When the stone speaks of artistic diversity: The Aswan Sculpture Symposium

Soha Elsirgany , Sunday 12 Mar 2017

Ahram Online talks to this year's artists at the annual Aswan International Sculpture Symposium

Sculpture by Ola Moussa at the 22nd Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

For two decades, sculptors from different backgrounds have been gathering by the Nile in Aswan for a unique annual event – a symposium dedicated to the challenge of working in granite.

The 22nd annual Aswan International Sculpture Symposium took place this year, beginning in 21 January and finishing on Saturday, and located, as always, across the Nubian Museum in Aswan.

The Nile-side location has hosted the symposium since it begun, but each year sees a new crop of artists of different nationalities and with different styles.

The director was also a new face for this edition, with artist Nagy Farid succeeding Adam Henein, the event's founder and a well-known sculptor, as curator.

This year saw the participation of 15 artists; ten local and five non-Egyptians: Hiroyuki Asakawa from Japan, Liu Yang from China, Valerian Jikia from Georgia, Klaus Hunsicker from Germany and Jose Carlos Millan from Spain.

The Egyptians included four returning artists with previous experience in the symposium’s workshops: Therese Antoine, Maged Mikhail, Reem Osama and Ali Saadallah, and six workshop artists, who are joining the symposium for the first time and are working on smaller blocks of stone for a shorter period of time.

They are Al-Shaimaa Darwish, Ahmed Magdy, Tamer Ragab, Abdelmegid Ismail, Ola Mousa, and Shorouq Helal.

Ali Saadallah (Photo: Moussa Mahmoud)

Something old, something new

Though the artworks vary in size, style and treatment, many of the Egyptian artists were inspired by their country's heritage.

“All the Egyptian artists working here are rooted in ancient Egyptian sculpture, no matter what their direction is, which makes us very distinct from sculptors around the world. It is not up to us, but a natural influence. The treatment of the stone’s surface is similar to the ancient Egyptian approach,” Abdelmeguid, an award-winning artist and sculpture professor, told Ahram Online.

For his piece at the symposium - a minimalist bust of a woman with windswept hair - he is trying to achieve the same refined finish of his ancestors’ art.

Reem Osama also considers heritage, as well as nature, to be her main source of inspiration.

She explains that one of the main characteristics of ancient Egyptian art is geometric shapes and sharp and strong lines, elements of which can be seen in her symposium-sculpture of a giant cat.

Osama’s cat is poised to pounce on something, with its tail raised in full alert. In contrast to the curves of a cat’s body in nature, the body is depicted as a sharp slant, like a slide. She depicts the paws with geometric shapes that when viewed from the side resemble the stairs the animal is crouched on.

“When I spent two years on that subject it influenced my work and I started thinking in the same ways and followed a similar process,” Osama says. “I saw that even though the subjects may not be ancient Egyptian, but the works [of many current Egyptian artists] are related to it in some way, in form or in the way they are abstracted.”

Her observations can be seen in the work of Therese Antoine who was influenced by ancient Egyptian art’s pure geometric forms.

While her subjects changed from geometric portraits to full figures, particularly her own body, her style also developed to include organic curved forms, mixed with her earlier style of cubism.

“I was always working with subjects that were distant, and wanted to explore with something more personal and directly related to me,” she says.

Shorouk Helal (Photo: Moussa Mahmoud)

A conversation with Maged Mikhail reveals the same approach. Although his abstract piece titled El-Omda ("the village mayor") may not immediately evoke the pharaonic style, his subject takes as a starting point the chair and the seated figure, a common ancient Egyptian theme and motif used in depicting kings, gods and scribes to reflect their power and majesty.

El-Omda is a sculpture of two parts; a body and a crown. A man in a traditional galabeya dress sits with his knees bent, the volume of the fabric creating a dome.

Ancient Egyptian motifs also found their way into the work of a German artist Klaus Hunsicker, whose sculpture is designed with a vertical oval shape in the centre, and two cone-like structures at the top and bottom of it that mirror each other. The top cone-shape is characterised by horizontal stripes that make it reminiscent of Queen Nefertiti’s crown.

In fact, the addition of stripes as an element in Hunsicker’s work resulted from his previous visits to Egypt, where he attended two other symposiums. As such these lines are to him mentally linked with Egypt, inspired also by the lines on Ancient Egyptian burial masks that depict beards.

He also tackles heritage on a conceptual level with this year's piece, titled Keep It. It is inspired by a German saying "keeping the old and creating the new"; preserving heritage without remaining too attached to it, and embracing development and evolution without forgetting one's roots.

