“Together” is the title of a new exhibition by ceramists Anita Toth and Khaled Serag.
Held last week at the Ubuntu Art Gallery, it is the artists’ first exhibition together — the result of a year-long collaboration — manifesting mutual love, trust and understanding, and illustrating different aspects of a relationship.
After almost 10 years of friendship, discussion and emotional attachment, each of the two artists decided to leave an established marriage to be with the other. United by love and passion for ceramics, they embarked on a new life.
The now-married couple have worked together since 2010, when they made a piece entitled The Dream. Their work has since then developed to include techniques like shadows, which means using fragments (resulting from smashing the clay) as an extension of the main form.
A professor of ceramic arts at the Faculty of Applied Arts, Cairo University, and the acknowledged best ceramist in Egypt, Serag admitted that it was Toth, a professional ceramist from Hungary, who first came up with the idea of the tower, which has become one of the main characteristics of their artworks.
"Reformed", earthenware, smoke fired. (Photo: courtesy of the artist)
The tower, which looks like a diagonal building topped by a small square, can also be seen as a human being with a small head. Toth usually uses white for her porcelain and clay towers, while Serag prefers natural colours, using reddish Aswan clay. “When I first saw Toth’s ceramics in 2008, I noticed the similarities between us. I used to make similar forms, but larger, and with antennae on top.”
The project named Sawiyyan (Together) began in 2016. Although they do not live together, they are constantly connected. And sawiyyan has many meanings besides “together”, including the firing process at the core of the ceramic art:
“When we agreed on using the title Sawiyyan, I started to check its usage in the Quran and the Bible, and I was amazed by its multiple meanings; it was used in the Quran to describe the prophets, for example: basharan sawiyyan meaning ‘perfect humans’.”
Other implications include fairness and balance, both of which are amply illustrated in the work.
“We learned from each other,” Toth, 45, says.
“‘Together’ is a magnificent learning experience, though sometimes I was resisting Serag’s persistent attempts to make me change some of my methods.” Each of the three pieces called Years resembles three walls without a ceiling. In one, tiny cubes are scattered at the entrance. The walls are made of thin layers one on top of the other.
"Lean on you", two pieces, earthenware, reduction firing. (Photo: courtesy of the artist)
“I am the one who started working on this piece. For me it resembles my emotional state: the pain I felt after my previous relationship was broken, and my new love grew, and all the emotional changes that I experienced in the last couple of years. So, as you go up, the years pass, and the pain decreases — hopefully.”
Serag, 49, adds, “Both of us had mountains of memories related to our previous relationships, which lasted for over 20 years. And we decided to reveal the pain and depict happiness.”
Much of the work uses the reduction firing technique. In one such series of three, Broken Home, towers are detached from the middle, as if the force of love separated them. In reddish brown, the intimate yet silent conversation between the heads can instantly be felt. Lean on you, another series, includes what looks like two adjacent towers in different sizes which nonetheless achieve a difficult balance, perhaps reflecting the couple’s relationship.
In Serag’s last exhibition, entitled Maat, the couple developed a piece that suggested a state of imbalance: duplication and instability. In the present show, Alone together suggests inter-dependence, balance and self-appreciation. What is inside is what you see outside is another complicated piece, comprising a building whose walls are pierced in small semi-triangular holes, inside which is another small building.
In Key and Keyhole the key is bigger than the keyhole, and they came in different colours. If the key stands for love, happiness or success, then the keyhole stands for our ability as humans to make these things possible.
"Together", two pieces, earthenware, reduction firing. (Photo: courtesy of the artist)
All the exhibits are earthenware, the longest established form of pottery, dating back to the Stone Age. Entitled Knowing, a collection of 12 unique plates hangs on one of the walls. The plates have different carvings inside them, featuring emerging hugging figures or two halves separated and yet connected at a certain point; they look like three-dimensional wall hangings.
There are also a couple of incomplete plates, entitled When We Get Old. They refer to humans’ continual need for information and love. “Sometimes one needs incomplete spaces in one’s life, in order to add more info, or a new relationship,” Serag noted.
Other plates have light drawings on the surface. “We never thought of the drawings as decorations. I hate decorations. I wanted to use Toth’s technique of drawing on clay in a new format.”
The pieces are very well choreographed. As I roamed around the gallery, I had the feeling that I was visiting a museum, and I felt the eagerness to touch each piece, to get a sense of the marvellous material.
The earthenware exhibits look like monuments unearthed from a remote virgin land. Unlike other forms of art, ceramists have to have a special taste and perspective. It takes a long time to produce one piece, going through four complicated processes: forming, firing, glazing, and final firing.
"Knowing", earthenware, reduction firing. (Photo: courtesy of the artist)
All these pieces were made in Serag’s private workshop in Obour City, Cairo, which means having to stay for hours at a time at the kiln to fire each piece. “It is a very hard job, and yet very artistic,” Serag explains.
“The firing technique is not new, but applying colours is the trick.”
For this exhibition, the couple started with sketches on paper. Toth would start a sketch and then Serag developed the idea, or vice versa. Serag tends to think of the colour first, while Toth starts with a visualisation of the form.
“Firing requires many experiments and tests, until we are completely satisfied with the colour. So, you can imagine the cost and effort required for firing a single piece,” Serag said.
The prevailing colours are gold, bronze, white and maroon; but composition and artistic analysis of the theme are even more overwhelming than colour. The masterpiece in Serag’s last exhibition was a wall installation entitled The Brave Ostrich which featured two ostrich wings, one in black and white and the other in bright colours. Each wing was made up of tiny pieces of mosaic placed on a huge white board. The bravery of the ostrich is reflected in its bright and powerful colours, a reference to its desire to change or project a new image of itself.
"Together", three works, smoke fired [R & L], reduction firing [centre]. (Photo: courtesy of the artist)
In the current exhibition, Serag has continued to take his ceramic installations to another level. Positioned in the middle of the gallery, Tahrir Square 3 for example is a huge installation.
Ceramic installations are not a common feature on Cairo’s art scene and this is the third version of the same installation. The first came into light two months after the resignation of the late president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Serag and Toth fired the main form of that installation in a small village in Hungary back in 2010.
“We put Toth’s tower in the middle, surrounded by fragments of 10cm height. It was as if demonstrators were united and screaming for one thing: freedom,” Serag recounted.
Three years later, in 2014, when the revolutionary spirit was fading away, there was again a white tower made by Toth. The second version was much bigger, around 150cm, and the fragments surrounding the towers were all black, as if mourning the lost revolution.
Finally the third version is full of different towers made in different colours and sizes, standing at different distances. They resemble the power of money, which took the place of revolutionary values. There are some scattered white towers in the middle and at the edges, resembling hope. In another reading, the viewer would see those white towers as martyrs, while other towers resemble people standing in awe, watching the sad end of the revolution.
Tahrir Square 3 might be the end of this series, though. “Such installations cost a lot, and no collectors are interested in purchasing such huge artworks. Even the museums do not pay too much attention to modern artworks,” Serag commented in a depressed tone, disclosing that making functional pottery pieces might constitute a part of the couple’s next show while Toth nodded in agreement.
"When we get old", earthenware, smoke fire. (Photo: courtesy of the artist)
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly
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