The death of the great sculptor Adam Henein at the age of 91 on 22 May turned social media into a memorial space, with artists and art lovers expressing their love and respect for the rock sculptor and painter who fused ancient Egyptian and modern European concepts and founded the Aswan Sculpture Symposium in 1995.
This week sculptor Hassan Kamel told Al-Ahram Weekly about helping Henein restore his early sculptures at his house in Haraniya (later turned into a museum) on his return from Europe in the 1980s: “I was then a fresh graduate, and I was thrilled to engage with him. He was not just an artist, he was a believer — in beauty, nature and ancient art — and saw his work as a normal part of these cycles. I belong to a generation of sculptors who benefited from the Aswan International Symposium,” he added, “which was not just a yearly event, but rather an educational laboratory where different international sculptors met up to exchange techniques and work in such an amazing creative environment. It worked as the link connecting our ancestors’ creative legacy, Henein’s inspiration, and contemporary art.”
When this writer asked him about Henein sculptor Hisham Abdel-Moeti was likewise effusive: “My first encounter with Henein was at the Small Artworks Salon, which took place at the Arts Compound in Zamalek back in 2000. He scrutinised my small sculpture and then invited me in a fatherly tone to participate in the next round of the Aswan International Symposium, opening the door to a whole new level of development. In addition to his brilliant abstract figures and simple lines,” Abdel-Moeti added, “his drawings and paintings are equally significant. He is best described as a Sufi artist, whose understanding of nature and assimilation of the philosophy of ancient Egyptian art contributed to his international fame.”
The Weekly visited Henein’s house-museum in Haraniya in 2016, a year after it was opened and a week after the Adam Henein Sculpture Award was announced. Excerpts from that encounter are reproduced below.
“The 1950s was a rich cultural period: impressionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism. I learned about them all, but I had no inclination to join any movement, political or cultural. I had my own experience and emotions, so I had no time for such activities.
“Seeing the ancient sculptures had a magic effect on me. I went home that day and modelled a small clay figure of Ramses II. This was the start of my intellectual and artistic journey, how I learned the concept of art. Art should come from within, it should not be imposed by theories or concepts. Art is a dialogue between the artist and nature, or the surrounding environment; a dialogue between the artist and his subject.
“The museum includes sculptures I made when I was a student, one wood sculpture in particular. Art is a strange experience that knows no boundaries, so you should not judge a work by its maker’s age; great work can be the result of zero experience. This is what we call spontaneity, which is the law ruling art.
“I was playing like a happy child with my tools, and it felt great, playing with nothing in particular on my mind. I didn’t like my professors’ teaching methods, with their focus on European art trends. It was okay, but I have always felt there were closer and greater patterns in ancient Egyptian art.
“I had the opportunity to watch people living in Luxor, the simple details of their daily routines, their animals, their attitudes. You compare this with images of ancient times, and you realize the meaning of art. People who lived there in the company of the great abstract ancient monuments helped me to understand how to make art in my own way.
“On arriving in Paris I took part in a group exhibition with sculptures made in Egypt. At the exhibition I met a female artist, who happened to be the wife of Vasily Kandinsky, and she was very impressed by my work. That woman, I just cannot remember her name now, asked me bluntly, ‘Well, what are you doing here in Paris? You should go back to Egypt.’ And it was true. The good thing about being in Europe was learning about different art schools, seeing outstanding masterpieces and honing this Egyptian originality as a fingerprint of my own.
“I draw a lot. Drawing is easy and fast. Sculpture is slow. But I don’t draw sketches. Sculptures come out after many different sketches or as the completion of a given sketch. I used to work for 15 hours a day, but not anymore. My stamina has diminished in the last few years.
“The unfortunate situation of art today is largely due to the disconnection between art and people, and this is what pushed me to establish this museum, to make art from different stages of my career available for people to see. I am soon leaving this world, and it is good to leave something behind, as a message.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly