‘I lay observing fine plants under the warm sunshine. I see roots penetrate the surface of the earth. Small leaves rise towards the light in unlimited shapes, and small insects look like sparkling jewelry. You are in a world with its own laws, and how beautiful it is to discover some of these laws. It is a world where fiction combines with reality, and it is impossible to separate them.’
Adam Henein, excerpt from Botanical Meditations, 2013
Since that revealing moment during childhood when he lay down in a garden with his face touching the grass, Adam Henein (1929), the Arab world’s most prominent living sculptor, has never ceased observing, dissecting, and exploring Mother Nature. Seemingly eager to escape from man-made matters, a part of Henein found comfort and peace in an underground-inhabited universe that silently exists parallel to the more apparent and contrived world. Henein’s perception of reality was challenged once more. As a pupil at the Tawfiq Primary School, he was introduced to ancient Egyptian art during a history class field trip to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. ‘I went crazy as soon as I stepped in,’ recounts Henein, adding, ‘suddenly I was discovering another world, and I didn’t know if this was reality or imagination.’ The two worlds, Mother Nature and ancient Egyptian art, would shape and significantly influence Adam Henein, his art, and his prolific international career. To transcribe the secrets of the Art of the Valley, Henein chose sculpture as his primary medium. In contrast, according to Henein, “painting” would be the means to tell the story of Mother Nature and its relation with Man. But painting would also be the means to make ends meet. As a mid-career Egyptian sculptor, Henein moved to Europe ‘to learn everything about art’ in 1972. Together with his wife, Afaf, he stayed in Paris for 25 years until 1996 and produced many paintings.
Best known for his sculptural works such as Fatma (1953), Cat (1961), or the legendary Om Kolthoum (2003), one could be tempted to break down Henein’s artistic oeuvre into period themes or relevance to society. But in essence, form manifests itself as his foremost preoccupation. In a profile feature by Youssef Rakha for al-Ahram Weekly in 1999, Henein explained, ‘a life in stone is over and above everyday existence — individual and ritualistic, inexplicable, almost divine’. In a more recent interview, Henein says, ‘what I am producing now looks a lot like what I was producing then. It is an itinerary pursued along a single road, which I took, right from the outset and from which I never strayed’.
In ‘The Sweetest Haven,’ 87-year old Adam Henein returns to painting with six works fresh out of his studio in Harraniyya. Throughout his career, Henein had repeatedly reminded us of his love for Egypt with its fascinating ancient civilization and its unparalleled legacy with the abstraction (Islamic art) before it opened up to the Western art experiment starting the 18th century. However, this time, he chose to explore the use of egg-based tempera, a painting technique found on early Egyptian sarcophagi decorations and many of the still existing Fayoum mummy portraits dating as far back as the 1st century AD. True to his commitment to Modernity, Henein constructs works that are sparse and minimalist yet are striking because of the contrast between vivid and rich colors and space and perspective. With comparatively large color blocks, the work glimpses form in nature and ancient Egyptian art and produce an impressive geometric Suprematist effect to render softness and rawness simultaneously. In Samraa, Mabrouk, Le Saint-Esprit, and La Troisième Étoile, the four painted on linen canvas on wood, Henein depicts abstract human figures subtly blending with the earth and the sky as if they were one entity. At times they could suggest the life-force in nature itself. They could evoke man’s entrapment at others – in the body, in the anxious mind, and in the newly frightening modern world.
