Bright colours of blue, green, red, orange, yellow, fuchsia and purple capture the eye the minute anyone walks into the large hall of the Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development (AUEED) headquarters in Cairo at its annual exhibition.
When spectators are lured towards the enchanting colours to focus on the details, they also notice the Egyptian art displayed on canvases hung on the walls, textiles on the counter in the middle and the cushions laid out haphazardly in the corner.
Village of Akhmim
Samira Attia, the gallery curator approaches visitors with a big smile as she does rounds around the gallery introducing the art from a village called Akhmim. She talks of its long history in textile crafts and presents the impressive art pieces on display.
“Welcome to the village of Akhmim, governorate of Sohag,” Attia announces to guests with a smile.
“Textile art and crafts have long been the heritage of Upper Egypt, especially that of Akhmim, whose name dates back to Ancient Egypt,” she explains.
“The craft has been with the Akhmim women for over a thousand years and it has been our aim since the foundation was established to develop this craft and highlight Egypt's heritage identity, so we founded the Akhmim Community Centre.”
The Akhmim Community Centre produces nowl (woven textiles) inherited from Ancient Egypt and has been the trademark of Akhmim ever since. Around 133 girls and women, ageing from 20s-50s, are involved in the production, in addition to embroidered mats and spontaneous art works.
All should represent Islamic, Coptic, or Ancient Egyptian art, “nothing foreign nor modern, in order to keep the Egyptian heritage alive,” Attia confirms.
Women of the village carry out the inherited craft from one generation to another. “We don’t interfere in the designs those young girls offer,” Attia tells Ahram Online. “This is their original work; they choose the topic of their artistic canvases from the environment they are exposed to...Colour choices and arrangement come from their instinct and talent within,” she proudly comments on those Upper Egyptian young artists.
Through the number of field trips the girls go on – including their natural surroundings – girls of Akhmim draw nature and human activities with a piece of chalk on each textile canvas. Afterwards, as Attia explains, “comes the needlework of embroidered drawings of Upper Egypt and from field trips to public gardens here in Cairo, and so forth.”
Safaa Ismail is among the latest generation of weaving artisans and presented one of the most unique pieces. “Through her short trip in Balteem, she drew the Egyptian folklore dances of villagers and a horse,” Attia explains.
“This is the result of a year and half of handmade crafts that present the Egyptian tradition,” says AUEED exhibition manager
Each hall of the AUEED premises leads to another smaller one. The woodwork of another Upper Egyptian Village, Hegaza, near the governorate of Luxor is presented here.
Village of Hegaza
Hegaza, a village in Egypt, was formerly known as Al Hegaz, after what is today Saudi Arabia, or Al Hagaz, in medieval times. The village was one of the resting spots for Egyptians along the way to perform the pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam.
The Hegaza woodwork-training centre produces decorative items, kitchen equipment, games and furniture, involving around 80 young male graduates in the production.
“Large chunks of wood are cut into raa’t and bolat (several thick layers) and are left for over two years to completely dry out,” Nader explains. “Young men of Hegaza engrave and reform the whole piece of wood to produce the artistic piece and kitchenware they desire.”
“From a single chunk they make wooden jars, jugs, plates, and chessboards, etc.,” he demonstrates.
Products are left in the original colour of the wood chunk it came from, keeping its natural beauty without dyes or paint.
“The wood used to make plates and kitchenware is called Sarso’ and inherited from generations,” he gives more details.
Originally men of Hegaza used to work on woodcrafts using logs from orange trees and olive trees until the Sarso’ wood was discovered. What distinguishes the Sarso’ wood is its varied shades in each log, ranging from light beige to chocolate brown, giving each piece an artistic and harmonious choice of colours, “suiting every taste and design of the household,” reveals Nader.
In the same breath he emphasises the importance of representing core Egyptian traditions in crafts and design.
When those young men of Hegaza graduate from the Hegaza woodwork-training centre, “the AUEED grants groups of ten graduates or less the capital to start their own workshop,” he says.
“We finance the workshops, buy equipment and help distribute and market their products through something like this exhibition in addition to the recently-established Fostat Shopping Centre in Islamic Cairo,” Nader says.
Community centres in Akhmim and Hegaza are only two projects of the entire AUEED.
The proceeds of both projects go to the centres of both villages with a percentage given to artists and craftsmen of this exhibition.
Open until 17 December
65 El Obeissi Street
AUEED was established in 1940 by Father Henry Ayrout who envisioned the centre as a central point for community development. According to its 2010 report, which celebrates its 70th anniversary, the AUEED leads education and development initiatives in four main zones of Upper Egypt: Minya, Assiut, Sohag and Luxor. Through the schools and development centres, AUEED spreads its developmental services to the community as a whole, providing health, nutrition, vocational training, education, youth and women empowerment programmes.