It is challenging but it is worth the effort: give a new lease of life to traditional crafts and arts in the face of a wave of decline.
On 3 January, a diverse selection of traditional crafts from the alumni of Art Jameel will be displayed at the British Council in Cairo. The exhibition, which will last for three days, is organized by the Art Jameel Programme for Traditional Arts and Carfts (AJPTAC) – a joint effort of The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, and Egypt’s Ministry of Culture and Art Jameel Community.
AJPTAC was initiated in 2009 to serve two clear purposes: give a chance to those who have the talent but never had the chance to acquire the relevant academic training to get apprenticed; to give heritage a chance to survive the decline of traditional apprenticing as more and more master craftsmen abandonned their professions. This sad delcine has resulted from the invasive trend of Made-in-China crafts that attempt to imitate the traditional crafts of Egypt.
During the past eight years, AJPTAC has managed to deliver its message — even if only on a limited scale.
“It is quite a challenge, because what we offer is basically a two-year exhaustive training programme which could amount to a full-time job,” said Mamdouh Sakr, AJPTAC director.
In other words, AJPTAC students are selected by a professional committee upon the strict merit of their talent, irrespective of any academic background or field training, and must then all but fully dedicate their time and energy for this programme.
This, Sakr explained, often means that they cannot have serious financially rewarding full-time jobs. They must also be based in Cairo, in order to attend an intensive training schedule.
The training includes using diverse materials to produce many traditional crafts – ranging from ceramics to metal-work, and from pottery to jewelry-making.
“So while the 20-plus students actually get a full-scholarship, they mostly have to balance it with whatever profession the might have in order to actually benefit of this programme. This is often not an easy decision to make, especially with the current economic hiccups, and also in view of the fact that the local market for traditional crafts has been continuously shrinking due to the suffocating decline in tourism,” Sakr said.
So while AJPTAC is actually designed to save heritage from death, it has to live with the fact that there are more reasons why traditional arts are being challenged than not.
During the past three years, Sakr admits, so many galleries had shut down due to business problems: increasing prices of materials, declining demand for the local market, failure to adequately access the exports scene, and diminishing human resources, with more craftsmen abandoning their profession in favour of other promising avenues for money-making.
The graduates of AJPTAC themselves have not all been spared from the tough challenge facing the profession, with some putting on hold their dream of pursuing the path of traditional crafts. Others have been lucky enough to either find job opportunities overseas or to join some of the surviving large-scale and export-oriented businesses.
The wish to offer the graduates of the two-year AJPTAC diploma an opportunity to access the market has prompted the board to incorporate a business element into the training.
“We thought that if someone wants to start a small business they need to acquire the basic skills for how to run it and, in fact, how to help it survive,” Sakr said.
It was the same wish that prompted AJPTAC to start the annual tradition of having an exhibition for a selected few of the programme's alumni.
“We aim to complete the journey of traditional arts and crafts and make new masterpieces that are inspired by our artistic heritage, and which are relevant to our contemporary context."
Last year the exhibition was a success and Sakr is hoping for an equally rewarding event this year.
At the AJPTAC headquarters in the heart of Old Cairo’s Foustat neighbourhood, one student is Sally Sayyed, a woman from Nubia who decided to come and live in Cairo for two consecutive years to get apprenticed at AJPTAC.
Like other students in the second year of the programme, Sayyed had to choose a major. Hers is jewelry-making, a perfectly fitting passion for her cultural background.
Nubian women inevitably love of jewelry, and Nubian jewelry is exotic in character, said Sayyad.
With a degree in archeological studies, Sayyad is already tuned to finding inspiration in the past. And she believes it perfectly possible to harness the beauty of the past to the fashions of modernity.
“After all, this is part of what we learn to do here in this programme,” she said.
Assembling the techniques and electing the disciplines of traditional crafts is — in and of itself — about art-empowerment, according to Emad Abou-Zeid, who joined the first year of the AJPTAC.
“At the end of the programme we get a degree in a particular discipline, but it is this across-the-board practical training that we acquire here that actually helps us to pursue many avenues in art-making,” he argued.
Himself a free-lance designer of cartoons, Abou-Zeid finds that his training at AJPTAC provides inspriation, shining a light on how to incorporate tradiational themese into his drawings.
He also finds his training provides an opportunity to complement the “creation of parallel worlds, which I do with my cartoons, with the creation of a world crafts, that I might be doing with décor, or even with drawing-books that are inspired by our own heritage.”
After all, Abou-Zeid is convinced that heritage-protection is not only about sampling traditional jewelry or traditional pots, but also about making heritage more visible and thus more relevant.
Art Jameel fosters and promotes contemporary art, cultural heritage protection, and creative entrepreneurship across the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey and beyond. It is part of Community Jameel, established in 2003 to promote positive social change.
Art Jameel’s initiatives include the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art and the biennial Jameel Prize for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic traditions, both launched through a long-standing partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Art Jameel’s work in the heritage field includes the House of Traditional Arts in Jeddah and the Art Jameel Programme for Traditional Arts and Crafts in Fustat, Cairo, developed together with the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts. Additional projects include the Jeddah Sculpture Museum, a public park established in collaboration with Jeddah Municipality, and Jameel Arts Education programmes for schools and young people.
“So it is basically an attempt to provide a chance to those who wish to serve at the alter of heritage, to keep the beacon passing on,” Sakr said.
Photos courtesy of Art Jameel