of inherent majesty and value.
Walking through the display and spending time among the works can evoke a sense of sanctuary. Ceremony, royalty and solemnity are some words that come to mind.
A voice of one's own
Mekhail was a student of seminal artist Adam Henein between 2005 and 2010, right after he completed his Bachelor’s degree in the faculty of fine arts in Cairo.
At the time, Mekhail was producing work characterised by lines and slim figurines.
“I took that from the ancient Egyptian drawings. I was told I was similar to [Swiss artist] Alberto Giacometti, even though ironically he was also inspired by ancient Egypt,” Mekhail said.
During these formative years of apprenticeship Mekhail was greatly influenced by his mentor, which resulted in a departure from his slim figures. Yet, he was careful to maintain an artistic voice of his own.
“When I worked with Henein, I was introduced to his method of approaching sculpture as a block, not a line, so that was one of the major shifts for me,” Mekhail said.
Surely enough, Henein’s influence can still be seen in his "block approach," as well as in his interest in portraying Egyptian subjects. However, his topics have since steered away to become his own.
“If I hadn’t met Henein I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. But I’m from a different generation than he is; my surroundings are different, my subjects are contemporary, my character is different. All of these have an influence on what I do,” he concluded.
El-Omda by Maged Mekhail (Photo: Exhibition catalogue courtesy of the artist)
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