The Borollos International Art Symposium took place from 1 to 14 November this year, with the theme being fish, as a concept, a species, and as a symbol of Lake Borollos in the Kafr Al-Sheikh governorate around which the symposium takes place.
With mural paintings and fish carved in wood and other materials, local and international artists breathed their creativity and communal activity into their works to create a spectacular show.
“This dual modality gives the international meeting a uniqueness in the global artistic-cultural panorama,” said Fabio Massimo Caruso, an Italian artist who joined this year’s symposium.
Caruso celebrated the art of life he found in Borollos, where he painted the walls of the houses of the fisherman and created work out of wooden sculptures of fish. Talking about his use of signs, he said that “sign writing always has something to say. It’s music inside me, but it moves for everyone. It is part of an important ceremony that Egypt particularly loves.”
It was the second time that Caruso had attended the symposium organised by the Abdel-Wahab Abdel-Mohsen Foundation for Arts and Development, having earlier participated in 2019. The whole experience was amazing, he said, as he had met other artists from different parts of the world and stayed in a “celestial garden with its flowers illuminating our dreams.”
Caruso paints in stripes of black and white as if he is composing on the piano. Although his fish sculpture are challenging, he has adapted them to his own vision, story, and culture. “The influence of the symposium will go beyond the borders of the Nile. The flow of its currents will reach everywhere. Under the sun of Borollos, history wants to write new pages with us,” he said.
“As artists develop their style according to their own ideas of art, every time I come here I research the theme as I am keen to develop my style according to the idea of art I visualise in my work” he added.
As an Italian, Caruso loves the Mediterranean, and he feels that his heart and soul are very close to Egypt. “It is a fantastic country, and the urban areas here are in harmony with nature, the sky, the sea, and the local people,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The symposium was founded by artist Abdel-Wahab Abdel-Mohsen and a group of others who came together to establish the Borollos Foundation for Arts and Development in 2012. Based in Kafr Al-Sheikh, they found themselves working in an environment where strict religious beliefs were taking over the cultural scene. Kafr Al-Sheikh has also been sadly synonymous with illegal migration, with many people trying to migrate from this area.
Artists from different parts of Kafr Al-Sheikh decided to enrich the local cultural scene and development in the governorate.
“Deprived of many artistic influences, the early artists that first joined the foundation were the bravest. In the first and second rounds of the symposium, we realised how important boats and fishing are to local villagers, and we started to use these in our paintings and other works,” Abdel-Mohsen said.
Inspired by the fishermen and their traditions, the symposium worked with local people and the environment. Since the fishermen love to paint God’s blessings, religious quotations, Egyptian proverbs, and the Egyptian flag on their boats, the artists also used such wooden artefacts in their work. Pieces of the boats were stored and adapted so that they could be used by the artists
THE SYMPOSIUM: The symposium is divided into two parts, the first on the wall paintings that local fishermen and villagers paint on their houses.
The second is the design and making of wooden sculptures of fish. “When word got out of the local art scene here, many artists were inspired and joined us from different places in Egypt and from various countries across the world,” Abdel-Mohsen added.
The symposium got larger year by year until 2020 when it had to go online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the artists did not stop painting.
“Instead, we had the largest number of participants over the last two years with more than 32 artists joining us online through workshops in various parts in the world,” said Eman Ezzat, general commissioner of the symposium.
“We sent them prototype designs of the boats, and all the artists were keen to work on them, sending videos and photographs of their work. We held a parallel exhibition bringing together artists from Oman, Saudi Arabia, and India,” Ezzat said.
Today, in its ninth round, the symposium has a clear message for Egypt’s hosting the UN COP27 Climate Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh. “The COP27 is part of a perception that we have been holding tightly to in all our work since 2012,” Ezzat added.
“We are working in the environment and for the environment. We extract our materials from the environment, as we are trying to beautify and embellish our surroundings in every possible way.”
Since all the art materials the artists use are recycled, like the wood used for the fish and boat sculptures, this underlines the idea of recycling for fishermen and young people. “Instead of throwing the wood away, we reuse it for themes taken from life sources such as water, boats, plants and fish.”
“We also wanted to send a message that international artists are not only working at the Pyramids or in Sharm El-Sheikh, but they are also exhibiting in many other parts of Egypt. Though a poor area, we are planting a seed in Kafr Al-Sheikh that we would like to see grow.”
There is growing awareness of the importance of Lake Borollos, a protected area that stretches over 460 square km. It is located towards the east of the Rosetta branch of the Nile and is rich with endangered species and is the natural habitat for thousands of plants. Borollos has been declared a nature reserve to conserve its biological diversity.
While the fishermen in Borollos have been complaining that the combination of occasional silting and increased drainage water has led to the reduction of the salinity of the lake and the expansion of reed swamps, reducing fishing opportunities, the lake is also being monitored to track environmental changes and encourage ecotourism in Egypt.
