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Quiet times
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 03 - 2019

This year the 45-day Aswan International Sculpture Symposium (AISS, 21 January-5 March), organised as usual by the Ministry of Culture's Cultural Development Fund, had neither a press conference to announce its opening nor a closing-ceremony show at the end (the latter cancelled in mourning for victims of the Cairo railway station fire). The quietest round in the annual event's 24-year history included 16 pieces by stone sculptors from Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Egypt who, according to AISS Commissar Hani Faisal, were actively encouraged to focus on portraiture, a rare theme in contemporary granite sculpture.
Spanish artist Xavier Escala always includes figures in his work. His symposium piece is a tall plank on top of a square base. On each side of the square a figure can be seen stepping forwards, so that the overall effect is of four people following each other. Escala calls the piece Soliloquy: “The title is just a suggestion, and it's open to many different interpretations.” The figures might represent different voices in a single person's mind, or different stages of life, but Escala feels that, once the artist manages to a “put life into the work”, he can set it free.
For German artist Nils Hansen, who completed a master craftsman apprenticeship in stone sculpture before earning a degree in digital design, the aim is “to combine digital and analogue” approaches by using visual projections and applying contemporary design techniques to “that old tradition”, a slow process for both artist and viewer. “People no longer have much patience for stone sculpture,” he says. “It has to evolve.” A marble expert, Hansen found granite challenging because, absorbing light, it obscures details. In Pressure Impact, he plays with geometric forms to show how a sphere fits into a cube.
Austrian artist Hermann Gschaider, whose grandfather was a carpenter, grew up carving wooden figurines for his siblings. As a grown-up his creative energy needed the challenge of stone: “It was so fulfilling to give form to such tough materials. Every stone is different but every piece of granite is unique.” And so it must be approached with sensitivity. His piece suggests housing from the future.
The Eyes of the Sun by Swiss artist Cinzia Susanna, whose favourite stone is granite because it is beautiful and enduring, is made up of two conical structures connected at the centre but pointing outward in opposite directions.
Egyptian artist Marwa Magdi's love affair with granite started on her encounter with ancient Egyptian sculptures on a Faculty of Arts Education field trip. She is inspired by nature, which she seeks ways to connect with, but though she had worked with marble and basalt this organic shape in motion – in which she tries to suggest the curvature and structures of nature – is her he first granite project: “It is a tough material but its power gives me power.
The Alexandrian artist Taha Abdel-Karim, who returned to AISS as a full participant after attending the workshop last year, explores the relationship between organic and geometric forms. His interest in sports is seen in the vigorous movement conveyed by his piece, which features two wheels, one larger than the other, connected by a belt that unifies their motion, while sitting horizontally on the ground.
An even younger Alexandrian, Ahmed Nabil's work is inspired by his monochrome photographs of Alexandria's architecture during the 1980s and 1990s. Entitled Tale of Contemporary Man, Nabil's piece is a vertical structure with two small cubes serving as windows on either side of it. There is a curved edge suggesting a figure within.
Zeinab Sobhy made a black granite cat squeezing itself into a box, captured at a moment when it is neither inside nor out. The cat's features are regal, leonine and geometric to suit the grandeur of granite.
Sally Al-Sayed's piece depicts a scorpion, her totem as it seems, a highly iconic creature in many cultures. But it is the scorpion's unique shape, lying on the floor as it should, that she is interested in.
Sara Qassem for her part explores abstract animalistic forms, borrowing the organic curves of a woman's body in a piece unlike any she's done before. “Granite is tough and imposes itself on the form,” she says, “so I consider myself successful when I can make it look like it is folding softly.”

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