|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 February 2002
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A talent for simplicity
Head, heart and hands: a study in contrasts, tending toward equilibrium
Profile by Pascale Ghazaleh
"You might think she's talking about jewellery," says one of Suzanne El-Masri's friends, "but in fact, what she says is also a philosophy of life."
Today, Suzy knows what she wants to say, and she starts to say it immediately, curling up on a stone bench in the courtyard of Al-Khatun, the collective gallery she manages with a group of other devotees to traditional crafts and their integration into modern life. The sign outside, in a small street behind Al-Azhar, announces "Artisanat d'Art" (in French), and if there seems to be a paradox here -- well, there is none; for why do authenticity and identity limit their proponents to a single language, especially if that authenticity is limited to neither the teeth-gratingly quaint nor the stultifyingly serious? "Man jadda wajada," El-Masri says with a little smile at the cliché: Seek and ye shall find, or rather, she who does her very best shall succeed. "It's true, though," she adds, nodding and raising an eyebrow. "Nothing real is easy."
For El-Masri, this means a constant search for equilibrium, a search she believes is common to most women. Intuition is important to her, and she is especially pleased that her work involves head and heart and hands, that there is no division between work and life. Her work is hers alone. She can evolve; she is a master craftswoman, not only in the sense of the skills she has acquired, but also because she can determine the nature of her creative endeavours; the results of her work depend solely on her personal ijtihad -- a term used in Islamic jurisprudence to designate the scholar's latitude for independent interpretation, and involving the notion of effort, of striving toward a lofty goal. "You must have a desire to continue," she explains, "a love of what you are doing. This desire acts as a framework for your life, a skeleton. You can return to it, again and again -- and no one can take it away from you. Afterward, giving can become a way of finding equilibrium -- but this happens later, when you are progressing honestly and sincerely. Through this effort, you can create a sense of belonging to a community."
The value El-Masri attaches to belonging seems surprising in someone who describes herself as having been always "very self-willed." Yet she also offers "very emotional, excited by ideas" -- not to indicate reproof or satisfaction, but as traits of character, calmly stated. She was first inspired in this way by the jewellery of Siwa: heavy silver pieces, carved with energy both ancient and very modern in its minimalism, distinctive and simple. She discovered it when she was still at university, studying engineering, and was extremely sensitive to the beauty of these unique pieces. It is a grounding in the precision and discipline of engineering, combined with willingness and ability to break free of its constraints, that endow El- Masri's own work with vigour and beauty. She is fond of such dichotomies, and will not shy away from phrases that would have more self- consciously intellectual artists cringing in dismay -- she speaks naturally of Oriental feeling and Western know-how, or of the dilemma engendered by the love of tradition and the desire to be contemporary; but to her, these are only useful as polar opposites to the extent that they create an interesting and fruitful contrast.
Having immersed herself in the rigour and restraint her university degree imparted ("engineering teaches discipline; order; how to arrange your priorities; how to think analytically, to tackle a problem and to solve it"), she studied fine arts and jewellery-making in the US, also receiving a thorough exposure to modern art. Her choice of jewellery was based on an intellectual commitment -- the conviction that the product of her talent had to have a use; and her need to work with a clear purpose. She has always liked to create with somebody in mind for inspiration -- a client, or a friend, or an imaginary wearer.
Her first pieces were shaped by hands not yet accustomed to the demands of her medium, and by an overriding motivation: "When you are young," says El-Masri with an ironic sigh and an eloquent shrug, "you want to be different. That is the most important thing." The irony, however, is not dismissive so much as wryly indulgent with her younger self; for different is precisely what she is, and must continue to be in order to capture attention. "In this field, you must be creative, to have an individual imprint, if you are to create a market. Traditional crafts placed great emphasis on beauty, but they were based essentially on tradition, to which the practitioner adhered without deviating from techniques scrupulously elaborated over the years. Now, you have to innovate in order to survive. That is a positive point: it requires the constant interaction and application of both art and craft."