“Mother Nature” is a capricious goddess who wreaks havoc throughout the earth, but she is also the female figure behind every creation. And hence, Henein concludes with a lone reclining naked woman, El-Mahroussa (La Protégée), his most recent addition to a fascinating nude series, which he began to produce in the 1980s and which represents one of the most original bodies of work. El-mahroussa, which literally means the protected one, is commonly used to designate Egypt. It is also Egypt’s famous royal yacht built at the order of Khedive Ismail Pasha to be the first boat to cross the Suez Canal during its inauguration in 1869. Ironically, El-Mahrousa carried three Egyptian rulers to their exile abroad, namely Khedive Ismail, Khedive Abbas II, King Farouk I, and his son, Fouad II, the last ruling members of the Mohamed Ali dynasty. Henein’s fascination with boats is well known, so is his unequivocal attachment to his homeland. And yet, it seems that El Mahroussa is the first of its kind, as it directly names Egypt and depicts the V shape of the Nile flowing along the woman’s body contour. It is as though Henein seeks to make a statement. If anything, he is sending us the message that details are never interesting and that we should rather look at the bigger transcendental picture and life’s barest essentials. One of his travel sketchbooks on display at his eponymous museum reads, ‘This is a story of a black line and a red line and how they met and what happened between them.’
In ‘The Sweetest Haven,’ Adam Henein chose to exhibit with 39-year old surrealist painter Bahaa Amer. Where there is flux, Bahaa searches for continuity in that together with Henein; he has found a haven, a place of safety or refuge, in Mother Nature. More importantly, perhaps, both artists are committed to preserving ancient Egyptian heritage. In 1990, Henein led the restoration of the Giza Sphinx. Throughout the past decade and parallel to painting, Bahaa has taught the restoration and developed conservation plans for archaeological sites such as Isis Temple in Luxor and the ceiling of the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Working out of Luxor or in Harraniyya with Adam in the museum, Bahaa seeks to express the self in the face of the world, and his world resembles an animated ancient relief or a modern puppet theater. Deformed human figures, animals, and insects float on the earth or sail over a sea, interlaced into a complex web. Movement through space and time seems to occupy Bahaa as though he is waiting for an imminent departure or a return. Yet, he appears rooted as he faces obstacles to respond to the shifting tide. Different from Henein, who prioritizes form but similar in his firm reference to ancient Egyptian art and culture, Bahaa exposes the perks of being young in today’s shifting sociopolitical climate in Egypt and builds on his extensive knowledge of the fundamental myths and beliefs of his past ancestors to recount present-day problems. Migration, romance, livelihood, and the afterlife feature as elements of hope and challenges. In The Northern Night Sky, a reference to the belief that the former rulers of ancient Egypt lived in the sacred and heavenly North after their death, three figures seek to find balance as they stand on a gigantic animal that resembles the iconic medieval sculpture, She-wolf, suckling Remus and Romulus. In The Hunting Chase, a heroic act exercised by the ruler and a basic livelihood means for the people in Dynastic Egypt, the main figure, arms wide open, stands tall on a boat-like object that seems to have just crossed through a block of stone coming out of the sea. In Bird From The South, a reference to Upper Egypt, where the capital of Egypt was located during the New Kingdom, a massive crow stands on a tree with sparse leaves, staring at its prey coming out of a boat-shaped pot. The tree floats on a sea, and there is no sight of a border. Dreaming of the possibility of a better life, Bahaa mixes surrealism and abstraction and plays with soft and sharp lines to create a poetic atmosphere that eventually replaces despair with hope.
Though their aesthetic rendering of Mother Nature as a haven is in stark contrast, Henein offering abstract blocks of hope and Bahaa representing elements of the universe as an integral part of the youth’s psychological torment, both allowed the imagination to turn things upside down. Mother Nature was the starting point, the common sanctuary between both artists. But one of the most intriguing words in the scriptures is also Egypt, which served as a place of refuge in the Bible to Abraham and Jesus and was mentioned four times, more than any other, in the Quran. Egypt and Mother Nature intertwine fluidly in ‘The Sweetest Haven’ and appear as symbols of spiritual bondage. Both Adam Henein and Bahaa seek refuge somewhere else and invite us to think about how we understand our identity as ‘strangers’ with the ‘bigger’ world, where Egypt and Mother Nature are cemented as ‘The Sweetest of Haven.’