Sobhy Guirguis

“My experiment gives me the feeling of individuality.” Sobhy Guirguis

Born in 1929, SOBHY GUIRGUIS was a sculptor, painter, musician, and poet who lived and worked in Cairo until he passed away on 21 January 2013. Born into a family of musicians and influenced by his father who was a renowned naie player with Om Kolthoum orchestra, Sobhy Guirguis began with music studies, before switching to fine arts. A talented lute and flute player, Guirguis’ passion for music remained an important aspect of his work. Eventually, he earned a BFA, MFA and PhD degree from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo in 1958. These degrees were further complemented with a postgraduate diploma from Florence in 1964. In 1994, he was awarded the prestigious Grand Prize for sculpture at the Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries, and the Grand Prize at the Fifth Cairo International Biennale.

As we enter the realm of one of the more perplexing artistic psyches of the 20th century in the Arab world, we soon realize how the art of Sobhy Guirguis creates a profound and intimate experience. His sculptural or painted shapes are a metaphor to his secluded life, an autobiography in a way, acknowledging his self and the otherness. His work is at once conceptual and emotional; minimalistic and complex; mature and childlike; ancient Egyptian and universal; abstract and figurative and above all, human. Though he always had supporters and noteworthy shows, his work remained largely unknown outside the tiny circles of Egyptian avant-garde art connoisseurs. His emancipating humanism sought to escape from common art of one’s time. Guirguis had long chosen to be away from the limelight of honors and awards, opting to spend his time inquiring and producing, showing an indefatigable commitment to artistic creation, which he pursued until his last day. It was not until the Ministry of Culture inaugurated a comprehensive retrospective in Horizon One Gallery at Mahmoud Khalil Museum in 2007 that he at last took his place as one of the most inventive and disturbing Egyptian artists of the century. He was 78-year-old. A decade earlier in 1992, a one-floor museum dedicated to his sculptures in Shouna, Alexandria was inaugurated, but it went almost unnoticed.

Isolated between his apartment and studios located in the same building in popular downtown Cairo between Boulaq and Shobra, yet aware of the external events surrounding him, Sobhy Guirguis was probably the most truthful Egyptian artist of the twentieth century to the child within the adult. The best works of Guirguis take you to the limit of your capacity to be moved by art.

Perhaps Guirguis’ choice of liberating himself from the constraints of fashion, success and market pressure enabled him to work entirely for himself. Passionate about his independence, he protected his seclusion to observe and understand the contradictions of life. Liberated as such, he sought to un-clutter his mind from the atrocities he warned against, such as wars, poverty, and especially the rise of street children.

Sobhy Guirguis resists traditional categorization and remains unclassifiable. Influenced by multiple sources at different stages of his life, he eventually created a distinctive identity. Early on, Coptic and ancient Egyptian art had a profound influence. As he matured, Cubism and Surrealism provided Guirguis with the freedom to explore the world with great emotional and instinctive feelings. His rejection of classical representational perspective, in favor of subjective expressionism, produced a liberating break from ‘instantaneity’ and the strict formalist norms that characterize most sculptors in Egypt. As such, his unconventional geometric abstraction of form created a modernism that claimed to tap into the universal. Abstract geometric shapes such as bulging blocks, linear figures, rectangular or cylindrical heads with delicate features and deformed bodies search for answers to the unexplainable human existence, and the dashed hopes in mankind.

The late painter, art critic and poet Ahmed Fouad Selim linked Sobhy Guirguis to a few artists such as the English sculptor Anthony Caro, the Welsh sculptor Barry Flanagan, the German painter and sculptor Penck, Italian painter Enzo Cucci and American painter Jean Michel Basquiat. Other critics compared Guirguis’ linear works with Alberto Giacometti. Nonetheless, Sobhy Guirguis resembles no one else as he crudely assembled human emotions into sculpture using neo-primitivist imagery of human figures. His art is predominantly naïve in the sense that inspiration springs directly from emotions triggered by his past growing up as a child in a family passionate about Arabic music and his altruistic eagerness to give, as a solitary and withdrawn man. Being part of this whole humanity, he felt a tremendous responsibility and was disturbed by what had become of it.

“These works (by Sobhy Guirguis) unveil an authentic genuine genius” wrote Makram Henein, critic, author and founder of Al-Ahram newspaper’s art section in 1992.

Working with bronze, iron, brass and wood in single edition, Sobhy Guirguis began with linear thin figures, and then proceeded with welding tin foils to achieve congregating bulbous forms. In his sculptures, juxtapositions, weathered and matte textures, men, women and children are somehow indistinguishable. With deformed bodies, and abnormal shape of the faces, many of his protagonists seem trapped or attempt to escape. Some are lying down, meditating or praying; others are peacefully sitting or standing as though crucified or raising their arms anticipating the final judgment. Others seem the wise voice within, acting as guides, protectors or saviors, coming to the rescue. His invented technique of directly working on the material without a clay model or a drawing, set Guirguis apart and helped him minimize the intervention of specialized craftsmen. This intimate relationship of welding, bending, blending, shaping, modeling, melting directly on the material provided Guirguis with absolute spontaneity and freedom. In his last works, he used vibrant colors and blended different materials such as tin with iron rods, in a spontaneous, childlike way with scribbled writings. It is as though he wished to return to his childhood or to indicate that after all, the answer to life is the child within us.

Painting came later, in the 1990s. They complement his sculptures and broaden his exploration of the different states of feelings, bringing in a balance. Using a limited palette, his women seem to outnumber men, and many of his paintings may come across as crude and unfinished.

Sobhy Guirguis leaves behind a rich legacy noted for its avant-gardism, modernity and humanity. His body of work rouses certain awe by virtue of his selflessness, naivety and indefatigable commitment to artistic creation.