The craft, too, has the advantage of building character through difficulty and hard work, to which El-Masri attributes extraordinary worth. "I don't want to preach," she cautions, laughing at herself, "but whatever you do, if you work at it hard enough, becomes rewarding." And so the discipline of craftsmanship gives order to her life, imposes "real ways of working: there are specific functions, absolute restrictions -- the requirements of balance, of weight... In this context, a small piece of freedom becomes very enjoyable."
This, too, is one of the advantages of remaining in Egypt, for someone who has lived and worked in America (for ten years) and France (for three): "Notwithstanding all the difficulties, people are very happy when something good happens" -- for instance, the Jewellery Biennale, recently wrapped up after a successful run at the Gezira Arts Centre, where young jewellers were given a chance to exhibit alongside more established practitioners, like El-Masri, Azza Fahmy, Laila Nakhla and Ihsan Nada.
photos: Randa Shaath
In a field as restricted as theirs seems to be, the diversity of the markets to which these, the best known of Egypt's jewellers, appeal remains constantly astonishing. Only El-Masri's work, though, seems to exert an intellectual as well as a more visceral fascination on its fans, who can recognise each other and bond across a crowded room at the glimpse of a brooch. Part of this attraction resides in the fact that El-Masri is not just a designer and an artist, but an artisan too. The mutual admiration societies her work helps engender have often led to firm friendships, for those who appreciate El-Masri's pieces are likely to agree on other things as well. Even the faint-hearted, having bullied themselves with secret trepidation into acquiring a small, discreet pair of stud earrings (albeit inlaid with that unmistakable enamel work, in icy, bitter- sweet shades or fiercely spiced tints, always delicate, never precious), will sidle up to a more courageous comrade, whose lapel is adorned by an intricate, massive pin shaped like a blossom both yielding and carnivorous -- a thirsty, succulent flower that would have given Georgia O'Keefe pause -- to express admiration and, yes, envy. Still, it is a sisterhood, an instant circle of potential accomplices, a secret club in the shed at the bottom of the garden. And these pieces are never quite what one thought they were at first: one returns, again and again, to a necklace massive as a breastplate and lacy as foam, trying to understand why it is both striking and ethereal, and finally simply lapsing into the enjoyment of contemplation and the mindless pleasure of adornment.
But El-Masri is returning to what seems to be a pet subject: difficulty. "Now jewellery is becoming more recognised as an art form in Egypt. This is the result of hard work, long years of it, that has become tangible at last: people who have been working hard, each one alone, for the past 20 years. If you take the easy solution, though, accomplishment is superficial. Nothing comes easy, craft or art." This would seem like intolerably self-righteous moralising, but El- Masri's manner is so trouble-free, and she herself so relaxed, that it merely conveys her delight in the process, the meticulous, diligent effort, and her unconcern for the result's ultimate fate. It is working with her hands that she enjoys, and her hands show it. They are not large, but somehow manage to convey solidity, as though they had been compressed; they are square, with small, strong fingers, stained with the materials she handles. At her work bench, blowtorch in hand, she is entirely concentrated, pouring the grace and fluidity of her gestures into the piece before her. It takes shape gradually, as she coaxes the pliant, liquid silver into loose curves, sharply striated, inlaid with enamel or set with a stone chosen for its particular odd beauty. These objects could be merely decorative, were they not so close to their natural state -- as a particularly benign nature could have conceived them, of course, carelessly nestling seed pearls in copper-tinged casings, and conferring the glaze of age upon the structure before abandoning it at the foot of a spume-whipped cliff, or suspended from the branch of a baobab.
