It is hard to find the words to do the artist Abdel-Hadi Al-Wishahi justice, so powerful is his work it touches not only heart, not only soul, mind or conscience but all four faculties all at once. It is impossible to feel bored of being in the presence of a piece of sculpture by him, though it remains hard to determine the source of the spiritual energy that radiates from within in, holding the viewer in its thrall. Dynamic equilibrium and strong structure are all candidates, but so is the effortlessness with which he gives the void form, the emotional complexity of his work, its temporal dimension as well as its philosophical and symbolic side, and the graceful spontaneity of his style. Beating gravity, his sculptures have their own harmony, evincing his passion for music which he always took the time to test repeatedly before showing his work to people.
Al-Wishahi never separated himself from his works, they were always his first priority, and he managed to incorporate his feelings for nature into their fabric, ensuring that would penetrate and alter the subconscious of the viewer. Art was never a means to breadwinning, a choice that enabled him to be a true pioneer, never derivative or merely innovative. Like a true artist he was always critical of his own work but, using what material was most readily available or appropriate, he let each piece become what it was without interference. He did not care too much about the medium in which he created a piece, but he paid meticulous attention to every last detail of that piece. The radiance his work emanates would probably not be as sustainable if not for the perfect interaction of all those perfectly executed details.
Though it transcends its historical context, Al-Wishahi’s work played a crucial role in forming a new vision of sculpture in Egypt. A believer in the big picture and the future as well as a reader of history and literature and, more importantly, a student of geometry and anatomy — unlike his contemporaries, who focused on mass, he emphasised the human skeleton — he trained generations of artists in the deceptively simple magic his sculptures show, with curvatures that seem to contain the whole world. His abilities made him akin to a shaman, though he also showed the patience and the care of teacher, an enlightened father who gave his children the freedom to choose what worked for them. In Al-Wishahi’s studio I saw, organised using a strict order, not only the tools he needed to make his sculptures but also other, unique tools some of which he had invented or made himself. His creativity was unstoppable and he dedicated every waking minute to his art, caring nothing for the adverse effects of non-stop work on his health, though he also cared deeply about historical developments in Egypt.
Al-Wishahi’s masterpieces works include The Guitarist (1972), Bicycle (1971), The Owl (1971), The Pigeon (1967), Abdel Moneim (1966), The Fall (1965), the Martyr of Dunshoway (1963), Cold (1960), The Impossible Jump (1975), Silence (Salute to the Great Egyptian People, 1975), Salute to the Great Egyptian Cat (1972), the 20th-Century Man sequence (1980), The Belly Dancer (1979), Motherhood (1978), Goal Keeper (1977), Confrontation (2005), Taha Hussein (1996), The Woman and the Sea (1992), The Lute Player (1990), An Attempt to Reach Balance (1987), Foreseeing (1986) and The 17-Year-Old Girl (2006).
In Taha Hussein, his tribute to the great author and teacher, the figure is exaggerated to emphasise grace and loftiness, with a sun ray coming out of his eye cavity through reflective mirrors — the outcome of painstaking experiments — is an ironic reflection on the fact that Hussein was blind. The statue depicts the Dean of Arabic Literature in a state of self-liberation, rising restive, from the chair in which he was sitting. By placing his right hand on his leg Al-Wishahi also creates a kind of architectural void that turns Hussein into a window or portal.
May this legacy live on.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.