Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Finding Nubian furniture

Rania Khallaf talks to a Nubian furniture designer who uses traditional Nubian motifs in her designs

Nubian furniture

As a lover of Nubian art, I could hardly believe my luck when I passed a furniture shop in Cairo recently to find amazing Nubian furniture. The shop is called “Aisha” after the designer’s mother. As I entered the gallery, located in Sheikh Zayed, one of Cairo’s modern neighbourhoods, I was welcomed by Shaimaa Bashari, a beautiful Nubian woman with a beaming smile on her face. 

Her unique Nubian-styled couches, cushions and dining furniture seized my interest. Folkloric Nubian themes are only usually used in architecture, handicrafts made of reeds and palm leaves, and intricately woven patterns available as souvenirs in the Gharb Suheil area. 

In few tourist villages adopting a Nubian theme, you may only find building domes and small coloured triangles as expressions of Nubian architecture. Furniture is a unique experience, or so I told myself as I roamed the two-level gallery. 

Born in Ismailia, Bashari graduated from the department of architecture at Alexandria University in 1999. She has always had a passion for Fatimid, Coptic and Islamic architecture. 


“Nubian art is not totally pure,” she said, explaining that it has been influenced by Ancient Egyptian, Coptic and African art. “The Nubians were the first to embrace Christianity in Egypt, and today they are very tolerant of all religions. Even after the advent of Islam, mothers still used to draw a cross on their children as a way of protecting them from risks,” she added. 

As an interior designer, Bashari noticed that there was a lack in the local furniture market of Egyptian-styled items. “In most cases, the furniture we buy is imported from Turkey or China. Nothing is original. I thought we needed furniture that reflected our own Islamic and Coptic identity,” she said.

“I started my first collection in 2011 shortly after the 25 January Revolution. Artisans had started to leave the country because of the unstable economic situation, and I wanted to do something that would bring them back. It was a time when many people wanted something new. I wanted my designs to become a trend and to encourage others to start their own labels instead of importing items from abroad,” she noted.

She started by designing items in Islamic and Coptic styles. It was only in 2014 when she was assigned to design Nubian furniture and accessories for a new Nile cruiser that she started to study everything related to Nubian life, including traditions, architecture, and lifestyles. “It took me nearly four months. I wanted to decipher the meanings behind the Nubian symbols and colours,” she said.

Nubian furniture

After completing this project, she started to produce Nubian items herself. “It was not easy. I wanted to produce a kind of conceptual art, in which the design and colour express a common concept. My first Nubian-themed item was a half-circle sofa, and it was hard to find a workshop that could produce it.”

“I love to see the original lines and circles of the wood in furniture,” she added, saying that in having her designs made it had been hard to find what she wanted. “It took me some time to find a compromise with the artisans,” she said.

The turning point in Bashari’s career was in 2015 when the National Union for Modernising Industry affiliated to the Ministry of industry embarked on a project called Creative Egypt whose first phase included handicrafts, jewellery and accessories from producers all over Egypt. A few months later, the second phase included furniture. “It was very encouraging when they invited me to participate in the project gallery in Mohandessin, which is now being relocated to Taggamou.” 

Bashari dedicated her line of products to Nubian-themed items. Taking advantage of her study of Nubian arts, motifs and architecture, she used motifs already loaded with symbolic meanings. 

She also aims to help preserve the Nubian language. Goranda, a Nubian word for feast, is the name of one of Bashari’s sofa designs, for example, symbolising happiness and reward. For the sofa she chose blue, a colour the Nubians use to paint their homes in good times. Onetti, or the moon, is the name of another collection adorned with moon shapes and circles.

Bashari has gained enough experience to make her own compositions, mixing different motifs together including zigzag lines referring to the Nile and pigeon-like birds with long legs referring to the expectation of good things. The famous three small rectangles on almost every door in Nubia mean welcome. Yellow refers to the sun, light, and goodness. 

Although her parents are purely Nubian, Bashari herself has never lived in the culture. She used to travel to Aswan every year to visit her grandparents, but it was only this year that she decided to go to the real Nubia to rediscover her roots. 

“Strolling through the narrow alleys of Nubia, I came across wonderful items: a water container called a zeer with a special stand to keep the water cold, ancient door locks, interesting compositions of bricks, and so on. It was all so amazing and inspiring,” she said. 

“The Nubians are very keen on preserving their heritage and traditions, including their crafts and songs. As a result, it was easy to find old themes that are unspoiled and untarnished,” she added. “However, I noticed that some of the themes decorating Nubian houses now have been changed or developed. This is noticeable when we compare them with pictures of old Nubia before the immigration of the past century when patterns were more complicated and larger in size,” she said. 

Nubian furniture

“The trick is how to modernise this heritage and adapt it to the needs of today’s customers who would not be interested in purchasing heritage items only for their historical value,” she noted.

She dreams of more products reaching other categories of customers. “My plan is to produce items at more affordable prices. Our heritage is so rich, so why should Egyptian customers buy only foreign styles of furniture,” she concluded. 

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