ADAM HENEIN: A SCULPTOR WHO NEVER DOUBTED WHERE HIS ROOTS LAY
DIED FRIDAY 22ND MAY 2020
Obituary published in The Art Newspaper
The Egyptian artist and the Arab world’ s most important and ground-breaking sculptor, Adam Henein, who just died at the age of 91 in Cairo, knew from a very early age the certainty of his destiny as a sculptor, from which nothing had distracted him.
He was born on the 31st March 1929, into a Coptic family, of gold metalworkers originally from Asyut. His primary education mixed Koranic school and Sunday church visits. As a teen he loved accompanying his father to the Jewish district of Cairo where his family had a shop, watching the craftsmen working. Then a school visit to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum and the powerful impression he experienced during his visits made the aesthetic values which he discovered became his touchstone.
After meeting his future wife Afaf El Dib in 1961, he converted to Islam, in order to be able to marry her two years later in Aswan, and from then onwards his name, Samuel Henein, changed to Adam Henein.
Henein graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts of Cairo in 1953, but the uniqueness of his talent and take on art was already recognised, for not only he had exhibited in 1950 at the Museum of Modern Art of Cairo and won in 1954 the Luxor Prize for sculptor, but started exhibiting from mid and late 1950s, in foreign cultural centres in Alexandria and Cairo, and Egyptian cultural centres in Europe, then the few available outlets. Italy was more exceptional, because of its special relationship with King Farouk, where Egypt remains even today the only Arab country with a permanent Pavillion in Venice, where he exhibited in 1960.
By the late 1950s Henein left Egypt to further his studies in Germany where he had his first European solo show in 1959 in Munich. But In the early 1960s he lived mostly between Luxor and Aswan, in search of materials that inspired and ‘talked’ to him, mainly stones, materials that built Pharaonic Egypt’s monuments and sculptors, granites which were to embody his sculptures.
Henein’s use of ancient traditional materials and emphasis on ancient pharaonic modern forms, combined abstraction with fine craftsmanship and rich materials. In Egypt the writer and founder of Al Ahram publications, Hassanein Heikal and Tewfiq al Hakim, after a group show at the Museum of Modern Art of Cairo in 1959, will back Henein and in 1965 their foundation acquires his monumental granite ‘Dynastic Bird’ for their new headquarters: this enabled Henein to purchase a property within eyeshot of the pyramids. With the help of his friend, the architect Ramses Wissa Wassef, with whom he shared similar aesthetics that ‘one cannot separate beauty from utility, the form from the material, and the work from its function’ he built first a home in 1969, and later in 2014 added an annexe for a museum to house his works.
In 1971 Henein travelled to Paris to participate in the exhibition “50 Years of Egyptian Contemporary Art” at Musee Galliera, with the intention to stay only a year. The overwhelming mass of art that assailed him forced him to find how to cope, without straying from his deep roots. He stayed in Paris with his wife for another 25 years, producing there mainly his wonderful natural pigment colouring on papyrus, another material that is produced along the banks of the Nile River. He also skilfully continued to work with various materials, including bronze, wood, clay, iron and slate.
In Paris, he met the Iraqi gallerist Waddah Faris, who had just moved his gallery from Beirut to Paris and by the 1980 gathered some of the best Arab artists in his gallery. Henein exhibited his bronze sculptures and papyrus paintings almost on yearly basis during the 1980s with Faris, who was a businessman with many connections in the Gulf. It was in this gallery, in 1982, that I first discovered Henein’s work.
During the oil boom of the 1970s, when the region started collecting Art by International and regional artists, galleries in Kuwait (Sultan gallery) and Morocco ( LAtelier of Pauline de Mazieres, Rabat) got interested in his work. Henein’s work could be seen in the Jeddah Airport, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh, and with patrons like Princess Jawaher Al-Saud, whose Foundation, Al- Mansouriya sponsored the wonderful monograph that Skira published on Henein in 2005.
It was only in 1990, after his exhibition with ASB Gallery in Munich (1988) and subsequently in London, that I had the chance of meeting him and his wife, in his cramped studio in Paris. By then, he had been put in charge, by the then cultural Minister Farouk Hosny, of the restoration of the Great Sphinx of Giza (1989 to 1998).
But it was after he returned permanently to live in his country of birth in 1996, that some of his most important work lay ahead.
Henein, who was truly never interested in the commercial success of his work, not only managed to realize in Harraniyya, a number of unique, long-envisioned, large sculptures large sculptures in granite. He also helped to revive the art of stone sculpture in Egypt. In 1996, with the support of Farouk Hosny, he created an annual International Sculpture Symposium in Aswan, for which he received several awards. Henein and Hosny later exhibit together at the Metropolitain Museum of New York in 1999.
During this period, Henein met Karim Francis, a young musician and gallery owner, with whom he accepted to exhibit (1998) and together they established his Foundation and Museum, in its early stages, in Harraniya.
By the late 2000s, when the Gulf had become a cultural hub for Arab art, with art fairs and auction houses building its market, Francis presented Henein’s work at Dubai Art Fair, promoting his work in the newly Mathaf Museum in Doha, which commissioned the artist with large format works. In March 2006, the only retrospective of Henein’s work was shown at the Amir Taz Palace, in historic Cairo.
Adam Henein was an artist not only committed to his artwork but also to developing the cultural scene in Egypt: ‘I feel Egyptian and my work reflects that’. In 2014, Henein, who never wanted children, launched his own museum, one of Cairo’s hidden treasures, funded by himself, and generously gifted all his work to his country. Students and friends came to the museum to see, linger and feel his beautiful presence, surrounded by his art, his renditions of human and animal forms, birds, cats, horses and humans. His combination of heaviness with grace, the exquisite execution in its simplicity, and the rich history of Pharaonic Egypt that the works contained, were set in his beautiful garden, containing some of his best works- his ‘children’.
Henein ‘lived with and in old Egyptian art’. Sitting in his garden, it was a great privilege to see him there despite the chaos Cairo was witnessing. It was a haven of peace, where sometimes Francis and Georges Kazazian, a composer and oud player, will come and play for him.
Henein leaves not only a great cultural heritage, but followers who appreciate his passion, talent and generosity. For those who think he is quintessentially Egyptian, I say he is quintessentially universal, just like the Pharaonic works he extatically admired.
Rose Issa, 24th May 2020