Who didn’t dig trenches and build sandcastles at the beach when they were children? Building sand sculptures can be challenging, but it can also be a lifetime experience for both kids and adults.
“When we use a material like sand that is abundant in the environment, it is as if we are returning back to nature,” said Mohamed Ihab, a student of fine arts, who won first prize in the Alexandria Sand Sculpture Festival that took place earlier this month, itself also the first event of its kind in the Mediterranean city.
The festival took place from 6 to 10 May and was organised by the Alexandria Governorate to mark the beginning of the summer season and to attract tourists to the city’s wonderful beaches.
Ihab won first prize with his sand sculpture of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina amid the waves. “I wanted something with Alexandrian flair like the beach and the sand. That’s why I started to study the waves and how to reproduce them in sand. I added the Alexandria Library to enhance the cultural aspect,” he said.
It was the first time Ihab had made a sand sculpture or participated in a festival. He had studied on his own by watching videos, learning from tutorials, and experimenting a lot to handle the sand.
“I remember the first day I only worked with sand and water to create a big mound of sand. I started working on my sand artwork from day two,” he added.
Though it was the first time that a festival of this kind has been held in Egypt, the encouragement of those visiting was incredible. It also attracted students from other universities to take part in the experience.
“It is the first time I have seen such a lot of sand. I was surprised at first and did not know what to do,” said Omneya Raafat, 22, a fourth-year student at the Faculty of Specific Education in the Matrouh Governorate. She had made a gorilla-like design with the hands emerging up through the sand surface.
Raafat remembers joyous moments in her childhood when she used to make sandcastles on Matrouh’s long beaches. “Digging in sand is such a beautiful feeling, creating the enormous emotion of belonging to nature,” Raafat said, proudly adding that she had won third prize in the festival.
The event had provided participants from other cities with accommodation, food, and transportation and was a collaboration between the Alexandria Governorate and some of Egypt’s largest universities, such as Alexandria, Matrouh, and Damietta.
“We were allocated student lodgings in the Smouha district, and everyone was helpful and supportive of one another. We managed to create positive vibes throughout,” Raafat said. She added that she also likes working with wood and is planning to establish her own project after graduation.
The sand masterpieces created were reviewed by a panel of lecturers and artists who were keen to assist the participants throughout the festival. “We were excited to start this project here in Alexandria, especially as events of this sort have been happening in many other parts of the world. Why not to try it here, especially as Egypt has some of the finest sandy beaches in the world,” said Hossam Zaki, a lecturer in the Sculpture Department at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Alexandria University and one of the reviewers of the festival.
The experts had outlined the steps and materials required. They had inspected the beaches, reviewed the amounts of sand required, and found the workmen who would carry the sand and even install light bulbs for anyone who wanted to work at night.
Zaki was surprised at the quality of the sculptures the participants had created. “Some of the sand sculptures are really masterpieces. We can see the youthful energy and enthusiasm here, and we can imagine that it will be of use in many places across the governorates,” he said.
Sculpting in sand has to be done at speed, knowing that the material does not last and eventually even the finest sculpture will crumble. Zaki hopes to make the festival recurrent and larger and to open it to international participants.
Although the weather was unstable during the festival, this did not prevent the participants from working to complete their work on time.
“In our department, we use materials like clay, wax, stone, metal, fabric, glass, wood, plaster, rubber, and so on, but this was the first time I had ever worked with sand, a material that does not last,” Ibrahim Youssef, a third-year student at the Faculty of Fine Art, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Youssef was inspired by his city upbringing and made a sculpture of the waves and the road to the lighthouse for the festival. “As Alexandrians, the Mediterranean Sea is part of our bodies and souls. We are naturally drawn to it,” he said.
The biggest challenges for most of the participants was how to preserve their sculpture from day to day despite the unstable weather conditions that caused the sand to be inconsistent and melt away or to dry out.
They spent 12-hour days repairing what the weather or the environment had done to their sculptures.
The 13 participants came from different specialisations in three universities, and they had the chance to share experiences, exchange tools, learn from one another, and be exposed to this new kind of artwork.
Nancy Khaled, who won the second prize, decided to make a sand turtle as a 3D model. She researched a lot and drew many sketches of the turtle, drawing on her prior experience at the Aswan Sculpture Symposium. A student at the Faculty of Specific Education at Alexandria University, Khaled won second prize in the festival and had used knives to slice and cut the sand.
Many people will have gone away from the event with memories of their own childhood when they took a bucket and started to dig in the sand.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly