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Carving life into granite at Aswan Int'l Sculpture Symposium

The 24th edition of the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium opened on 19 January and will close on 9 March

Soha Elsirgany , Sunday 3 Mar 2019
24th Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

This year’s round of the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium, which hosts 15 artists by the banks of the Nile for seven weeks, will conclude on 9 March.

This round featured three Egyptian artists, four international artists, and eight workshop artists, who work on smaller granite blocks for a shorter period of time.

The symposium’s selection committee includes sculptors Hany Faisal and Abdalmageed Ismail.

They selected projects from a pool of submissions, in an effort to curate a collection that will later be placed in Aswan’s Open Air Museum.

If they’re lucky, the proposed projects will be both refreshing and realistic to implement in the granite stone the artists will handle.

For Egyptian artists, the symposium is a rite of passage and a valuable addition to their CV. It is also a place where the world is brought to them, as they work side-by-side with international artists.

For viewers, the symposium is a look into the contemporary sculpture scene.

What sets this symposium apart from others is the use of granite, a valuable but challenging material to sculpt with.

Hermann Gschaider working on his piece at the 24th Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (Photo: Mousa Mahmoud)

Some of the participants are more experienced than others, some more intimidated than others, and some willing to take more risks.

Some artists went for a purely geometric design, such as Egyptian artist Taha Abdelkarim. While he is interested in mixing organic with geometric shapes, his true inspiration comes from movement, which he always tries to capture in its different forms.

He presents a very geometric piece depicting two wheels of a machine, carved into a single large horizontal rose block. One wheel is larger than the other, and they are connected with a belt that unifies their motion.

We can imagine the movement as we picture how the wheels will move together. The parts of the structure are on different layers, making the work engaging from all angles.

Abdelkarim chose the wheels as a symbol for the rigorous movement found in production factories.

In contrast, Egyptian artist Alaa Yahia presents a purely organic form, in three parts.

From the granite she sculpts curves which, despite the heaviness of the granite, look as though they are melting.

She is developing a line of work that began in a moment of compassion while observing forms in nature that are between life and death.

“It’s about unity with all forms of nature, and how we can relate to this ambiguous form, accept it, and even love it,” she tells Ahram Online.

The work is comprised of three separate pieces. Each with its own personality, one is very complex, another is very simplified, and the third is in between sharing elements from both.

They are like three sisters, when displayed together they make a family in conversation, and yet each one stands her own separately.

Another work in conversation with itself is that of Spanish artist Xavier Escala.

Escala’s interest in the human condition is apparent in his choice of figurative sculptures throughout his career.

Here he presents a tall vertical piece with a 1x1 metre square base. On each side of the square we see a figure taking one step forward, so it appears that four people are walking in the tight square.

The artist has named it “Soliloquium”, from the Latin word for soliloquy. But he says this title is just a suggestion, and the work inspires many different interpretations.

The figures could be different voices in the mind of the same person, thinking and wondering.

Another interpretation relates to the artist’s interest in time and its nature. “It can be like the cycle of life,” he says.

Xavier believes the artist can do nothing but create the work, and then he must set it free to have its own life.

“Only if you are able to put some life into the work, which is a challenge in itself,” he adds.

Sometimes this happens naturally and the soul of the artist just naturally pours into his works, as with Austrian artist Hermann Gschaider.

Gschaider’s life has always been closely tied to nature: growing up in the forests of Austria, then moving to his current countryside studio in Bulgaria.

He still keeps a home in the city, and his themes touch upon this contrast between fast city life, and the calm state of being in tune with nature.

“The human condition is my inspiration. When the human was living in nature, he was growing with it. We must make time to look around and be aware of nature’s cycles and ways,” he says.

Titled The Temple of the Time, his piece for the symposium is a surreal depiction of futuristic housing.

The multiple-piece sculpture has a large square base on top of which is a triangular structure, with gaps and protrusions.

With a bit of imagination we can see the green roofs that can fill the flat surfaces, we can hear the wind passing through tunnels where wind turbines can be placed. Gschaider imagines a future where man’s modern life is in harmony with the forces of nature.

Ahmed Nabil working on his piece at the 24th Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (Photo: Mousa Mahmoud)

Ahmed Nabil, a young artist in the symposium’s workshop, approaches the relationship of man and building in a different way.

Inspired by his monochrome photographs of Alexandria’s 1980s and 1990s architecture, Nabil captures the essence of the buildings’ geometric elements, and then reinterprets them as a figure, to make multifaceted cubist pieces.

His piece, “Tale of Contemporary Man”, is a vertical structure with two small cubes serving as windows, and one curved edge that could reference the figure incorporated within.

For granite, the design is simplified to just one block, despite his work with metal usually having more details.

“Granite is hard to work with, but the joy comes when the work is completed,” says the artist.

Other workshop artists negotiate the relationship between organic and abstract

Ola El-Toukhy, for example, combines organic and geometric, while balancing a process of simplification and complexity.

She presents a piece inspired by the natural biological forms of pollen grains, resembling bubbles layered up vertically.

This composition is then made more complex by the addition of two horizontal rectangles. The effect is a striking contrast that draws the viewer in.

While in previous years many of the symposium’s artists were influenced by ancient Egyptian sculpture, this year that influence is much less apparent.

However, artist Sally El-Sayed has come close with her piece depicting a scorpion, which the ancient Egyptians associated with Serket, a goddess of protection.

In ancient Rome, the scorpion symbol on armour was meant to strike fear into the hearts of enemies.

El-Sayed was also interested in the physical shape of the scorpion, which she finds unique. Her abstract sculpture sits low on the floor, the natural habitat of a scorpion. The emphasis is on the raised tail, the pinnacle of the scorpion’s power, as its high tip catches the eye.

While this year’s symposium has offered some good works, there were some well-worn ideas and forms, particularly among the younger workshop artists.

To be fair, many of them were still exploring the material and chose to play it safe with simple forms. Perhaps if they return to the symposium to work on a larger stone we see bolder, more interesting works from them.

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