When artist Rehab El Sadek arrived in Austin after immigrating from Egypt, she found “a secret place for contemplation” at the Elisabet Ney Museum. Like El Sadek, Ney was also an immigrant. The sculptress arrived in Texas from Germany in 1872. Twenty years later Ney constructed a home and studio in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood which is now a museum.
El Sadek engages with this space with “Secret Place,” a site-specific exhibition at the Elisabet Ney Museum through July 31. The show convenes a conversation between the two Austin-based women artists, separated by time and culture yet foregrounding the internal solitude inherent to the immigrant experience they share.
The exhibition fills and expands out of the small side gallery room usually reserved for temporary exhibitions. El Sadek’s sculptures, photographs, and drawings (all unlabelled) are displayed alongside the museum’s permanent collection of Ney’s figurative sculptures and a selection of her personal effects curated by El Sadek. This integrated exhibition strategy allows visitors a sense of discovery through which unexpected parallels and juxtapositions emerge.
Within the small gallery, El Sadek’s geometrical, architectural, and material interests become clear. On the walls are panels of repurposed wood with patterns of concentric squares and others with forms of buildings against pale wood and mesh. Everything appears reused, frayed and crumbling with the effects of time. A hollow portion of a beam contains a wire figure within its negative space, forming a kind of miniature room. Other materials she employs are those used in Egypt for healing, protection, and conservation.
The cot on which Ney slept sits in the center of this gallery, but the art-filled room is more El Sadek’s than Ney’s. And El Sadek manipulates the architecture of the building itself, changing the light by covering a few of the window panes with blue and amber gels.
In the downstairs galleries, many of El Sadek’s sculptural works — made from repurposed building materials such as wood, tubing, and plaster — reactivate Ney’s space by pointing toward its original function as a studio.
But while Ney was a figurative artist, and her sculptures depict some of the powerful men of the age in Europe and in Texas (King Ludwig II, Otto von Bismark, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin), El Sadek points out in her artist statement that “her work questions existing power structures and contemplates people of all social backgrounds, especially the marginalized.”
In one section of the exhibit, the juxtaposed selection of Ney’s sculptures and El Sadek’s works are both the creamy white color of plaster. But while Ney’s sturdy-looking busts document the likenesses of famous figures and preserve their memory for posterity, El Sadek’s fragile constructions of mesh and wire, on the other hand, hint at the fragility of individual and collective memory.
Architectural forms recur throughout El Sadek’s sculptures, including towers with cone-shaped turrets and pointed arches. In tall works positioned on either side of Ney’s “Prometheus Bound,” she combines the architectural heritage of Egypt with geometric abstraction and the readymade. El Sadek’s towers stretch above the monumental sculpture, placing it in a new relationship to scale. These towers are in conversation with the building itself, an idiosyncratic limestone and wood construction of Ney’s own design with a turreted tower that houses a third-story study.
This tower room, only accessible by a thin spiral staircase, is the museum’s most hidden away. It contains only one work by El Sadek, a thin curtain with a lightly painted sketch of a domed building, but this room encapsulates the achievements of the exhibition. Looking through the curtained window and an uncovered one simultaneously, there are two views. One through a window as Ney left it, and the other with the additional layer created by El Sadek’s experience and artistic practice.
El Sadek’s work shifts and expands the sense of place at the Elisabet Ney Museum. She imbues it with a richness of shape and material inspired by her native Egypt and the simplicity and frailty of her sculptures implicitly question Ney’s monumental aesthetics. Through careful curation of Ney’s possessions, El Sadek’s establishes a kinship with Ney as a fellow immigrant woman artist in Austin. Situating her art among Ney’s, she suggests connections between their respective practices. And by connecting to the architecture of Ney’s home and studio, El Sadek reifies the museum’s precious role as a secret place for reflection.
“Secret Place,” continues through July 31 at the Elisabet Ney Museum, 304 E. 44th St. Admission is free. austintexas.gov/department/elisabet-ney-museum