A Life Set in Stone

Sculptor Adam Henein, who set up the annual Aswan International Sculpture Symposium, is himself a part of Egyptian history.

Brazilian ambassador to Egypt Elim Dutra may take a well-earned rest. After 45 days of intense physical labor devoted to the completion of another granite statue in his "The Boss" series, Dutra is now waiting for the opening of the 11th edition of the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium in Egypt, slated to remain open until April 20.

Dutra is one of dozens of sculptors, architects, painters, and politicians who will attend the symposium founded and commissioned by celebrated Egyptian sculptor Adam Henein. Henein, 77, is still sculpting in stone and painting in the studio of his expansive home designed by Egyptian architect Ramses Wissa Wasef in the 1960s. (Wasef is best known for establishing and building the Harraniya Community Center in the village outside Cairo, an arts and crafts center which brought Egyptian rugs to the attention of the world and taught hundreds of Egyptian children the arts of spinning and weaving.)

Henein's life is itself a chapter in Egyptian history. He grew up in a period considered liberal in which intellectuals, such as Taha Hussein, played important roles in the Egyptian government and art was not yet enlisted to serve the nation. His father was an uneducated silversmith and Henein was first exposed to art on a field trip when he was an elementary school pupil in the Fagala neighborhood of Cairo.

In interviews with the press, Henein says he first encountered sculpture when he received the gift of an album of photographs of ancient Egyptian sculpture presented by Etienne Drioton, the last French director of the Department of Antiquities in the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo.

Henein studied art at the University of Cairo and soon became a member of the group of intellectuals and artists that faithfully supported the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser until the defeat of Egypt by Israel in 1967. Many intellectuals then turned to religion, others changed their political beliefs, and Henein decided to travel to France to study and enjoy a change of atmosphere. He intended to stay in France for a year and return to Egypt, but his stay was extended and he turned to "quick painting" for tourists to earn a living.

Only a few years later, his work appeared in important exhibitions in Europe and it was 25 years before he returned to Egypt. After Hosni Mubarak became president of Egypt, Henein accepted an invitation from his friend, Egypt's minister of culture, Farouk Hosni, to return to Cairo to participate in the restoration of the Sphinx.

Henein's critics call him a sculptor "in service of the state" - a derogatory term attached to intellectuals and artists who engage in mutually dependent relations, who maintain a close and faithful association with the government, and receive honors, money and desirable locations in which to exhibit their work.

Two tracks

In Egypt, there are two tracks of art: the government track, which provides artists with public assistance, excellent working conditions, exposure and public relations; and the private track, in which there is no public funding and artists are forced support their own activities.

The first track demands the artist be loyal or, at least, toe the official line, and exercise restraint in criticism of the state, while private artists may occasionally be exposed to a surprise visit from a government agent who confiscates work or warns the artist against further departures.

Henein is considered a member of the first group and it is thus no surprise that he was awarded the State Merit Prize for art which includes a cash prize of LE 100,000 from the coffers of Culture Minister Hosni. Hosni is an artist in his own right who occasionally employs the services of Egyptian embassies around the world to sell his own work. Henein and Hosni met when Hosni was the Egyptian cultural attache in Paris.

There is no question that Henein's association with the government permits him to achieve goals that other Egyptian artists wait many years to realize, or never fulfill. In addition to international exhibitions like that at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Texas Sculpture Garden, Henein has engaged in important activity in his own country. For example, in 1996, he established the annual Aswan International Sculpture Symposium, which presents new trends in international as well as Egyptian sculpture.

The symposium includes workshops that promote the study and analysis of modern sculpture, training in new techniques, and artist-led classes for sculpture collectors. Each guest artist receives a grant of LE 5,000 (about $700) to cover his ongoing participation in the symposium. This year, the Culture Ministry decided to erect dormitories at the site for the artists and their guests and to upgrade the open museum where all of the sculpture that has been featured in the symposium during the last decade is displayed.

In addition to organizing the symposium and serving as its curator, Henein is now exhibiting new styles of sculpture that are palpably influenced by Rodin, a great deal of abstract sculpture and paintings in a technique that combines traditional materials, like natural paints, with Nubian sandstone. The paintings were inspired by his extended stay in Paris. The classic Egyptian character, usually expressed in the sculpture of Pharaonic faces of women or long, stone figures reminiscent of mummies or women whose entire bodies are swathed, is no longer present in Henein's work. One can find these displayed in the garden of his home as artifacts from a bygone era.