Art of origami unfolding in Egypt

Menna Taher, Tuesday 24 Apr 2012

Origami is more than just paper folding - it's a way of life and a tool for understanding the world, says Ossama Helmy, founder of the Arab Origami Centre


The boundless possibilities that a piece of paper holds to produce shapes and patterns are not imaginable to someone unfamiliar with the art of origami.

Origami, which derives from the Japanese words ori (folding) and kami (paper) began in China in the first or second century AD and reached Japan during the sixth century.

Though the art is associated with Japan, it has spread worldwide and has even reached architectural designs and fashion.

In Egypt and the Arab World, the art is still a minority interest, however, last year the Arab Origami Centre was established by Ossama 'Ozoz' Helmy.

"At first I thought that I was the only one who made origami in Egypt," he said at a lecture at the Japan Foundation in Cairo on 12 April. "However, I realised that I was wrong."

Through Facebook and YouTube, origami makers in Egypt found each other. “At first I used to make origami for the people around me,” he said, “so it was nice that I finally got to receive origami from fellow makers.

"For a very long time I endured belittlement for what I was doing," Helmy said. "When people asked me what I did they not believe that paper folding was a real job."

The Arab Origami Centre was established after Helmy toured Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen in order to spread the art throughout the region.

The centre concentrates on mixing origami with other art forms such as storytelling and theatre.

Stories of Travel, Revolution and Paper, which will take place in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and Tunisia, with the support of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, is a solo performance that mixes storytelling with origami and singing. It will be held in June or July 2012.

Another way of incorporating origami into performing arts is through a black light theatre. An example of this is Helmy's performance of The Light and the Bird, a play that will be performed in the next Toyama Festival of Children’s Performing Arts.

Helmy says that origami is a lot more than art to him, since these colourful paper-shaped figures define his life and give it meaning.

"My goal in life is not making origami. It is the other way around. Through making origami I have come to understand the world, have many experiences and meet many different people," he said.

Helmy has been an independent origami artist since 2003 and through it he has worked with several NGOs on development projects.

He has given origami workshops to street children and blind people and believes that origami is a good way to educate children.

"I don't only teach children origami, but through the workshops I use the origami as a tool to teach them different things," he said, and gave the example of one workshop when he was making origami with newspapers and let the children read different news pieces.

"Working with an NGO that teaches art to children from impoverished areas has shown me how much children lack education in Egypt," he said. "Some children couldn't differentiate between a square and a rectangle and that's why I used these terms with them and I felt it made a difference."

Another use of origami, according to Helmy, is helping people with addiction. Not only does it give the addicted people a pastime that requires patience and concentration but it also gives them more time to spend with their families.

A lecture by the psychiatrist Sherif Darwish at the Japan Foundation on 19 April discussed the usage of origami in psychiatry.

“The problem is that there are still many people who believe that origami is just a hobby and do not see its many uses,” Helmy said. “Yet the younger generation shows more enthusiasm.”

One of the biggest events that the centre has held so far is the Arab Origami Festival last October in Alexandria.

The day was filled with workshops, origami animations screenings and a black light theatre play The Light and the Bird.

Another project that the centre is planning is titled Asafir El-Thawra (The Birds of the Revolution), which will take place in five different governorates in Egypt, later this year.

This project is held in support with Naseej Foundation and the Japan Foundation and revolves around the Japanese myth that making 1000 crane origamis will achieve one's wish.

“The project is about the inner revolution. About how to start with yourself,” he said while adding that his path towards making origami was filled with small details, coincidences and hardships.

This month the Japan Foundation held a series of workshops titled Exploring the World of Origami. The final workshop will take place on Thursday 26 April and is called Origami and Education.

The Japan Foundation is located in the Cairo Centre Building at 106 Qasr El-Aini Street.

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