A kid at heart
Ishaq Azmi, one of Egypt's most creative interior designers, considers his Egyptian Early Innovation Award (EEIA), which he finances, and sponsors, his most important international achievement; so much so that he regards it as equivalent to a Nobel Prize.
The annual international prize will be declared from Paris in September. Each participating country will put forward five competitors aged from five 14 years, and their drawings or paintings will express the theme "Peace and Love for all creatures of the Earth". The winner will receive 500 euros and a Golden Pyramid and will be invited to spend 15 days in Egypt sponsored by the Azmi Foundation.
Bureaucratic difficulties in Egypt have led to the declaration of the prizewinner being issued from the Azmi Foundation office in Paris under the supervision of UNESCO. This is so that all the participants' drawings will be exhibited .
"I chose to work with children in gratitude to my mentors who helped me as a child," Azmi says.
His mother died when he was less than two months old and he was brought up by his grandmother, a well-educated woman. It was when he transferred from the French Jesuit School -- which had expelled him for bad behavior -- to the Fouad Al-Awal secondary school that his drawings began to fascinate art teacher Hussein Kamal, who later on helped shape the boy's future. "I thank God that I got rid of the instructions and rules of the French school and finally had the chance to be free to practice art," he says of that early experience.
Instead of listening to the lessons in physics, chemistry and mathematics, Azmi was allowed to draw and draw all day long, with the help of Kamal who would ask permission for his talented student to learn in the art department. There, the young Azmi had a chance to see 35mm films about Modigliani; Picasso and the cubists; the impressionists; the surrealists and others. "Kamal believed that talent is more important than lessons. This is what I always tell the parents of my art students, who are very anxious about school curricula. There is no creative environment in Egypt," he laments.
To help counteract this situation, Azmi attempts to build a creative atmosphere for children at the weekend art workshops held at his Egyptian Design Centre in Heliopolis and at the Shona Summer Creative Camp, a tradition he started in 1979. In the two-hour workshops in his atelier in Heliopolis children practise the freedom of art, while the seven-day camp 20km from Alexandria offers a chance for more: it has a very busy schedule full of aerobics, swimming, etiquette and good manners, side by side with art.
On a short visit to the United States in 1978, Azmi was fascinated by what the Americans do for their children. "I felt jealous for poor Egyptian kids who have neither parents nor school to take care of their talents," he says. When he returned to Egypt he founded the Shona House, where he hosted pottery artist Magdi Eleish, who makes marvellous shapes from Aswan mud. Azmi invited the children in neighbouring houses to an art workshop. "They visited the Shona museums [there were two or three at that time -- now they are nine] and were given paper and colours. They made wonderful shapes of birds and animals with collages of various old materials. "I am very proud of the Shona kids whose work was shown at the Louvre in Paris." Among his students were Hassan and Tahra Shona, who now work for the Metro Goldwyn Meyer Studios in the US, makers of Disney film, as well as artist and psychiatrist Nesma Abdel-Aziz, counsellor of the minister of health.
Unfortunately, the camp that shaped the art and life of more than 2,000 children now runs only once a year. "I am getting tired," Azmi says. "This week I have had no sleep. I have to take care of the children who are left in my custody by their parents. I can hardly find good people to help me."
It has always been a useful thing to work with children, however: Azmi learnt how to see things through the eyes of a child. The lesson, according to him, was learnt many years ago by Picasso. ''This is why I paint this chair red, the other yellow, and so on," he says.
For his quite unique artistic experience, Azmi has been invited abroad to give lectures which have been attended by hundreds. The success of Shona House led to the establishment in 1990 of the Biennale for the African Child, later called the International Shona Biennale. This has encouraged him to continue working with children and to set up the National Museum of Children's Art in Cairo. Through the museum, Azmi founded another biennale, the International Biennale for Arab children.
In 2004 the Arab world was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and Azmi supervised the Arab World Children's Art Exhibition at the international event through which he displayed children's drawings from different Arab countries to 120,000 visitors in five days. "I wanted to say that we are not terrorists; just look how much art and culture we gave to our children," he says.
A member of the International Council of Museums, Azmi was chosen to be the supervisor of children's museums across the five continents. He sets strategies of museum education for these museums, and encourages other museums to enhance child activities. He believes we should teach history to the children through school excursions to museums. Such excursions should be part of educational programmes. Most countries have applied the idea, but it is not yet part of mainstream Egyptian policy. Model pottery replicas of authentic parts of human body that children can touch and hold should be put in museums, Azmi suggests. He recommends that workshops and dramatic performances be held in museums to teach children about Egyptian history.
For his work at UNESCO, Azmi was chosen as a national partner for the Third Arts Olympiad (2005-2008) organised by the International Child Art Foundation in the US, in which three million children from 100 countries took part. Egyptian children received 18 gold, silver and bronze medals. Azmi held a reception complete with a military band for Mohamed Amr, the child who won a gold medal, in Al-Korba, Heliopolis.
While he awaits the EEIA results in September, Azmi confesses that he hopes the winner will be Egyptian. He is fascinated by one of the drawings at his weekly workshop: a large tree where two birds, one white, the other black, are kissing each other while red hearts float from the kiss. Two cats follow suit under the tree, while two butterflies kiss on a silver garbage box alongside.