Sobhy Guirguis

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

Born in 1929, SOBHY GUIRGUIS were Egyptian sculptors, painters, musicians, and poets. He was 84-year-old. He lived and worked in Cairo until he passed away on 21 January 2013.-

Born into a family of musicians and influenced by his father, a renowned “nay” player with Om Kolthoum orchestra, Sobhy Guirguis began with music studies before switching to Fine Arts studies.

A talented lute and flute player, Guirguis’ passion for music remained an important aspect of his work. Eventually, he earned a BFA, MFA, and a Ph.D. degree from the Fine Arts Faculty in Cairo in 1958. These degrees were further complemented with a postgraduate diploma from Florence in 1964. In 1994, he was awarded the Grand Prize for sculpture at the prestigious 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 work is at once conceptual and emotional; minimalistic and complex; mature and childlike; ancient Egyptian and universal; abstract and figurative, and above all, human. His sculptural or painted shapes are a metaphor to his secluded life, an autobiography in a way, acknowledging his self and the otherness.

Although he was acknowledged during his lifetime and a one-floor museum dedicated to his sculptures in Alexandria was inaugurated in 1992, Sobhy Guirguis nevertheless remained discreet. Instead, he chose to be away from the limelight of honors and awards, opting to spend his time inquiring and producing. Until the last day, he showed an indefatigable commitment to artistic creation and broke through the circle of the Egyptian avant-garde.

It was not until the Ministry of Culture inaugurated a gigantic retrospective at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in 2007 that Sobhy Guirguis became one of the most inventive and disturbing Egyptian artists of the century. He was 78-year-old.

Isolated between his apartment and studios in the same building in popular downtown Cairo between Boulaq and Shobra, Sobhy Guirguis was probably the most truthful Egyptian artist of twentieth-century Egypt. His best works 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 from observing and understanding 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 gave Guirguis 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. His unconventional geometric abstraction of form created 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 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 a single edition, Sobhy Guirguis began with linear thin figures and then 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 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 artisans. This intimate relationship of welding, bending, blending, shaping, modeling, melting directly on the material provided Guirguis with absolute spontaneity and freedom. 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. His last works used vibrant colors and blended different materials such as tin with iron rods in a spontaneous, childlike way with scribbled writings.

The different medium complements his sculptures and broadens his exploration of the various states of feelings, bringing in a sort of balance. Using a limited palette, his women seem to outnumber men, and many of his paintings may come across as crude and unfinished. The painting came later.

Sobhy Guirguis leaves behind a rich legacy noted for its avant-gardism, modernity, and humanity. His body of work rouses certain awe by his selflessness, naivety, and indefatigable commitment to artistic creation. His emancipating humanism sought to escape from the common art of one’s time.