Editor’s Note: Art dealer Nadania Idriss recently returned from a trip to Egypt as part of her fieldwork for her art history doctoral studies at Freie University in Berlin. She was there just as the mass uprisings in Cairo and other Egyptian cities began to coalesce, and sent this report after her safe return to Berlin, where, in addition to her studies and gallery, she is starting up a nonprofit glass center.
Glass has a long tradition in Egypt, with Pharaohs making core-formed wares and decorating sarcophagi and tombs. The Arab dynasties refined enamelling, influencing the Venitian glassmakers in technique and style. These days, Egyptian glassware is predominately produced in traditional colors and forms and are sold in the old souks (markets), giving an impression that glassmaking in Egypt is craft kept alive by the artisans. Little is known that studio glass is also alive in Egypt. Graduates from the Applied Arts department at Helwan University in Cairo set-up studios in Cairo and Alexandria, and hope to be represented by one of the galleries in Zamalek, one of Cairo’s trendy neighbourhoods.
Amid the political turmoil that erupted last week, I was lucky to meet Saeed Hussain and Alaa Ayman, both graduates of the Applied Arts Department at Helwan University, in Cairo. They both specialized in glass and design, and are now trying their best to support themselves with their art.
Saeed and Alaa established a studio last year in Maadi, a chic neighborhood just south of the Egyptian capital. Situated above a small shopping mall, the 600-square-foot space is divided into thee rooms, an office, a reception and gallery and the atelier where two small kilns have set up. Boxes filled with shards of glass wait for Saeed and Alaa´s creative ideas to transform the material into something special.
High costs and availability make it difficult to acquire colored glass, and so the pair has decided to take matters into their own hands, mixing powders and oxides themselves that they buy at the market in old Cairo. The medieval street is lined with shops selling powers, acids, and chemicals for any industry. By now Alaa can tell you offhand the recipe for various colors in glass. They’ve even created their own compound to prevent colors from burning during the firing process. For Saeed and Alaa, their color palette is a mix of hues that occur naturally in the Egyptian surroundings: shades of blue and brown, green and yellow dominate their work. They call their studio ORE, relating to the natural occurrence of minerals and metals in nature.
Working with molds is another challenge for the pair of artists. Plaster can be messy and unsustainable, not to mention costly, so the pair have solved the problem by using stainless steel which they discovered can withstand the 1200 degree temperatures of the kiln. The majority of their income is generated through commissions of panel work, stained-glass doors and Alaa recently started producing pendants that have become quite popular. They have been lucky, too, as a gallery in Zamalek decided to carry their work.
—Nadania Idriss, Berlin, Germany
Postscript: Nadania reported that she has spoken to Saeed and Alaa on the first of February, as soon as communication was restored, and they both were doing well and hoped their studio in Maadi, which is 45 minutes away by subway, was doing okay. Both were staying home and waiting things out.