“ Every artist has, or ought to have, a character or system of his own ; if instead of referring that to the test of nature, you judge him by your own packed notions , or arraign him at the tribunal of schools which he does not recognize – you degrade the dignity of art, and add another fool to the herd of Dilettanti “ – J.H. Fuseli
Two weeks ago this afternoon , and three days before the opening of Gamal Al Sagini’s exhibition , I was guided through the Zamalek Art Gallery by Ahmad , a beguiling and passionate gallery attendant with higher artistic sensibilities , only to emerge three hours later blinking in the dark and in total emotional disarray.
This show , which in time , will retrospectively prove to be a watershed in the history of the Zamalek Art Gallery, left me totally stirred , shaken and in awe of a giant in whose footsteps no other Egyptian artist has since been able to walk.
It turned my world inside out , at a point in my life where I found myself inadvertently walking down alleyways in the labyrinths of my mind , places that for a long time I had decided were not safe to visit ; it opened up emotions that had long been shelved and stirred the demons hidden inside all of us , demons that we consciously quieten for fear of destabilizing the comfort zone of the status quo.
Gamal Al Sagini did that , lived that , fought that and eventually succumbed to that….he paid for it with his life because even giants of this magnitude cannot override the volcanic and implosive creative torment within.
In the Autumn of 1977 , he travelled from Cairo to Barcelona for what would become his last exhibition ; there he parted with life at the untimely age of sixty at a point when his creative genius was burning like an incandescent torch and his phenomenal oeuvre was only half done.
I stand today before his son and only child , Magd Al Sagini , a highbrow artist in his own right who bears an eerie and disquieting resemblance to his father ; he is left with the legacy of his epic artistic output and the heavy and difficult task of retracing me back on his father’s footsteps.
The Zamalek Art Gallery is a beautiful artspace with high ceilings and whitewashed walls draped by the softest Egyptian northern light , the wooden floors are oak and you can glide over them silently to soak in the artwork at your own comfortable pace.
But don’t be fooled, this body of thirty-eight works is far from being eye-candy; it grabs you by the loins like a thug , ruffles up your hair , scrums up your viscera and then ….leaves you to tidy up your own emotional dishevelment .
The tempo races mercilessly from a crescendo of unmitigated political messages , tackled with total clarity and unwavering focus to a decrescendo of maternal love and adulation .
If Hofman said that “ Art is the glorification of the human spirit and as such is the cultural documentation of the time in which it is produced” then Al Sagini did just that.
No other Egyptian artist in the twentieth century encapsulated the spirit of a nation like he did. Nationally and internationally his work showed profoundly human qualities as well as politically uncompromising convictions .
Although a multidisciplinary artist – he tackled drawing , painting , mixed media , collage , ceramics , hammered copper and sculpture with equal aplomb – he would always come back to his first and true love , Sculpture…it was his passion and it was his forte.
If Sculpture by definition is the art of representation of observed and imagined objects then Al Sagini took it one step further ; everything he created with his “articulate” hands was inspired by deep sympathy and tenderness , coupled with a boundless love of humanity and an intellectual curiosity that far transcended the scope of artistic studies.
Through his sculptures and works on hammered copper he extolled the virtues and merits of great mortals , praised lavishly the creations of our greatest writers, poets , philosophers , artists , composers and yet , he exalted the struggle and rebellion of forgotten men – free-born and desperately trying to break from the shackles of deprivation imposed on them by flagrant political and social injustices.
In “The Tree Of Destiny” ( Hammered copper relief- 133 cmx75cm-1962 ) , we see the disillusioned farmer destroying the tree of injustice and its rotten fruits of discrimination , materialism , inequity and prejudice .
In “ Hiroshima “ ( Hammered copper relief-80cmx36cm-1958 ) , he graphically engraved the most scandalous and tragic catastrophy of the twentieth century . If the “ devil is in the detail” then this work leaves you shuffling around it ; you stare , you walk away , you come back on yourself again to have one more look because you must touch every crease , every wrinkle , every deformity – you are the onlooker and you feel directly implicated in this monstruous atrocity .
Sculpture is one of the oldest and most widespread of the Arts. It is also one of the most difficult , for it requires physical strength , labour , patience , concentration and determination , knowledge and complete control of the materials at hand .
“ The Great Crossing of The Suez Canal” ( Bronze- 33x127x 38cm-1973 ) marks the war of 1973 when the Egyptian army under the presidency of Anwar Al-Sadat crossed the Suez Canal and overran the Bar Lev Line in what would become known as the Yom Kippur or October 1973 War ; this opened up negotiations and eventually led to the Peace Treaty in 1978 between Egypt and Israel.
This historic event marked a turning point of disillusionment and anger in Al Sagini’s heart , in response to which he ordered his son to help him break and cast into the Nile a great bulk of his statues – an allegorical act that signified that the only thing that was truly worthy of his creations was the mighty River Nile .
On a final and no less passionate note , “ The Earth” ( Bronze-40x20x20cm ) epitomizes Al Sagini’s fervor and attachment to his Motherland , the man sitting with fists clenched holding onto the last bit of earth , the big and solid feet as if digging his roots into the ground underneath , the broad shoulders, the chiseled and serene face show unshakable determination and pride.
Al Sagini was a maker and an arduous one too, free of self-dramatization and elitism he wanted to bridge the gap between art and the onlooker , he created continuously and unreservedly with total integrity and unfaltering focus .
There are no whispering ghosts here, no hushed messages but , only , the magnanimous presence of a supremely accomplished and epic artist .
Gamal Al Sagini was born in Cairo in 1917 . He studied Sculpting at the Higher School of Fine Arts, in Cairo and later went to Paris at his own expense to pursue higher studies. In 1947, he earned a scholarship to go to Rome where he received a diploma in Sculpture and Medal Arts.
El Sagini formed the group “Sawt El Fanan” -the Artist’s Voice- many of the young artists of the time who believed in new artistic styles became members.
He introduced symbolism and expressionism to Egyptian Sculpture.
This , coupled with his great talent paved the way to earning him several prestigious awards: the Gold Medal at the 1957 International Moscow Exhibition, and the Gold Medal at the International Brussels Exhibition.
In 1958 he was awarded First Prize in the High Council for the Support of Arts and Literature Competition for the design of a sculpture of the poet Ahmad Shawky. The Statue, in Bronze stands in the Borghese Gardens in Rome; another was also erected in the Horreya Garden in Gezira Cairo.
In 1977 El Sagini traveled to Spain for a retrospective exhibit of his works organized by the Egyptian General Organization for Information.
He died on the 19th of September 1977 in Barcelona.
His work has been acquired by numerous institutions worldwide namely ,the New York Public Library, the Oriental Art Museum in Moscow, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, the Beijing Museum, and the Villa Borghese Park in Rome, Italy.