The Power of the Individual to Effect Change, a talk by Dr Amr Abdel Kawi at Khamseen Symposium - Egypt

Forming Ideas – Khamseen Symposium in London at the Ismaili Centre July 2009

1st Speaker Dr Amr Abdel Kawi, editor of the Magaz (design magazine): talking about the power of the individual to effect change.


I would like to thank you all for giving me the chance to share with you some of my experiences and some humble ideas.  I have to say that the topic was sort of assigned to me ‘the power of the individual to effect change’ sounds too ominous in a way.  I prefer to see the power of the individual as the power of asking questions more so than actually doing the changes, asking the questions at the right time might help others change.  I preferred to organize my presentation today in a terms of a personal trip, a personal experience in Egypt and how myself as an Egyptian, who was raised outside of Egypt and returned to Egypt at an older age, was confronted with a reality that was not changing that fast or as fast as one hoped it would – and that made me start searching into that issue, how can we go about (change).

So my encounter with the basic question of why is Egypt like other so called third world countries not participating in the global design discourse.  

I am a designer by training; an architect by training and my focus on this question is on the design field.  Egypt is a country rich in history, culture and tradition; it has all the components for being a global player yet it is not.  When it is featured in external discourses it’s always in the issues of ‘development, the vernacular’, anything exotic we are featured there, but never in the contemporary sense.  When agents of this country have gone outside, have traveled; have gathered technical know-how, they return to practice professionally in a context of  ‘not much has happened’.  Usually these professionals take two paths so to speak, some of them go towards speaking in the unified global language, and others go for illusive local, languages. We have this dichotomy in approaches because it seems that Egypt and Egyptians have always been occupied and pre-occupied with this question of identity. Always there is that search for a strong identity in a country so very rich identity (in the contemporary sense) – this is its biggest problem.  I’d like to start that dig that excavation that I pursued by asking why for example the current architecture that we experience in contemporary Egypt is more or less a salad of everything?  You don’t see a unified identity of any sorts or an un-unified identity for that matter.  We have so much new styles; new classes systems represented in all its forms contemporary, new phrenomic representatives in all forms old and new.  Islam again is another field where we play a lot of new games that has come up in more than one form. Hassan Fathy with the vernacular style has become another style! Fathay was an architect who came up with a statement but then this was transformed into a style that was copied and emulated by Egyptians and foreigners like Rogers.  Now the fashion is the ‘Mediterranean’, it seems that suddenly Egypt is now part of the southern European context, ‘modern’ has had its share as well - new modern and post-modern.  Construction has had its try and last but not least we have the new ‘whatever OK’, which is just a compilation of everything you can imagine sitting right on top of, literally right on top of each other.  As an architect I have been dealing with this question for a couple of decades.  We try to focus on the question of sustainability and be contextual; our explorations were around this but then again trying to search for a contemporary language.  We’ve had a collection of projects, which varied in scale and size and functions.  Can’t say that we’ve reached an answer but we are still trying.

Again the second question we encountered was  - Why if we are professionals we need to have discourse, a local discourse?  One of the fundamental tools of that discourse was missing which is having foreign discourses, magazines, professional organizations, and debates whatever.  Locally it didn’t exist we depended on the international ones and accordingly we decided to start our own.  Between 1998 and 2002 we had a magazine called Medina that started a bi-lingual, bi-monthly magazine dealing with architecture and fine arts and interiors and it started to become more than a magazine because it was seeking to be a foreign, it promoted design competitions and other activities as well and built for itself a fairly respectable position in the market at that time.  But from these experiences we realized that there are fundamental limitations, there was a vacuum in the professional design team, we have an abundance of intellectual resources in the country but the directions and opportunities are very few, there is the community and there the motivation but there is very little potential for realization.

Away from architecture another dimension is product design as part of the physical context we live in but again we encountered a whole mishmash of styles and identities. There is the ‘contemporary’ the ‘local’ but there’s a lot of eclecticism in all of that.  We got the chance to start a firm, an interiors design firm called Philosophy and the main focus of that was to start to introduce into the local market the international language in product design, furniture design and to put that next to the local contemporary language as a means of promoting local language in contemporary design. So in the midst of internationally renowned brands we had locally designed products unified by the language, which we were speaking.  At that point in our development we got the chance to design the Egyptian pavilion in the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2002 and the topic, the theme of the Biennale was Next - for us the next story - it was an attempt  to question what we were dealing with.  Where were we going as a nation or as a country in facing up to the globalization that was overtaking the world at that time? How do we position ourselves, how do we deal with it, do we fight it or not?  

Our concept was a story that had several players in it.  Guya the grid that represented nature, the grid that represented globalization, the grid that represented Egypt and of course the visitors, who were the players in this story. It also had to do with an MSc building and about ripples in water, to create the ripples that are necessary to show your own position in that global grid – that position that is very specifically yours by nature of your little pebble or however big it is or however strong you throw it. We created an encounter with a series of questions an the unveiling of a process of discovery  - of the three dimensional grids that are affected by the intervention of the visitors when they throw their pebble in the water and how the water gets deflected and changes the metastructure around it.  

