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Egyptian Women Weave Cairo’s Traditions Into Their Art

February 26, 2009 at 6:45 PM EST
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A multimedia artist, jewelry maker, and dancer from Egypt talk about their work and how they incorporate influences from their time in Cairo into their art forms. Jeffrey Brown continues his series on the Kennedy Center's Arabesque arts festival.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we continue our stories tied to “Arabesque,” the festival of Arab arts at Washington’s Kennedy Center. Jeffrey Brown traveled to Egypt recently and talked with three of the artists taking part in the festival.

JEFFREY BROWN: A jewelry maker taking from the past to create beautiful new objects.

AZZA FAHMY, jewelry maker: I love my culture, and I love jewelry, and I put everything together.

JEFFREY BROWN: A dancer struggling to find acceptance in her own country.

KARIMA MANSOUR, dancer-choreographer: I’ve been confronted with this, that, why are you as an Egyptian doing contemporary dance and not belly dance, for example?

JEFFREY BROWN: An artist winning top prize in a government-sponsored exhibition for a work that sheds a dark light on life in her city.

LARA BALADI, artist: Which is based on the slums on the outskirts of Cairo, which have no water, no electricity, have the level of quality of life is incredibly low.

JEFFREY BROWN: Three women of Cairo coming to Washington’s Kennedy Center to offer three different portraits of their vibrant, sometimes overwhelming city, a place of great wealth and acute poverty, where remarkable treasures of history can be found amid the chaos of a throbbing metropolis of 18 million people and cultural wonders sit — some in plain sight, others partially hidden — amid the noise, traffic, and polluted skies.

In a country with so many layers of culture and history, so many problems in contemporary life, and so many questions about the future, there’s a rich trove of material here for artists to work with.

Adorning jewelry with history

JEFFREY BROWN: Jewelry maker Azza Fahmy has traveled through Egypt to document the history of jewelry, including in Bedouin life, and published her research in a series of books.

So it's come a long way from the old peasant woman to this?

AZZA FAHMY: Yes, yes, yes. But, you know, we have always to keep the essence of the work. We have to keep the soul of the...

JEFFREY BROWN: The soul of the jewelry?

AZZA FAHMY: ... soul of the jewelry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, I didn't know jewelry has a soul.

AZZA FAHMY: Yes, of course. You know, a beautiful piece of jewelry talks to you, like a good painting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fahmy's is itself an ancient craft, and she learned it the old-fashioned way: nearly 40 years ago in the alleys of Cairo's famous Khan el-Khalili market, where tourists and locals still throng amid the crafts, spices and more.

Fahmy was there at a time when women designers were rare and women as bosses even more so.

AZZA FAHMY: When I started, it was unusual, because, actually, the people I was working with them in the beginning, actually, they teach me. But in two years, everything is turned, I became their boss.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they were -- were they OK?

AZZA FAHMY: They were OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: From that, her business has grown into a workshop of nearly 200 located in the suburbs of Cairo. There, a variety of traditions are preserved, including the three-tiered system of trainee, trainer, and master craftsman, who practice techniques that Fahmy says were in danger of disappearing.

Every piece handmade of gold, silver, semi-precious, and precious stones, and often adorned with calligraphy, a passage from the Koran, or a line from one of Fahmy's favorite writers, Khalil Gibran.

AZZA FAHMY: Because I like both things, Gibran words and the jewelry, so I always connect things.

JEFFREY BROWN: All aimed at commerce, yes -- and Fahmy has opened stores in Europe and wants to begin to sell in the U.S. -- but also a sense of preserving a craft and culture.

AZZA FAHMY: We take the level of craft jewelry up. So this is -- I think I help my society.

The politics of dance

JEFFREY BROWN: Karima Mansour, appearing in Washington in early March, has no ancient Egyptian traditions to work with. Hers is the art of modern dance, a Western creation of the 20th century.

In a society in which more and more women on the street wear some form of head covering and the influence of religion in daily life appears to be growing, that complicates the already-difficult life of a contemporary dancer-choreographer and inevitably gives her work a political cast.

