Rania Khallaf , Tuesday 23 Apr 2024

Rania Khallaf admires the latest work of sculptor Mona Heikal.

Mona Heikal


Sculptor Mona Heikal’s exhibition SOS, recently held at Motion Art Gallery, features 20 bronze pieces inspired directly by the war on Gaza.

It is an almost instant response, one among very few in the Arab world, the only other example that comes to mind is the Emirati artist Fatma Lootah depicting the suffering of Palestinian children.

Heikal’s abstracted figures, both expressionist and symbolic, stand helpless or move in groups, sometimes accompanied by animals, amid the ruins. Each piece tells its own story, with SOS being the title of a 130 cm tall figure in a state of supplication, with three smaller figures attached.

“Unlike painting, sculpture requires a great deal of physical effort,” Heikal told me.

“A piece goes through many stages until it is finished. It takes a lot of patience and control, which I’ve learned in the course of my career.”

A 2012 graduate of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Heikal has made a name for herself since she participated in the 2010 Youth Salon while still a student and her mentors include  Sobhy Gerguis and Adam Henin.

She has used wood, stone and iron as well as her medium of choice. “The bronze base martial is clay,” she explains why, “which is genuinely the closest and most intimate from a human standpoint.”

 Married to artist Mohamed Rabiea, Heikal is the mother of three children and a teacher at the Faculty of Fine Arts, and finding the time and peace of mind for her work has not been easy.

The artist’s first solo exhibition took place back in 2019, at the Samah Art Gallery, to be followed by two others at Motion Gallery: Back to Dreaming and The Other, which featured iconic sculptures.

One thing that makes Heikal unique is that each time she broaches a unique and difficult theme. Unlike her previous works, which tend to focus on her own emotions and dreams as a young woman, the present fare is a direct response to a political issue.

“When the war broke out in Gaza, I felt totally helpless. I watched the news, listened to people’s screams and saw their dead bodies and endless blood stains all over the asphalt. I stopped working on a project I had started earlier, feeling a responsibility to convey the victims’ screams through my art. I started with a piece featuring the map of Palestine with the bodies of the martyrs piled up on top of it,” she says in a melancholy voice. “The collection took me  around four months to complete. I was amazed by the speed at which I finished one piece after another. I am not yet sure whether this instant reaction and simultaneous artistic documentation of the war is right or wrong, but this is how it happened.”

One of the main themes is the forced displacement of the residents of northern Gaza. One smaller piece entitled Towards the South takes the shape of the map of Palestine to show a family moving with what few belongings remain with them and a hopeful look on their faces, their hands rooted in the soil. Another depicts a family on a donkey-drawn cart.

The Key Guard — 88 cm tall — depicts two cats and a man sitting on the roof of a building clutching a key, the historical symbol of the right of return. The Olive Branch is a 36 x 32 x 152 cm piece in which a nude is intertwined with an olive branch, a symbol of Palestine.

Flower Holder shows a woman in aquamarine holding a flower in her hands, smiling in astonishment. In Heikal’s works, women are extensively portrayed and they are viewed as a symbol of strength and resilience.

Heikal didn’t have a curatorial vision for the exhibition to begin with. “It just came spontaneously out of my thoughts and feelings. People’s desperate screams and distressed appeals for aid had been my constant source of inspiration. I really wonder how long their cries can go unheard, met with our cold silence? It is ironic that in a world that praises animal rights, the killing of humans is so normalised.”

 The artist usually starts working by making sketches in simple lines, which later develop into a blueprint for a given sculpture. Heikal didn’t rely on photos from the news.

She had stopped watching the news after a couple of weeks because she could no longer endure the pain. I noticed that there is no depiction of the aggressor, or this typical depiction of conflict between good and evil, with only the impact of the aggression shown.

“For me, the reaction of the victimised residents, the owners of the land, is more significant. It gives you a sense of how indigenous people fare.”

The artist’s use of colour is limited to a few pieces, and consists of green, blue, and yellow. “Colouring is a complicated process. It requires a study of the philosophy of colour and the technical expertise to treat bronze chemically to produce the desired results.”

Aesthetic value resides, rather, in the harmonic transition from soft to rough surfaces, from one colour to another, and from shadow to light in one piece.

Taking a second tour of the wrecked city, I noticed that the looks in the eyes of the human figures are hopeful despite the pain.

The most impressive thing is that the viewer doesn’t have the feeling that the victimised residents are desperate or humiliated.

On the contrary, once you end the tour you feel more resilience, power and compassion for the Palestinian cause.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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