So where do we go from here, how can we create our own ripple? This became our focus for the next stage in our development.  We saw a lot of problems ahead: a lot of waste in human resources happening, little investment in design and innovation, a very shy approach to technology and its language, inefficient labour practices, huge dependence on imported materials and imported ideas and a very young industrial tradition based mostly on the small workshop approach.  We have huge factories but the mentality around running these factories is basically a workshop process and of course we do suffer from negative branding in general.  Yet we have a lot of assets, a rich culture, artistic and design traditions, extensive craft traditions and an abundance of human talent that it is being wasted and extensive educational resources.  We calculate that there are some 35 schools of design in Egypt, graduating between 7-10,000 designers every year, by virtue of numbers we have to have some talent.

Some issues to note in the meanwhile, branded products today overwhelm the global market and branding is more about selling stories and lifestyles rather than products.  Technology has not become the differentiating factor between competitions.  These are issues that are in the background as we were asking ‘how do we create that language/identity?’. After studying a bit we realized we are now talking about countries that make things and other countries that design things.  Some are leading by proposing what is to be done and others, doing it!  So we asked ourselves ‘where is Egypt in that process?’ Is it on the cheap side or on the innovative side or on the design side?  Are we cheap?  Do we place emphasis on efficiency, good sourcing, mass production processes, high emphasis on technology, good quality assurance and availability of raw materials? -  I am not so sure the answer is yes.  Do we fail design?  Do we invest in research, innovation and sustainable creative capital branding and marketing for uncompromising quality assurance systems? -  Again I am not so sure the answer here is yes.  

Our conclusion was that we were neither here nor there; we are sort of stuck in the middle with one foot in each side.  But our hypothesis is that we should be or we have a better chance of being on the design side as opposed to being on the cheap side.  We were faced with a mismatch between academia and industry. There is an essential component of any development in innovation in industry; it (research and industry) has to spend money it has to invest in innovation it has to invest in design.  Currently academia does not serve industry, it does not produce the product that industry needs, nor does industry support academia in any way.  There is a huge gap now between designers and industry each is speaking a different language, each is on a different side of the divide and they don’t know how to deal with each other, much less cooperate.  Yet there is an emerging realization on the part of industry that they now have their backs against the wall and they are starting to acknowledge their need for talented and creative designers and a good supply of qualified industrial and production designers. There is a realization for the need of innovative and creative products that have a national quality brand identity.  Designers and the design community on the other hand also need to be promoted and supported.  Designers now if they have ideas need to literally, design it, produce it, market it and sell it if they want to see the light.  Needless to say they don’t have time to design again, but they need that sense of security, they need protection for their intellectual property (its not so common here) and they need political support to support the community.

What we are talking about in a sense is we need to create some sort of a link or a partnership between these two entities to create a new brand name for design in Egypt that stands for innovation and professionalism.  Our proposal was this new venture called Remain of the Sands to become that facility, that link between the two communities, between designers and industry as a means of increasing profile of the design field.  It’s a long way round it but we feel it seems to be the only way to actually invest, to develop design we also have to help industry develop design.  Our mission is to make design in Egypt an international brand, we can do that through introducing design as the culture, the mechanism of strategies that affect education, to promote public awareness. To aid this revolution of design in Egypt, we need to become a bridge between anything related to design, designers between design and designers between industry and designers between the community at large and academia as well. By establishing an international presence we no longer look in just a local sense (of always being satisfied that you’re successful locally) but look to be credible players on the international scene.  And most of all we need to foster young talent; we have to be incubators for all the young talent to give them a chance grow.

So we decided to develop three arms, one is a publishing arm, which is related to community awareness and to professional discourse, an incubator and training arm, and then research and consultancy arm.  Each addressing a different aspect of the problem that we are facing.  Our first venture was to publishing the Magaz (the path in Arabic), it’s the path that links various aspects of design, and we talk about. We see Magaz as a sort of a city where people can become active participants and occupy their location on the map, as opposed to it being a hierarchy to an editor determining what needs to go in there.  People gained the right of shaping the magazine by contributing to it and shaping its direction.  It’s about design, design thinking so we deal with urban, we deal with urban architecture, we deal with interior, with furniture and product design and we deal with fashion and costume, we deal with communication and packaging.  What we are emphasising is design thinking as an approach to shaping our community.  The second arm which is the incubator arm began last December (2008) this venture is a workshop, the first Egypt design plus industry workshop.  The idea is to force the interaction between designers and industry under certain circumstances to deal with each other.  We got the Furniture Export Council interested in the process and the European Institute of Design in Milan and we got funding from the Industrial Modernisation Centre to help us achieve this goal. Our question was - What will happen if we bring a group of international designers from all over the world, put with them a group of young Egyptian designers and another group of furniture manufacturers all in the same room and give them the challenge of designing products that are international in language rooted in the Egypt story and manufactured by the different sources of these participating companies?   We had a brainstorm, Internationals and Egyptians debating what an identity is and what is Egyptian identity, the young ones teaching the internationals what Egypt is, the internationals helping the young ones see Egypt with a different eye.  It was a very intense interactive activity - they were locked up in a place for six days, so we had to deal with each other.  But very fruitful, extremely rich and the results were quite interesting because we did not prescribe to the designers which approaches were taken; we got seven really different approaches to the question of identity.  Seven different ways of dealing with what Egypt should be, how Egypt can be reflected in a contemporary product.  I will quickly go through some of these approaches to give you a glimpse.