This enjoyment of the work's physical aspect is happily congruent with El-Masri's cherished principle that, while "it is a tendency of people's pleasure-seeking nature to rest, the effort of creating is essential. Overcoming a challenge, conquering difficulties: these are not just goals, but also a way of achieving goals." They are also, simply, a way of being; and so, because she never studied art, but wanted desperately to create, she read all the books she could find, and went to all the museums she could visit, eyes wide open. The interest was a living part of her; there was a purpose to her search. In the same way, it is not dissatisfaction or frustration that takes her in new directions, but rather curiosity, the feeling that it is good to explore as well as enjoyable, and the advantage of her training: solidly grounded in mathematics and geometry, steeped in tradition, and well schooled in art. "A background in art or design allows you to do different things," El-Masri concedes. The group at Al-Khatun is a case in point: interested in textiles, pottery, paper- making, calligraphy, carpentry and metalwork, its members cooperate with artisans to innovate and develop the old techniques, infusing expertise and dexterity with new ideas for function and form. El-Masri finds textiles particularly attractive; and, while she has worked with copper too, creating simple, stylised vessels lined with a silver patina, vastly different from yet entirely reminiscent of her jewellery, she also enjoys reinterpreting woven fibres. For some years, she has taken the Mu'allaqat, the great masterpieces of pre-Islamic poetry, as her inspiration, incorporating verses into swathes of rough linen or cotton to make wall hangings, curtains or lampshades. Nor does she feel that turning them to decorative use implies banalising them: "The combination of poetry and design is uplifting. A nice phrase gladdens both the eye and the heart."
Indeed, her love of fabric always accompanied her passion for silversmithery, and antique textiles continue to inspire her jewellery: the intricacy of an arabesque, the sculptural qualities of cloth fragments, the layers of rich shifting colour in antique velvets encrusted with gold or silver thread... High fashion moves her too, "because it works on trends: Chinese, Arab... The way designers fuse elements from these traditions is admirable." Fashion, though, "devours tradition, consumes it, by banalising it -- like a Picasso on a t-shirt... People should have more time to love things and stay with them." Equally abhorrent to her is the compulsion to purchase that fashion dictates: "You have to make people buy, so it's better if they don't have a mind of their own. And in their turn, people judge you by what you buy. It's enslavement."
Because jewellery is different, because it presents a discrete set of technical difficulties, fashion cannot affect it in quite the same way. Nor does El-Masri feel her work is enslaved to specific cultural dictates -- it can be worn with Western or Eastern clothes, she explains, before going on to elaborate on her classification. "Every people comes up with garments that are appropriate, although this is no longer so much the case here. We need things that are flattering and appropriate; Eastern women, when they get older, get rounder, and there's nothing we can do about it, so we need to wear things that take our bodies into account." And so, while she would never think of replicating Fatimid earrings -- the very idea is absurd; "we cannot reproduce tradition: we are different, our minds are different, the materials are different, the times are different" -- she will draw upon Islamic aesthetic traditions, remarking the richness of contrast that is a recurrent theme: "Every large surface is balanced by a very intricate motif; rough stones are inserted into flowing arabesque detail, or flat stones are combined with a prominent surface..." These are the ideas she has absorbed, that have shaped her eye and made sure her hand. "Ideas must be real, they must come naturally. Only when you digest them can they become clear. They have to come from somewhere -- it's not just a matter of abstraction, or an intellectual operation." Working at a gallery during her American sojourn, she was exposed to Japanese art, calligraphy, Zen painting, ancient feather pieces from Latin America... All these, one feels, marked a mind as impressionable and resilient as the malleable liquid silver El-Masri places beneath the flame before watching it solidify in new and living forms.
School, too, influenced her thoughts on this matter. Born in Upper Egypt, El-Masri moved all over the country with her family, coming to Cairo only as a young teenager. Notre Dame des Apôtres was "nice and disciplined; it was rewarding. Hard work was appreciated. We read French literature, beautiful books -- all the Romantics, Lamartine...; but we also received a solid mathematical training. This makes you receptive, gives you the ability to see." And this -- the capacity for seeing -- is a talent El-Masri believes everyone shares. "Good taste comes from equilibrium, honesty, goodness. The eye must be able to rest. This is true across cultures, and can be seen in a wide variety of cultural artefacts. If an object is very intricate, it becomes boring: too sweet, lacking in strength and masculinity. Movement, life, contrast: these are essential. Equilibrium creates beauty, in one way or another." Perfection, though, is unnecessary. She laughs happily. "Why should things be perfect? Let's make do with what we have. You should never be obsessed with anything." All that is required, she feels, is training: teaching the eye to see. Only in this way can we learn to simplify; "and that is the most difficult thing."
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