KARIMA MANSOUR: I think there is no escape from that. Even if I don't intentionally do political work or have a political idea in my head, it is definitely -- there is this aspect, being a female artist from Egypt, not only female artist from Egypt, but busy with dance, makes the work political, whether I like it or not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mansour studied dance in London before deciding to come home to make a go of it. It hasn't been easy in a country with a two-tiered system for artists.

KARIMA MANSOUR: Being here in Egypt, you either work with the government or you're an independent artist, if we're talking about the arts, and, therefore, this means you don't exist. Why? Because being an independent artist here in Egypt means you have no official status, because all the theaters in the country are official theaters, are government-run, state-run theaters, so you can't just walk in and say, "OK, I want to perform."

JEFFREY BROWN: As a result, she does more of her performing, and receives commissions to create new work, in foreign countries. At home, she ekes by through teaching and choreographing for films and theater pieces.

KARIMA MANSOUR: Sometimes you just want to give up. But on the other hand, and in a funny way, it's what keeps you going, and it affects the work as in -- there has to be some kind of rage, wanting to do and wanting to act and wanting to change and wanting to speak and wanting to express. Being an independent artist here ignites all of these feelings.

Depictions of poverty around Cairo

JEFFREY BROWN: In her sculpture, "The Tower of Hope," Lara Baladi speaks out very directly about problems of modern Egyptian life.

So we enter "The Tower of Hope."

LARA BALADI: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The tower is a three-story brick structure intended to resemble the ramshackle, unfinished buildings that millions of the poor inhabit in and around Cairo. Baladi started her career as a photographer and for this project took more than 600 photos to document life in these impoverished areas.

LARA BALADI: I mean, it's a catastrophe what's happening. I mean, you know, it's human misery to go around these areas. And it's killing us. I mean, the garbage, the pollution, the level of people's -- you know, the way they live, the quality of their lives. I feel that I live in an apocalyptic city. You know, we've reached a point of...

JEFFREY BROWN: An apocalyptic city?

LARA BALADI: Yes. You know, I feel that we've reached a point of misery and of a kind of anarchy, of social anarchy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Inside, speakers play a mournful classical score that Baladi commissioned from a composer friend, complete with cellos and the braying of donkeys. The donkey image, in fact, is embossed on many bricks -- a negative symbol of society's dregs, Baladi says -- but, in a twist, itself suggesting the word "hope."

Do you see hope?

LARA BALADI: I think there's always hope. Otherwise, you know, there's no point staying. But, no, I feel it very strongly, and I feel that, also, when we live difficult things and when we are in difficult times of our life, we can benefit from these difficult times and find answers or transform these moments into something that reveals us something that would not be accessible in our -- you know, in our daily, routine life.

Portraying women in art

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, all of Baladi's art is aimed at provoking a re-looking and re-thinking of daily life. To illustrate further, she took us to one of Cairo's side streets and a workshop of billboard painters, whom she'd paid to paint -- in an utterly different context -- images of women she'd collected from her own photographs or from Arabic magazines.

Ultimately, these will be put together into a giant collage called "Paradise," a provocative take on the Koran's depiction of women. It's controversial stuff in a conservative society like this, but Baladi shies from being portrayed as a kind of activist.

LARA BALADI: There's a lot of weight on what artists today are expected to do, especially when you're from the Middle East, because of the political system and the political situation, et cetera. So there's a tendency to kind of come and ask for artists to become politicians, you know, in a certain way.

I don't like that, and I don't think this is a role that an artist should have. We have the possibility to open people's minds a little bit, you know, to contribute to something, to contribute to seeing things in a different way, to seeing things in a new way. And that's what I think my responsibility as an artist is.

JEFFREY BROWN: She'll now be asking Americans to see things in a new way with her piece for the "Arabesque" festival: a giant walk-in kaleidoscope which surrounds viewers with shifting images, including scenes of people going about their daily lives on the streets of Cairo.