Sherwet Shafei: On art and education in Egypt

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 30 Sep 2020

Shafei is an icon in the art world, but long before she dedicated her full time to curating art exhibitions and collections, she worked on introducing art, foreign languages and literacy to the public

Sherwet shafi
Sherwet shafi

Sitting by the big window of her art gallery for a better view of the paintings inside, Sherwet Shafei exclaims, "See how beautiful they are," as she shows off the latest collection by young Egyptian women artists.

Shafei is an icon in the art world, but long before she dedicated her full time to curating art exhibitions and collections, she worked on introducing art, foreign languages and literacy to the public.

Being in charge of radio programs targeting European audiences, she produced radio segments revealing the richness and diversity of Egyptian history. But the real turning point was when she joined television.

"My relationship with art started in 1960 when I first switched from broadcast to television. My boss Saad Labib asked me to produce a program on art. I told him 'but I know nothing about art,' so he said, 'I will bring great painter Salah Taher to present your program and teach you all about art'."

She then asked Taher about who could be considered the best Egyptian painter at that time, and he answered: Mahmoud Said. So they decided to pay him a visit in Alexandria.

"I took a studio van with me because unlike a video camera, we were shooting with 16mm films."

She recalled what a great honour it was to spend the whole day with such a great artist.

"I found him to be a man who insisted on inviting all of the crew, workers and drivers included, to come and sit for lunch at the same table in his home. This is the most famous painter in the Middle East," she remembers.

Although he came from an upper class background, Said was infatuated with the beauty and charm of the women of the working class. Later, one of his friends revealed Said's preparation rituals to Shafei.

"Mahmoud Said used to prepare his working class models. He used to put a flower in their hair or let them sit on a couch that matches their shawls. He used to make sure that the lighting was perfect and would close the door and look from the peep hole to see if she looks perfect, and from there he would start drawing," she reveals.

Sherwet shafi 2
Sherwet Shafei in her art gallery. Photo by Amira El-Noshokaty

In 1975, Shafei became director-general of all cultural programs on Egyptian state television, and in 1980 she became the head of Egypt's Channel 2, which was a great tool that Shafei decided to use in spreading art and education.

"I contacted the British and French embassies to provide us with English and French educational programs to be broadcast on national television as second languages for students. I also launched the first television literacy classes for the Arabic language. I was awarded a medal for great achievements by late French president Francouis Metterand."

Trying to highlight and raise awareness about the rich and diverse heritage of Egypt, Shafie produced the television documentary Men Safahat Al-Tarikh (Pages from History), which was also a great success.

"I used to get Gamal Mokhtar (who is an icon in preserving Egyptian heritage) to take me on a boat that sails up to the boarders of Sudan and would stop by all the little ancient Egyptian temples until we reached Abu Simbel, where we would stop and I would film the old temple," She remember.

Unfortunately, all of the programs she filmed on such cultural gems were never converted from 16mm tapes to video, and so were eventually lost. The speeches of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the concerts of Om Kalthoum were the only programs transferred to video at that time.

In the late 1980s, Shafei left television and focused on her passion for the arts. Being an art collector and owner of an art gallery, she reflected on her unique journey with art and Egyptian artists.

"Mahmoud Said had a great impact on me. I really did not know anything about art back then, but I decided to challenge the artists in reading their own paintings. I would ask Hamed Nada about the significance of the moon in most of his drawings and how he paints deformed yet beautiful women in his paintings."

"Abdel-Hadi Al-Gazar has lots of symbolism and all of it has folk symbolism, the crazy green or the wedding of zoliekha," she said, revealing how he would spend days in the heart of the folk areas to be able to understand the symbolism behind folk traditions.

As for Effat Nagi, her focus on folk magic gave her work a special touch.

"Her artwork is about the doll. I asked her where she got the doll, and she said from a barber in Upper Egypt. The doll had the exact face of a Fayoum portrait, which were among the first examples of Coptic art. She got it and put it on a crown of semi-precious stones and started to add authentic items to create the whole."

To Shafei, painter Ragheb Ayad comes second to Mahmoud Said in importance. After studying art abroad, he realised that what really inspires him was the ancient Egyptian drawing techniques. Ayad made a deal in 1922 with his friend Youssef Kamel to work together support each other to go study in Italy.

"However, as Ragheb Ayad was returning home by boat, he threw his Italian beret into the sea and said that 'Egypt is pharaonic, I am going to the pharaohs,' and he ran off to Upper Egypt. The influence of ancient Egyptian art on Ayad's work is a defining stroke, the cow, the peasants is drawn with one line," she explained. Ayad was also the first to paint the journey of the holy family in Egypt.

Living amid in such a rich artistic realm has never cast doubt on Shafei's belief in the artistic talents of the new generations.

"They live in a time of great changes and they take on the big canvas by breaking it down to small patterns, like little summaries," she explained.

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