Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Design with a pulse

A sea change of how Egyptians could be better equipped to appreciate design is underway as Gamal Nkrumah discovered at the biennale honouring creative professionals in the country

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Al-Ahram Weekly

A seasoned swimmer in stormy waters courageously turns his torso to meet the waves obliquely. And, so did the Egyptian Tourism Authority in conjunction with the Milan-based International Association of Designers (IAD) turning this particular defining moment in Egypt’s history to the glorification of its most enterprising professionals. “I hesitated to accept the invitation to visit Egypt because of the bad publicity the country has suffered in the international media. But then I thought this is precisely the most opportune moment to promote Egyptian creativity,” Onur Mustak Cobanli, founder of OMC Design Studios and Jury Coordinator of A’ Design Award and Competition told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The Manial Palace’s last brush with the cream of the crop of Egyptian designers and creative professionals was an enterprising gala night. The most magical venue by the Nile made a striking impression on the dignitaries and designers, in the broadest sense of the word, as they ranged from photographers and architects to accessories makers fashion designers. “System design famed for modelling software systems, modules and interfaces, and rapid application development producing prototypes specifically designed for a particular end-user is an integral part of the vision of IAD for emerging economies such as Egypt’s,” Cobanli extrapolated.

And, the IAD made the most of the magical staging setting for the event it convened, the first of its kind in Egypt. The atmosphere was intimate with most of the award winning designers and professionals knowing each other. It was an opportunity for old friends to meet, exchange experiences and catch up with the latest developments in their respective trades.

Award-winning architect and product designer the President of the IAD Dalia Saadani organised and presided over a most magnificent gala night last Saturday. A life-long advocate of  the ancient Master Builder approach to construction confided in Al-Ahram Weekly that Manial Palace was deliberately selected as a venue for the event precisely because Egypt’s architectural heritage was endangered as never before. Saadani’s Tahrir Square Urban Renewal vision won the Golden A’ Design award for Urban Planning and Urban Design.

The throne room of Prince Mohamed Ali Tewfik, the Manial Palace, is an architectural wonder incorporating European Art Nouveau and Rococo with Ottoman, Persian and Moorish Islamic architectural styles. And, it was a far-sighted and innovative choice of venue by the IAD. Saadani who also won the Platinum A’Design award for Street Furniture Design for her “Eye of Ra” public urban art furniture concept has an eye for detail and the minutiae of designs.

Thrown in together these architectural styles of the Manial Palace conjure up images of a gem afloat the River Nile, and couplled with Persian and traditional English Landscape gardens spiced with towering palm trees typical of Egyptian rural scenes made for an essentially festival fare.

The Manial Palace has never been glitzier. As Saadani, in comely burgundy finery, stood up to speak about design in contemporary Egypt, she did so in the knowledge that Egypt’s beau monde must be honoured. Mary Bishara, who launched seven haute couture design lines under the name BTM and Marie Louis, and one of Egypt’s most successful clothing retailers, is now aggressively expanding overseas. She is typical of the recipients of the IAD awards. Her trademark are apparel with a somewhat deceptive neatness. Besides, Bishara is active in several charities including the highly acclaimed Children Museum project.

The recipients of the IAD awards are not all haut monde. Indeed, my friend and colleague the down to earth Sherif Sonbol is one of the most professional photographers in Egypt today and yet he is virtually penniless and proud of it. His is a labour of love. Who can blame him? His photography is unique and he has tackled a wide range of subjects. “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt,” observed Susan Sontag.

Art should not be confined to an ivory tower. Many of those awarded had encountered opposition along the way. Red tape and bureaucracy is often a most distressing obstacle to artists and designers keen on marketing their ideas, designs and products. IAD award recipient Azza Fahmy who was not present in person at the Manial Palace to receive her prize started her accessories making in 1970 and she has come a long way. Founder of the first designing and handcraft development school in Egypt, Fahmy’s accessory designs were displayed at the British Museum. Her Jewellery Handcrafting 7000 years of Inspiration derived from Egypt’s artistic heritage and ranges from ancient Egypt accessories to medieval Islamic ones. Azza Fahmy’s Design Studio is Egypt’s first specialised Jewellery Institute. And, her artistic endeavours over the years have become more variable in quality.

The seeds of success were sown in perseverance and sheer hard work. And, most of the recipients of the IAD awards at Manial Palace attested to this truism. Mohamed Heggy, another IAD award recipient, testified to striving for excellence. His “Quran Through a Painter’s Vision” is a masterpiece.

So is art actually always political? One might expect a dove-like approach to the prickly topic of contemporary Egyptian politics. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has stressed that he would ensure that art and culture, integral components of soft power, are to be deployed not only in enhancing Egypt’s rich cultural heritage and boosting the economy but also as an instrument of Egyptian diplomacy.

The ugly underbelly of the largely unregulated trade in art in Egypt is a challenge that Egyptian artists and designers have had to grapple with for decades. Art is not easy to evaluate in the Egyptian context.

Egypt, like many countries in the Arab world, is experiencing major political upheavals. It is not the most agreeable atmosphere for auctions, galleries and biennales to function freely.

The late Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz construed Sonbol’s photography as “describing art through art”. Photography is one of the 105 different classifications of design by IAD. Others include architecture, interior design, furniture, fashion, accessories, jewllery, animation and entertainment.

The suggested theme for the evening is encouraging future generations of Egyptians to excel at design drawing from the country’s rich cultural heritage. Saadani, who founded the Future of Young Egyptians initiative that provides guidance and practical support to students of architecture, engineering and other fields of design, stressed the importance of planning a strategy to encourage the youth to participate creatively in Egypt’s cultural renaissance.

During her engaging introduction were some of the evening’s highlights. She told the audience that IAD aims to promote the talent and capabilities and vision of the youth to assure a better future for themselves and their country. Then with the aside that he was “not going to speak about politics,” she stressed that the domains of art and design will inevitably promote tourism, the second most important foreign currency earner in Egypt after revenues generated from the Suez Canal.

Head of the Internal Sector of Tourism at the Ministry of Tourism Magdi Selim represented his ministry and delivered an insightful address in which he explained how tourism promotion and art and design are inextricably intertwined.

Under the auspices of the Egyptian government and the Egypt Tourism Authority, a new initiative to revive the “Enchanting Egypt” project is launched by IAD President Saadani. Pakinam Atamesh, the chief coordinator and organiser of the Manial Palace event told the Weekly about the “Building of the New Egypt” project. “We need to transform the country through creativity,” she elucidated.

Significantly, Saadani, also, spoke enthusiastically about a series of projects and events designed to enhance art and culture appreciation in Egypt, and especially among the youth. Asked about the economy, Saadani sidesteps again. “Arts and architecture are universal languages that everyone understands. What we aim at is that by the promotion of design we develop key sectors of the economy. Our ultimate objective is for Egypt to prosper,” she summed up. 

The overall trend of the market for works of art is upwards in spite of the political uncertainty, or perhaps because of it. Enterprising Egyptians such as Saadani, however are optimistic about prospects for the future. That is particularly true as far as the assembled artists and designers at Manial Palace are concerned.

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