Egypt has lost top contemporary sculptor Adam Henein (1929 – 2020). He passed away Friday 22 May at age 91, leaving behind a rich legacy of artwork, much of which draws inspiration from Egypt’s great sculpture tradition that goes back to the time of the Pharaohs.
According to Essam Darwish, deputy-director of Adam Henein Foundation for Fine Arts, Henein had recently suffered from age-related health complications and was taken to a hospital in Cairo where he died.
Egypt honours his name
Egypt’s Minister of Culture, Ines Abdel-Dayem, mourned the great sculptor. “The Egyptian arts scene has lost a genius and unique sculptor,” she said, “a pioneer of the contemporary sculpture movement in Egypt.” She noted that at the hands of Henein, the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (AISS), known as the Aswan Symposium for short, was founded in 1996 and financed by the Ministry of Culture. The Aswan Symposium was created as an annual event with the aim of reviving the art of sculpting in hard stone, particularly granite, which is readily available in Aswan and from which came many ancient Egyptian sculptures and monuments. The symposium has gained world renown, and is today among the significant international sculpting events.
In appreciation of Henein’s life achievement and remarkable contribution to Egypt’s modern art movement, the Culture Minister decided to name an art gallery in Cairo’s Palace of Arts after him. Previously named “Ettigaah”, literally Direction, the gallery was dedicated to the work of young promising talents.
Dr Abdel-Dayem said the Ministry of Culture was preparing a retrospective exhibition of the late sculptor’s artworks once the lockdown on account of COVID-19 is lifted in Egypt.
Ancient art comes to life
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. Even though it steadily declined since the Arab Muslims conquered Egypt in the 7th century—Islam is inclined to see statues as idols—the art has seen a modern revival.
In 1908, the School of Fine Arts was established in Cairo, and has ever since 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) statue 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 (1913 – 2003), Abdel-Qader Rizq (1912–1978), Gamal al-Segeiny (1917 – 1977), Sobhy Girgis (1929 – 2013), and Adam Henein.
Luxor and Aswan … Munich and Paris
Born in 1929 into a family of metalworkers, Adam Henein made his first model—a clay figure of a pharaoh—at the age of eight. That marked the beginning of a lifelong artistic journey in which he developed his own style in sculpture and other modes of expression.
In 1949, Henein joined the sculpture department at Cairo’s School of Fine Arts, graduating in 1953. He went on to win the Luxor Prize, a two-year scholarship at a Luxor atelier on the Nile’s West Bank. Luxor’s West Bank is famous as the site of the rock-hewn tombs and mortuary temples of the pharaohs during the New Kingdom (1550 – 1070BC). There, Henein came close to Egypt’s inimitable ancient heritage, and experienced the present-day life of the people living their timeless existence near the immortal tombs. The Ministry granted him another scholarship in Upper Egypt during which he went as far south as Aswan.
Henein’s career took him to the Munich Academy in Germany in 1958 for a diploma in advanced methodology. There, he resumed his self-search for an artistic identity; sometimes sculpting, sometimes painting.
In Munich, Henein got to know the woman he would later marry, anthropologist Afaf al-Deeb, who he met in 1960 in one of his exhibitions.
Henein returned to Cairo in 1962 and stayed in the neighbourhood of the splendid medieval Sennari House in Old Cairo. In 1971 he travelled with his wife to Paris where they stayed for more than two decades and where he explored the fine arts of painting and sculpture, visiting galleries and museums, working and gaining recognition for his ancient Egyptian style and use of traditional materials.
During the period from 1989 to 1998, Henein worked with Egypt’s Ministry of Culture, leading the project to restore the Sphinx.
The outcome of Henein’s scholarship in Luxor and his life 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 there. One of these pieces was the statue “Jar Holder”, today in a museum in Dallas in the United States.
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.
Henein established the Adam Henein Foundation for Fine Arts in 2007, a non-profit foundation that aimed to serve the community by providing workshops and exhibitions for young Egyptian artists, and communication between them and international counterparts. It also documented Henein’s artistic journey throughout more than 60 years.
Egypt’s granite garden
Henein’s dream of reviving the art of sculpture on hard rock, a prominent 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 headed to his last days. 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. It has no specific theme, but acts as a door that opens wide to abstract notions of freedom such as those embodied by the sails of the feluccas on the nearby Nile. 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, making this full use of the magnificent landscape.
Adam Henein Museum
In 2014, the Adam Henein Museum opened in Cairo. The museum holds the artist’s splendid works; his sculptures mirror the glory of his deep-rooted heritage that dates back thousands of years. Even though it is heavily influenced by pharaonic sculpture, his work bears contemporary and experimental touches, creating a silent ever-live dialogue between the ancient and the modern. His work unveils secrets about adapting tools to solid materials.
The 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.
Henein’s museum is another addition to the series of Egypt’s art museums named after the pioneers of Egyptian art, such as sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar in Cairo; painters Mahmoud Said, Adham and Seif Wanly in Alexandria, and Muhammad Nagi at the Pyramids area in Giza; also the Zakariya al-Khanani glass museum in Cairo; and the Nabil Darwish ceramic museum, near the Pyramids.
Henein annual sculpture prize
In 2017, the Adam Henein Foundation established the Adam Henein Annual Sculpture Prize. The prize is given to one member of the younger generations of Egyptian sculptors, during an annually-held exhibition of the best works of young Egyptian artists.
Henein held some 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 received numerous awards for his prominent works. in 1953, he received the Art Production Award of the Ministry of Education; in 1988 he got the Grand Nile Prize at the Cairo Biennale, and the State Award of Appreciation; the First Prize Medal of Science and Art in 1998; and the Mubarak Award in 2004.
Henein’s works stand proudly in places around the world. Apart from his “Jar holder” in Dallas, a bronze bird with outstretched wings graces the entrance of al-Ahram Publishing House in central Cairo; and his statue of “Freedom” stands before the Ministry of Education in Cairo. His coloured mosaics adorn the facade of the Arts City in al-Haram, Giza.
His works have been acquired by numerous museums and institutions in Egypt and beyond.
Blessing from God
“I used to wake up and run to the windows and watch the birds for a long time,” Henein said in a documentary produced by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. “It transports you to another place, another language, another world.”
Birds, cats and dogs, all of which were popular in ancient Egyptian art, featured in Henein’s sculptures. His works were exceptional, bold and smooth, in strong geometric forms, sometimes small, sometimes monumental. He depicted people from Egypt’s working class, especially from the southern city of Aswan. In the early 2000s, he produced a large statue of Egypt’s iconic diva Umm Kulthoum (1898- 1975).
“Art is a major blessing from God to humans,” he said in the documentary. “It educates persons and changes them, their sentiments and ideas.”
For an interview with Adam Henein, readers may visit a 2013 talk with him by Watani’s Mervat Ayad, under the title: “Conversing with stone”.
26 May 2020