Critics’ Picks

Adam Henein, Standing Owl, 1961, bronze, 18 1/2 x 17 1/2 x 8 1/2".

Adam Henein, Standing Owl, 1961, bronze, 18 1/2 x 17 1/2 x 8 1/2".


Adam Henein

Sharjah Art Foundation
Al Mureijah Square, Al Shuwaiheen
September 21–December 10, 2019

Legend has it that after the eight-year-old Adam Henein visited Cairo’s Egyptian Antiquities Museum, he saw a way to transform the ancient past into art—beginning with a sculpture of the pharaoh Ramses II, which he reproduced in clay. And that this tutelage guided him henceforth, through formal study in Cairo, Luxor, and Munich, such that Henein has now spent almost a century honing an oeuvre driven by modernist abstraction, Egypt’s profoundly long art history, and the material and visual overlaps between them. Thoughtfully curated by Sheika Noora Al-Mualla, this survey of work by the artist, now ninety, reveals the poetics of a quiet monumentality, in which a bird rendered in granite can seem on the verge of darting off.

Henein came of age aesthetically in the 1960s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser’s anti-colonialist government was seeking new forms of pan-Arab cultural collectivity. In turn, the state supported cultural programs that embraced folk literature and ancient artifacts as symbols of authentic native art. Henein explores this vein in Standing Owl, 1961, a spare block of bronze made avian with just a couple of graceful dimples, and in Falling Flowers, 1976, where shapes of ocher, green, and deep red drift along a papyrus sheet (an ancient medium revived in those years). Art historians have often read Henein’s early work as derivative of antiquities, citing his move to Paris in 1971 and subsequent gallery career as the start of his mature style. But this exhibition undoes that narrative, revealing a historically informed practice that is also critical, and hence assuredly contemporary. In this sense, when the Egyptian government invited him to restore the Sphinx of Giza in 1989, it was also asking him to create a consummate example of his modernism.