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Volume 62, Number 5September/October 2011

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he quiet in the valley overlooking the water between Egypt’s High Dam and Aswan Dam is suddenly shattered as three cranes begin winching and heaving fourmeter-high chunks of granite up the side of a hill. Akram El Magdoub, an architect and “land artist” from Cairo, stands watching cranes and men maneuvering the stones onto a ledge. His latest project uses the natural contours of this pharaonic granite quarry to create an open-air museum, a rough-hewn showcase that will highlight half a dozen of what are now more than 200 granite sculptures that have been produced nearby at the annual Aswan International Sculpture Symposium. El Magdoub and his men have to be meticulous in positioning each sculpture. When completed, the “gallery” will stand about 15 meters (48') high, perched precariously on an outcrop.

It is a powerful, even monumental, means of emphasizing the impressive accomplishments of the still little-known symposium, now in its 16th year.

“This installation has a function because the works of other artists are going to be placed inside,” he explains. “There is some brickwork so the structure can follow the curved line of the mountain. And we are also using glass.” Windows of thick glass are supported by wooden window frames. It is part of an ambitious plan that includes a future visitor center, a shuttle to the site from the center of Aswan and high-quality art publications in an on-site bookshop.

But first, getting tons of granite onto the natural platform correctly and safely while ensuring that the site retains its rough, rather ancient feel is just one challenge facing El Magdoub’s team. The heat is intense, and the men carrying out the work stop for a cup of strong tea. They brew it in an old pot balanced over an open fire burning special twigs that they say gives the tea a unique flavor. Together, they are bringing back granite sculpture to its home: Aswan.

It is an artist, Adam Henein, who is behind this quite literally monumental undertaking. Originally from Aswan, he is now considered Egypt’s leading sculptor. He divides his time between the old quarry and an expansive open-air studio in town, where 16 artists are fashioning granite into sculpture.

Each of the 16 invited artists is given a cut block of granite that measures about three by three by two meters. What they do with it is up to them.

The symposium is always held in the winter, because that is the only time of year when the heat is bearable. It is difficult to hear what this soft-spoken man has to say in either place—such is the din from cranes, pneumatic drills, hand-held grinders and polishers, diamond cutting wheels and good, old-fashioned hammers and chisels. The air is heavy with the dust that covers everything and has to be constantly brushed away.

“What we are doing here”—Henein lowers his voice under the noise—“is continuing the tradition of sculpture in granite that started centuries ago. It is part of Egyptian heritage, but had gone so completely out of fashion that there were only a couple of competent granite sculptors left when we started this symposium 16 years ago.”

Young Egyptian sculptors, he explains, wanted to emulate the West and preferred working in easier materials. “Granite is demanding and difficult, but it is also so rewarding,” he adds. Not all of the artists at the symposium are Egyptian, however, and some come from Europe and Asia. Since its beginning with only a few sculptors in attendance, the symposium has grown to become a significant event, and it has established a new school of Egyptian sculptors.

Video by Richard Duebel

By inviting international artists, Henein says, he allows younger Egyptian sculptors to see new ideas, and the process sets up an international dialogue. To start, each artist is given a cut block approximately three by three by two meters (9 1/2' x 9 1/2' x 6 1/2'). It is these chunks of granite that they are now shaping and sanding and grinding, standing back from time to time to ensure they are creating the desired effect.

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 lateen sails of the feluccas on the nearby Nile, the artists are given technical advice and complete freedom to sculpt what they wish.

“There is a great atmosphere here,” says Beata Rostas from Hungary. She is one of three women participating this year. “It isn’t all just chipping and grinding. The most fascinating part of the symposium was the visit to ancient sites along the Nile early on in the program.” She describes with her face the amazement the foreign artists felt when seeing the Pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx for the first time. “We had to ask what we’re doing here in Egypt. Nothing we can do compares with those monuments.”

But Rostas admits that everyone is keen to leave a memorable work behind in the sculpture park. Her own bird-like structure is almost complete. Other artists suggest that what is most daunting is that the ancients consciously built for eternity.

Michael Sprogis, a Canadian living in Paris, is creating a 170-piece sculpture that combines obelisk, pyramid and Eiffel Tower. The pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and each is marked appropriately. He says that what amazes him most is how the ancients “managed to remove such huge pieces of granite. Then how did they get these massive chunks, weighing hundreds of tons, from the quarry down to the Nile?”

But younger Egyptians like Hany El Sayed, who is completely covered in granite dust, believes the strength of the pharaonic artists was that they worked in groups, and they accepted that it would be their children and grandchildren who would complete their sculptures. “It just took a very, very long time,” he says.

Nearby, two blocks of speckled black-and-pink stone are being meticulously cut with controlled strength and concentration by Yoshin Ogata, a Japanese artist now in his 60’s. He has spent nearly two days fashioning them into a drop of water that will appear to be suspended in midair in the center of a hollow. His work is about stillness and balance, and it is radically different from, say, that of Mohamed El Labban, whose energetic sculpture juxtaposes flowing lines and sharp angles. El Labban believes that the ability to create art out of granite is in the Egyptian blood. “Aswan was at the heart of the monument industry providing granite for sarcophagi, statues and obelisks,” he explains.

Indeed, it was from Aswan that came the materials used in Egypt’s best-known tourist attractions. “It was accepted that every work would be a massive undertaking,” says Nagui Farid, the symposium’s assistant director. It would take hundreds of workers their entire lives to work on a sculpture, and then it would fall to the next generation to continue.”

It was from Aswan that came the materials used in Egypt's best-known tourist attractions.

Sometimes, he explains, the granite would split, or a flaw would be uncovered, and then a huge piece would be abandoned, and the whole process would be started again. It was a labor that could end in devastating frustration.

To prove the point, El Labban takes me to a pharaonic quarry a short walk away from the sculpture park. Here, hidden among the rocks, we find lying on its side a not-quite-complete statue of Ramses II.

“This must have taken over a hundred years to get to this stage,” he says. “But look here.” He points to a long crack. “Something went wrong.”

“There was a very different mentality,” confides Henein. “We can’t expect that from the present generation. Everything is immediate for them. But for the two months of the symposium, we achieve a focus and determination that is missing in other disciplines.” The knowledge of how to work granite, he says, is spreading, and galleries in Cairo now sell recent granite works done by artists who gained their proficiency at the Aswan symposium.

Some artists attend for several years in succession. “Our Egyptian sculptors tell me that they feel a lot of connection with this sort of work,” Henein says. “I am glad that having foreign artists working alongside our Egyptian sculptors is so appreciated. A great rapport builds up during our time together.”

Shards of granite, sediment and debris cover the ground, and at the end of the month, the artists have completed their tasks—some with a great deal of support from assistants. There are different sorts of satisfaction, with some having extracted a hoped-for meaning—or an unexpected one—from this reluctant stone. No one departs without wondering if someday, far in the future, their stone may be viewed as a clue to how people lived, thought and made art in the long-ago 21st century.

Andrew F. Lawler Richard Duebel is a filmmaker, photographer and art director who has been working in North Africa and the Middle East for more than 15 years. His interests lie in culture, environment and the applied arts.
Tom Schutyser Sylvia Smith makes radio and television programs from the Arab world as well as reports from Europe and elsewhere that explore connections with North Africa and the Middle East.


This article appeared on pages 10-15 of the September/October 2011 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 2011 images.