AlShaimaa Darwish (Photo: Moussa Mahmoud)

Beyond the stone

Chinese artist Liu Yang was inspired by the symposium’s location in Aswan, naming his piece The Nile.

In his tall sculpture, Yang carved out organic, irregular hollows that look like dancing drops of water, a technically challenging feat.

By evoking the fluidity of water, Yang is one of the artists whose work transcended the solidity of the material.

Al-Shaimaa Darwish also explores the contrast between subject and material in her piece. Depicting an embryo, the purely organic form shaped like an uneven egg, with soft curves and no sharp edges, matches the intimacy of the subject, but contrasts with the dense, solid granite.

The project materialised after the artist’s experience of giving birth to her son Moussa, and represents an intimate human experience.

Ola Mousa’s portrait of a woman looking skyward, titled Music of the Sky, shares another personal moment, this time of spiritual meditation. She tames the hard solid granite to produce something far gentler and very emotive.

Hiroyuki Asakawa from Japan is interested in creating interactive works, that “are more than just objects” and can reach beyond the inert, heavy material to create experiences for those who encounter it.

Titled Share Happiness, his work is a pair of headphones that will function like the acoustics of a string phone.

If you speak towards one side of the headphones at a distance of 25 cm from the centre, the sound will travel all the way to the other half which is placed some distance across it.

Taking shape

Some of the artists working on interesting ideas include Tamer Ragab, whose work explores the effect of nature’s forces, particularly wind, on creatures.

His piece takes a specific part of a worm’s body in motion, and captures it as the wind hits it, like a photograph would, looking at how it would be affected by the force. The final piece is abstracted to a design suitable for granite, but full of life and vigorous movement.

Shourouq Helal’s piece The Kite Runner is inspired by her childhood spent flying kites in Alexandria. It pays homage to a disappearing activity, no longer as popular as it used to be.

The Kite Runner is an artistic interpretation of the kite’s diamond shape and its shadow on the ground.

“One of the things I had in mind was the story of Peter Pan, whose shadow was separate from his body,” she tells Ahram Online, adding that fairytales and stories have been a main inspiration to her recent works as well.

Jose Millan is concerned with the concept of infinity. In his work, the recognisable infinity loop is presented in a way that surprises you from every angle.

From the front, the two parts seem to be connected at just a point in the centre. Upon looking at it from the side, the base is reduced to a small point, and the center is what expands horizontally. The piece simultaneously threatens the sense of balance and confirms it.

Hiroyuki Asakawa (Photo: Moussa Mahmoud)

On mediums

Granite is the hardest of stones, and the different artists had different thoughts on the medium’s capacity and limitations.

Some were faced with a challenge such as Antoine, who had a multifaceted sculpture that was tough to forge in the hefty granite, but one the artist enjoyed and was determined to overcome.

The long, thin shapes in the work of Helal were always at risk of breaking off if the artist wasn’t careful. And yet she works on her concept regardless of the material she is using.

“Every material can be manipulated to do what you want, so that you’re the one who controls it, not the other way round,” Helal says.

Magdy, who usually works with more forgiving materials such as bronze, polyester or wood, appreciates how granite trains the artist to look closer, and be braver with decision making, because there’s no turning back once the stone is cut.

“The harder it is to make mistakes, the easier the medium is for the sculptor. Granite is not difficult; it only needs patience,” says Abdelmeguid.

Similarly, Osama feels that if she can tackle this tough material, everything else becomes easier, and notes that “geometric shapes are what best suit the nature of stone sculptures as they result in stronger compositions.”

Saadallah also feels the stone has demands that he likes to respect.

“I follow the stone’s needs, and adjusts my model to fit the requirements of the block so as not to disrupt the value of the whole. I believe it would be a shame to waste any of the material unnecessarily,” he says.

While many of the artists were working on rose-colored granite, some opted for black granite, and others mixed two colors of the stone in their multi-part works.

Mousa explained that her choice of the black stone was to serve her concept, as the rose granite has a busier visual texture, and the black is more discreet, in tune with her meditative portrait.

Asakawa, on the other hand, highlights the contrast between the age-old material of granite which was used by the oldest civilisations, and the contemporary object he is creating from it.

On a more mystical note, energy is one of the important elements in the work of Valerian Jikia, who believes “granite is a very powerful stone. If you put positive energy into it, it will return back to you and to the viewers.”

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