Born in the small village of Eneiba near Aswan in Nubia, sculptor Ahmed Osman (1907-1970) studied at the School of Decorative Arts in Cairo under the English painter and decorator William Arnold Stewart (1882-1953). After graduating in 1927, he worked with the Mission of the University of Pennsylvania as registrar for archaeological excavations in Palestine.
In 1928, he received a scholarship to study in Rome, where he first took classes at the Scuola Libera del Disegno del Nudo before enrolling in the sculpture department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. After receiving his diploma in 1932, he travelled to Florence to specialise in decorative sculpture at the Regio Instituto d'Arte.
The following year, he returned to Egypt where he was appointed professor of sculpture at the School of Applied Arts in Giza (former School of Decorative Arts).
Osman was one of the most prominent Egyptian sculptors of his generation. While his early work shows the characteristics of Italian classicism, towards the end of the 1930s he started making a series of bronzes representing busts of Egyptian peasant women showing a realism all his own. They embody the simplicity and joy of rural life.
Osman was also a talented painter who produced male and female nudes and portraits, genres he mastered while studying at the Scuola Libera del Disegno del Nudo. In his drawings, Osman reflects his background as a sculptor by applying clear lines and shades on sculptural volumes.
In 1937, Osman was named director of the sculpture section of the School of Fine Arts in Cairo. The same year, he participated in the decoration of the Egyptian Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques appliqués à la Vie moderne in Paris, headed by the Egyptian politician and collector Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil (1877-1953). In 1938, he exhibited at the 15th Venice Biennial, where Egypt was represented for the first time, together with artists Mohamed Nagui and Mahmoud Said. Osman left his position at the School of Fine Arts in Cairo in 1957 to establish the Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria of which he became the first dean.
In addition to being an artist and a teacher, he was involved in safeguarding Egyptian heritage. In 1954, he participated in the relocation of the colossal statue of Ramses II from Mit Rahina (Memphis) to Bab Al-Hadid Square in front of the Cairo railway station. He also participated in UNESCO’s Nubian campaign from 1959, developing techniques for cutting and reassembling the stone blocks of the Temple of Abu Simbel.
Osman also specialized in ornamental sculptures and was commissioned to decorate several public buildings. In 1936, together with his colleague the sculptor Mansour Farag, he created the reliefs to decorate the entrance of the Zoological Gardens in Giza, designed by architect Mustafa Fahmy.
In 1947, he sculpted the bronze reliefs decorating the pedestal of the monument commemorating Ibrahim Pasha at Opera Square, created by French sculptor Charles Cordier (1829-1905).
During the reign of the late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Osman was commissioned to sculpt the exterior façades of the Officers Club in Zamalek and the Armed Forces Club in Heliopolis, as well as the monumental stylized bronze eagle above the entrance of the Cairo Tower in 1961.
Osman’s works are on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art in Cairo.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly