The art of sculpting has been known in Egypt since predynastic times. Ancient Egyptians perfected the art, masterfully carving the hardest stone, such as diorite, granite and basalt.
The whole world has been fascinated by the creations of ancient Egyptian artists: the majestic temple pylons and columns, the commanding statues, and the slender obelisks rising to reach out to the sun god. Most international museums: the Metropolitan in New York; the Louvre in Paris; the Vatican and the British Museum all display treasures of Egypt’s heritage.
Ancient art comes to life
Since it was established in 1908, the School of Fine Arts in Cairo has turned out generation after generation of talented young artists. Among those who excelled and carved their names in the history of sculpture was Mahmoud Mukhtar (1891 – 1934) who is defined as Egypt’s foremost sculptor and whose statues grace squares in both Cairo and Alexandria. Mukhtar revived the art of ancient Egyptian sculpture after decades of decline which many attributed to the fact that statues are frowned upon in Islam, seen by Muslim fundamentalists as idols. His famous Nahdet Masr (Egypt’s Renaissance) stands majestically on the Nile bank in Giza, marking the beginning of the wide palm-lined boulevard that leads to Cairo University, Egypt’s first university founded in 1908. Egypt’s Renaissance features an Egyptian peasant woman raising one hand and looking into the horizon while the other hand rests on a rising sphinx. Following Mukhtar’s Egyptian-inspired creations came those of another talented generation that included Mahmoud Moussa, Abdel-Qader Rizq, Gamal al-Segieny, Abdel-Qader Mukhtar, Sobhy Girgis and Adam Henein.
Today Watani sheds light on Adam Henein, whose new museum opened last month in Cairo’s al-Harraniya district.
Born in 1929 into a family of metalworkers, Egyptian sculptor Adam Henein made his first model—a clay figure of Ramses II—at the age of eight. That marked the beginning of an artistic journey through the medium of sculpture, from which he developed his own style in other modes of expression.
In 1949 Henein joined the sculpture department at Cairo’s School of Fine Arts, graduating in 1953. After this he won the Luxor Prize, a two-year scholarship at a Luxor atelier on the West Bank. Luxor’s West Bank is famous as the site of the rock-hewn tombs and mortuary temples of Egypt’s ancient kings during the New Kingdom (1550 – 1070BC). There, Henein witnessed the inimitable ancient heritage of the pharaohs and experienced the details of the everyday life of the people living their timeless existence near the immortal tombs.
Following his return from Luxor, Henein enrolled as a sculptor at the Agricultural Museum in Cairo until the Ministry of Culture granted him a further four-year scholarship to Upper Egypt. In 1958 he attained a diploma in advanced methodology from the Munich Academy in Germany. Through all this time he continued with his self-searching for an artistic identity; sometimes sculpting; sometimes painting.
Once again Henein came back to Cairo in 1962 and stayed in the neighbourhood of the splendid medieval Sennari House in Old Cairo.
The outcome of his scholarship in Upper Egypt was a number of pieces carved in his own perspective that was definitely influenced by the serene environment where he had lived near Aswan. One of these pieces was the statue “Jar Holder”, which today is in the Dallas Museum in the United States.
In 1971 Henein had an opportunity to travel to Paris, where he stayed for more than two decades. There, he began to explore fine arts. In both painting and sculpture he gained recognition for his use of ancient Egyptian themes and traditional materials. He learnt about the contemporary art movement, and visited museums and art galleries. This honed his talents, especially his love of the art of sculpture. The European experience was definitely beneficial to his work, bringing him into contact with the latest trends and extending his knowledge of Egyptian, Greek and classical European art.
In a unique experiment, Henein managed to turn clay, which was brittle after being shaped, into a rugged solid material in one step by firing it in a very high heated oven.
Egypt’s granite garden
Henein’s dream of reviving the art of sculpture on hard rock, a feature of ancient Egyptian sculpture, was fulfilled in 1996, following his return from Paris, when he founded the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (AISS) which he still heads today. It was fitting for this annual event to be held in Aswan, a city that since antiquity has been famous for its granite quarries.
The Symposium, in which several countries participate, was to create a new world of vibrant splendour, prosperity and life.
The symposium has no theme. Creating anything from a decorative door that opens on hidden hinges to abstract notions of freedom embodied in winged structures that mirror the sails of the feluccas on the nearby Nile. The artists are given technical advice and complete freedom to sculpt what they wish.
There are now 200 statues of various sizes displayed on a high plateau in the flow of a waterfall overlooking the lake between Aswan and the High Dam, and thus making full use of the landscape.
Henein’s new museum in Cairo holds the artist’s creations which combine his deep Egyptian roots with his expertise of the modern art movement. His lofty sculptures reflect his love of Egypt, his homeland, and feature the glory of his deep-rooted heritage dating back thousands of years. His work is heavily influenced by pharaonic sculpture, yet bears contemporary and experimental touches. Creating a kind of silent dialogue, Henein’s work unveils secrets about adapting tools and solid materials.
The new museum opened after seven years of preparation. The three-storey building houses 4000 pieces, the fruit of more than 65 years of creativity. There are sculptures in bronze, stone, wood, clay and granite as well as paintings and drawings on paper and canvas in acrylic, watercolour, ink and charcoal. But even his work on canvas betrays the influence of the artist’s perspective as a sculptor.
Guarding the horizon
Visitors are welcomed with an open-air space displaying the larger granite sculptures “carved during successive rounds of the AISS, among which is the statue Haris al-Ufuq ” (Guard of the Horizon), which is depicted with the artist’s hand on the subject’s forehead as if forecasting the future. Also in the open-air space stands an ancient giant Egyptian boat in granite with a number of sculptures on deck; among them Fatma, a slim girl in red granite. Henein says Fatma symbolises Egypt in her beauty, kindness, tenderness—and poverty. Fatma was Henein’s first piece, completed when he was in his last year at the College of Fine Arts. On the side of the boat is inscribed the name of Henein’s late wife, Afaf. The open-air exhibition also includes donkeys, birds, doors and windows.
Henein has held about 14 solo exhibitions inside and outside Egypt: in Cairo, Alexandria, Amsterdam, London, Nantes, Paris and Rome. He has also shown in group exhibitions in Cairo, Munich, Calais, Casablanca, Dakar, Ljubljana, Naples, Sorrento and Spoleto. He has received numerous awards for his work, which has been exhibited in Egypt, the Arab world, Europe, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was awarded the State Award for the Arts in 1998 and the Mubarak Prize in 2004.
Henein’s museum is another addition to the series of Egypt’s art museums named after the pioneers of Egyptian art, such as Mahmoud Mukhtar in Cairo; Mahmoud Said, and Adham and Seif Wanly in Alexandria; Muhammad Nagi at the Pyramids area in Cairo; the Zakariya al-Khanani glass museum in Cairo; and the Nabil Darwish ceramic museum, also at the Pyramids. There is also the Shouna Museum in Alexandria, made up of three art galleries—each considered a minimised museum—that host creations by such veteran artists as Gazbiya Sirry and George Bahgoury; and sculptures by Sobhy Girgis (1929 – 2013).
2 March 2014
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