Fifty years ago, the Cairo-based jeweler Azza Fahmy ventured as an apprentice in the male-dominated workshops of the Khan El-Khalili, learning about the centuries-old craft of making jewelry.
She then started her own workshop with a handful of persons, aiming to tell stories of heritage and culture through her creations, before starting her own line and eventually becoming the most famous Egyptian jewelry designer. The rest is history.
Now Azza Fahmy is acclaimed worldwide, not only for her designs that rely profoundly on research, but also for sustaining the Ottoman craftsmen hierarchy. Craftsmen were ranked according to their work and experience into three categories — Master (osta), the handyman (snaiei), and young workers (sabi) — so skills are preserved and passed on.
Ahram Online talked with Fahmy about her latest collection that drew inspiration from Africa.
Ahram Online (AO): Why Africa now?
Azza Fahmy (AF): I have always been fascinated with Africa. It's embedded in my being because my father is half Sudanese.
(AO): What is different from prior collections?
(AF): When we thought about the designs, we didn’t copy the exact patterns of traditional African pieces, but rather the spirit of the art,
For example, the way they painted their bodies in Ethiopia to celebrate marriage is manifested in motifs on earrings. Fringes, body beads, body ornaments, the textiles, the geometric motifs — all very different and very inspiring.
We mirrored the beauty of the Bassari arts, whose masks are worn for protective reasons and for maintaining social order. And the Fulani tribes, for instance, were magical with their famous ornamentations, which celebrate size and use it to display wealth.
It's Africa, so everything is bolder and bigger, and very colourful.
(AO): The research in your Pharonic collection lasted for eight years. Tell us more about the case this time.
(AF): I visited Uganda and Ethiopia almost five years ago, and it had haunted me since. I said my next collection would be based on Black Africa, and I have been collecting books ever since.
Research is a top priority at our establishment: not a flaw is accepted. In this collection, for instance, not less than three to four years of deep study was conducted.
(AO): Do you think that African culture and art has been not given the attention they deserve previously by Arab artists? Why?
(AF): Worldwide, Picasso drew lots of inspiration from African masks for instance, and some other artists also were inspired in their art by this rich culture. But indeed we haven't given this continent its well-deserved attention and tribute.
(AO): How do you think people in the Egypt and the region will receive the collection?
(AF): I really hope it's well received. We did our homework really well, and I really feel good about having responded to my inner urge of celebrating the art and culture of this magical continent.