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Arts

Sculptors revive ancient granite techniques in Egypt

Egyptian and European sculptors come together to revitalize ancient methods of shaping granite - while adding their own contemporary style. They hope their works will last as long as the Pyramids of Giza.

Egyptian artists Hany El Sayed covered in granite dust, carefully wields his hand grinder

Sculpting with granite is a dusty affair

The use of granite was widespread in ancient Egypt, with monuments from the Sphinx to the Pyramids of Giza being fashioned out of the extremely hard stone. Over the centuries, its use had gradually gone out of fashion among builders and architects in the North African country.

Now it is gradually being restored to its position at the heart of Egyptian culture through the reintroduction of granite sculpture into college art curriculum and the commercial sale of granite sculpture to Egyptian art collectors. Armed with pneumatic drills, hand grinders and polishers, diamond cutting wheels and hammers and chisels, Egyptian artist are creating brand new works in this most enduring of materials.

The Ministry of Culture has supported reintroducing this skill by holding an annual symposium of international artists in the southern city of Aswan. The long-term aim is to provide new works of art for an open air museum and to get young Egyptian sculptors to hone techniques that were employed by their forebears.

A completed granite sculpture in the open air museum in the quarry in Aswan

Pharaohs meet Cubism

Incorporating international influences

The sculpture park is the brainchild of leading Egyptian sculptor Adam Henein, who has invited a number of sculptors from outside the country to work alongside Egyptian artists.

"We bring sculptors from all over the world, but especially Europe, to come and share ideas with our young artists," he told Deutsche Welle. "It is interesting that the shapes and style produced by Egyptians are so radically different from the European work."

While knowledge of how to work granite was in decline, with only two really proficient Egyptian sculptors left, Henein admits that the new generation of artists working in stone has its own distinct way of working.

"It is great to see these sculptors, not merely copying what the ancients did but moving the art form on," he said.

The Egyptian approach is to take abstract shapes that are simple, and yet very complex to achieve. They represent elements of natural life that correspond to the world around them.

Leaving something behind

Influence goes both ways, though. German sculptor Roland Meyer, who has donated works, first encountered Egyptian sculpture 15 years ago on a trip to Luxor.

"I was very influenced by what I saw there," explained Meyer. "We're from the Western school with different art styles - Baroque, Rococo, Romance and others. Here it is an entirely different art form, the highest level that can be achieved."

Beate Rostas from Hungary was most fascinated by the ancient works she witnessed in Egypt.

"When we saw the Pyramids of Giza we looked at each other in amazement," she recalled. "We had to ask what we're doing. Nothing we can do compares with those monuments."

For Rostas' Egyptian counterparts, the idea of creating something as lasting as the pyramids makes up for the challenge of working with such an obstinate stone.

"We all want to leave something behind," said sculptor Nagui Farid. "Just as the burial chambers, obelisks and statues have survived from the time of the pharaohs, I want my work to speak to future generations about what is going on now."

An aerial view of the outdoor granite sculpture studio in Aswan, Egypt

Heavy machinery is necessary to transport the pieces of granite even a small distance

Exhibition opening soon

The large sculptures have been placed in a disused quarry in Aswan which will open to the public in a few years. The quarry overlooks the lake between the High Dam and the Aswan Dam; in ancient times, immense blocks of granite were floated hundreds of kilometers down the Nile River to various building sites - in itself a tremendous feat.

Nagui Farid believes that he and his fellow Egyptian artists have inherited some innate ability to shape this heavy, hard stone.

"We Egyptians can produce sculptures that will be seen by future generations as key to their understanding of our lives and beliefs," he said. "We hope our works will be viewed as a draw for tourists just as the monuments of the Pharaohs are today the bedrock of Egyptian visitor attractions."

Author: Sylvia Smith

Photos: Richard Duebel

Editor: Kate Bowen

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