Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Crafting the past

By Rania Khallaf

Asala, or authenticity, is the name of a society dedicated to preserving traditional crafts and marketing the artisans' work. Its director, plastic artist Ezzeddin Naguib, explains: "Our aim from the beginning was to protect our Islamic identity against Western artistic trends."

The society's fifth exhibition opened on 28 November, and Wikalat Al-Ghouri was teeming with visitors. Some were from the neighbourhood; the artisans' families also turned out in force.

Madiha Zaki, a housewife, came to the exhibition with her daughter Radwa, who is a student at the Faculty of Applied Arts. Madiha thinks the idea of the exhibition is wonderful. "Young artisans should be encouraged to show their work," she said; she herself encourages Radwa to participate in Asala's activities.

Nanis Ibrahim, one of the young artists whose work was on display, also appreciated the fact that "we are not restricted to themes from our heritage. We can also participate with modern work". Nanis had a fine oil painting on show. She suggested, however, that the artisanal work should draw on more varied sources of inspiration. "Why should they be restricted to Islamic motifs, when we have a vast range of African and Pharaonic ones?" she wondered.

Renowned poet Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi, known for his love of traditional crafts, was at the opening too. "I came to show my support for Ezzeddin Naguib, who has struggled for years to help artisans and preserve traditional crafts," he said.

Wikalat Al-Ghouri was built in 1504, during the era of Sultan Qansuh Al-Ghouri, the last sultan of the Mameluke era. The wikala, which currently houses the offices of the General Administration for Artistic Centres, includes 55 studios for artists and a number of small rooms used as exhibition halls. After Tharwat Okasha established the first Egyptian Ministry of Culture almost half a century ago, the wikala -- originally built as an inn offering storage and living space to travelling merchants -- was turned into a centre for artists, who, it was hoped, would form a link between modern cultural manifestations and their historical roots. Since then, Al-Ghouri has been a laboratory for creative interaction. Generations of skilled artisans have worked here. Craftsmen working here now include carpenters, coppersmiths, makers of traditional costumes, tent and tapestry-makers, gold and silversmiths and glass-blowers.

Despite the buzz of activity visitors to Asala's exhibition at Wikalat Al-Ghouri may witness, the future is not altogether bright; traditional crafts that do not adapt to commercial demand may be doomed to disappear

Artisans working in Al-Ghouri used to receive a salary from the Ministry of Culture, but little else by way of support. "These salaries were far below the income of artisans in commercial areas," noted Naguib. "Also, their work was put in storage; they didn't have the right to sell it." After Asala was established in 1994, "we began to organise local and international exhibitions. The artisans have now the right to sell their work and make a small profit," he added.

To an ordinary observer, the place is a beehive of activity. Still, if one lingers for a while, a sense of gloom seems to pervade the exhibition halls. One of the employees responsible for marketing the work shown at the exhibition said the number of visitors depends mainly on whether or not tourist groups are visiting the wikala; "it seems not many people have come to see the exhibition because of traffic problems," he added sadly. Naguib was more forthright. "We have serious problems," he said. "The society only receives raw materials from the Ministry of Culture; it does not give us any further support."

While Asala has gathered artisans from as far afield as Foua in Kafr Al-Sheikh, the centre of the carpet-weaving industry, Alexandria, Siwa, and Assiut, funds impose perennial restrictions on further growth. "We thought of establishing branches in these governorates, but we are always faced with financial problems," said Naguib. "We do not have a budget, because most of the profit we make goes to the artisans, in order to encourage them to stay in the wikala," he explained.

Naguib feels that the artisans of Islamic Cairo are in a difficult position. "They want to participate in our activities, but they have their own businesses and they know that they will earn much less if they join Asala," he said. The immediate need to make a living has therefore prevented the establishment of a strong artisans' group.

Mohamed El-Mahdi, who owns a workshop in Al-Hussein, said he had heard about Asala, but "the idea of joining it never crossed my mind. We have no time for such things". But wouldn't an artisans' organisation benefit him too? "Excuse me," he said bluntly. "I have a lot of work to do."

Selim Mukhtar, a master craftsman who trains young coppersmiths, feels that, as a member of Asala, he can help raise the standards of his craft. "Other artisans produce hundreds of identical pieces in an hour or two. We are different," he said. Mukhtar, however, can only work with five apprentices at a time. "When the master dies, his craft dies with him," he admitted.

With restoration work underway throughout the area, Asala could also lose its headquarters soon. "We will have to leave the premises when restoration work starts here," said Naguib. "The ministry has not said we can come back after the work is finished, and we have not been offered an alternative," he added.

Ahmed Nawwar, chairman of the National Centre for Plastic Arts, admits that artisans' work should receive more support from the Ministry of Culture. According to him, however, the minister has agreed to hold an international quadrenniale for traditional crafts, slated to begin next year.

Naguib harbours a more ambitious dream, however: a city of artisans in Fustat, to serve as a living museum for traditional crafts. Again, project never got off the ground because no funding is forthcoming. Naguib, however, is convinced that one day, his message will be heard.

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