The reserve status also helps in protecting natural resources, especially those of economic significance.
Lake Borollos is home to about 33 species of fish, 23 species of reptiles, 112 species of birds, and 18 species of mammals. Home to over 135 species of plants, the Lake is considered to be an important wetland for waterfowl, hosting birds like wigeons and ferruginous ducks.
The lake was renovated in 2019, and it is a great bird-watching location where many migrating wild birds can be found.
SERVING THE COMMUNITY: Art is indispensable in shaping people’s hearts and minds, and this is one of the core values of the Symposium.
Artists working at it do not draw or paint for entertainment, but instead they bring awareness of culture, identity, and meaning to their work. Affected by nature and the local people, they give back their talent and creativity to inspire the people around them.
“Things that cannot be explained with reason can be explained through art, as art helps us explain the world around us and to give meaning to it,” Ezzat said.
A decade after its first edition, the symposium has helped change the mindsets of local people in Borollos, who have become much more aware of their local area. Many young people have been working with the artists, showing off their own skills inside and outside their homes. Some students have been trying to develop and work on their own drawings, aiming to be artists themselves.
“Our aim is to develop the community through the arts. The people in Borollos are mostly fishermen, and they are affected by climate change and illegal migration. It is a very poor area. Many young men have wanted to leave the country as a result, and we are trying our best to change the cultural landscape of the area. We want art to change their mindset,” Ezzat added.
“People ask us when we are coming again after each Symposium,” said Mohamed Abdel-Hamid Al-Shal, a lecturer in sculpture at the Faculty of Specific Education at Kafr Al-Sheikh University.
As a resident of the area and one of its most prominent artists, Al-Shal can feel the impact of the symposium on the local people. “People wait impatiently for us every year, and they are aware that we are aiming to have Borollos become an international and local hub for artists,” he said.
It is the third time Al-Shal has taken part in the symposium. Even when it was online, he took part in it by posting work online. “Everybody works in the fishing industry in Borollos. They are simple people who welcome us warmly. We work with their children to teach them the value of art and how to enhance their skills and talents,” he added.
The symposium has gathered more than 180 artists since its establishment in 2012. Each comes with his or her own culture, identity, philosophy, and character, trying to represent these impulses in their work. They aim to make visible their country, their ideas of art, and their origins. Such diversity makes the symposium appealing for visitors and for more artists to come and live this unique intercultural experience.
Half-Norwegian and half-American, Katrina Vrebalovich has been following the symposium for several years. She has come to Egypt several times to hold exhibitions in different parts of the country. She took part in the symposium, where she spent ten days living with other artists and finding her own solace in the area.
“I have a great network of artists here in Egypt, and that is why the organisers knew me. I love the fact that in Egypt artists are very supportive of each other. I love the fact that professors come and visit the different art schools and there is a real sense of community in the art scene,” Vrebalovich said.
“We are the dreamers, and we are the ones who bring the positive energy and the creativity in life. It is like bringing spirit to the physical world. We put our hearts and soul into art.”
Concerning this year’s theme, Vrebalovich found it challenging as an artist to make sculptures of fish in wood. But she values the nature that has nurtured the fish and the artistic eye which has cut the wood and put so much energy and creativity into it.
She herself made four sculptures of fish. “This one was created out of the idea of when you close your eyes you start seeing colours. That’s the activity of the brain — it is like a butterfly, the feeling of both sides of the brain being activated with colours,” she said.
Vrebalovich loves working in Egypt. “Artists here love the native, the childishness in us, and they love telling stories. Each one of us when approaching the canvas has his or her own philosophy. My way goes in approaching the materials and what makes it your own signature. You can use different materials and a certain energy that comes from within,” she commented.
“Find your voice. Own it, and be free. Practise until you have won it and you find the breath to go on,” she added. This multi-cultural artist will be having an exhibition in the Luxor Art Gallery in December commemorating 100 years since the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
From Jaipur in India, Amit Harit had come all the way to attend the symposium and to join his fellow artists from different parts of the world. It was Harit’s first time in Egypt, and he was enthralled to be among the remains of the world’s oldest ancient civilisation.
“The Egyptian civilisation is very similar to the Indian civilisation in many ways. There are many different cities, but each is different and distinct from each other. The Egyptians are also quite similar to the Indians. They are kind, friendly, and very caring. They are mindful hosts,” Harit said.
Amazed by the beautiful nature of Borollos and at living among other international artists, Harit loved the wall paintings by local fishermen in the town. “I am always inspired by nature. I love trees, plants, and leaves. I put this inspiration into my own daily life. I always go to places where I can get inspired and paint as many styles of nature as I can,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.