The team from Japan was very systematic, introvert in a sense, looking very deep into the spirit of the place and his group developed this extremely detailed de-construction of themes they saw Egypt to be and named these themes and developed from that this concept of what they saw Egypt to be.  And out of the six days they spent five days searching and one day drawing. These are some of the products they developed in their various stages

From Berlin came a totally different idea, very contemporary language the tectonics of the place the languages, the group went all over the streets of Cairo collecting garbage from the street, collecting whatever and dealing with the texture of the place the tectonics of, the quality of everything and interpreted these into products, again coming up with very contemporary ideas.  This as you see is a soundcape an interpretation of the soundscapes in this product

The Spanish team tried to look at architecture in a way, they looked at patterns they looked at the place and they came out with these again.  

The Netherlands was more practical in approach, and talked about moods and developed mood boards and came up with very, very practical, very producible, very good use for them and actually some of them are in production.

The USA was more of an artistic approach, coming up with the idea of the golden tear representing Egypt and the products were very conceptual in their nature.

Then there was Guyan who is Egyptian, French so to speak with Armenian background and dealt with the duality that exists and represents Egypt and combined ideas between the paradoxes that exist and come together and co-exist together in the same place

Paragnara Egyptian also but living in the USA, went as far back as the ancient Egyptians and going into the real core of the place, the eternity of it all and came up with a rupture and rapture concept that historically Egypt witnesses these ruptures out of which raptures come out and this is a theme that he developed, a line of products that emerged from that.

We went to Milan with that, we had a communication design workshop that analysed that and we had an exhibition at the Milan Furniture Fair, exposing what primary is the Coptic need for Egypt meaning the Black Land it’s an old name.

These prototypes were exhibited in Milan showing the world that something can raise out of Egypt and contemporary.  The feedback was quite surprising, we received quite an impressive feature in the international press and media and we came back to Cairo with another showing last month at the Furnix Fair (June 2009), where we had changed the concept more into showing the workshop itself. Diversity and unity was the main theme that emerged from that workshop and we were able to test the local response to these ideas.

None of these products at this stage are meant to be marketable although some actually have reached a point where they are being marketed, most of them are still premature but nevertheless the industrialists were quite surprised at the local responses as well as to that new language that was emerging out of them.

2nd Speaker  Ikram Nosshi, Director of Ramses Wissa Wassef

talking on Craft as a social document

Good afternoon everybody, I would like to thank you for inviting us and for focusing on Egypt. I am going to talk about the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre and throw some light on the Ramses, the architect who started working for us.  Ramses graduated in 1936 from the Beaux Arts in Paris, he is an Egyptian and returned back to Egypt in the latter part of the 30s and started practicing architecture, and as Dr Amr just mentioned, it was a salad of architecture all different styles of architecture.  Ramses wanted to find a local character, something, which derives its characteristics from a vernacular architecture.  In doing so he met and worked with several artisans and craftsmen in different aspects, stained-glass makers, stone carvers, bricklayers, woodworkers all different.  He was astonished by the wealth they have but he was also so sad that what they possessed although great, lacked the drive, it lacked the creativity and it lacked the sustainability.  He felt that very soon that what they were doing would be drowned against the huge wave of mass production and inter-fertilisation.  He felt that unless these good honest craftsmen do something to find the energy behind each of their own different craft and their own different techniques in their own work, that this craft would very soon be imitations of imitations of imitations, which would not survive and last.  Invariably he tried to give them and help them with his own ideas.  As an architect he just wanted to implement all their work and all their techniques into his architecture.  He found huge resistance though, these people learned a certain technique and they felt what they knew was everything and it was very difficult for him, or them, to change their output and make it different - and this is what would have given it extra energy.  To cut a long story short he was faced with the fact that human creativity is available in everybody, but somehow it gets stifled in some way.  

He thought that one of the best ways to change this was to start with children.  You know children don’t know wrong and especially let’s say children from a village or from outside of a city where they have time and they don’t have so much pressure on them.  Ramses was given a golden opportunity in 1941 to design and build a school in old Cairo.  Old Cairo is a quarter of Cairo where we have some of the oldest churches, Gothic churches and the first Mosque built in Cairo.   He asked the committee of the school whether they would allow him to work with the children to teach art as a school activity and to teach them weaving.  Of course the committee was pleased they felt that what Ramses would do they be able to sell and hence would then expand the school.  

Ramses chose weaving as the media for his experiment because it is an old craft, which existed in Egypt but it also open to many personal innovations, and each person can have his mark on what he does (different from other crafts).  The other thing is that it is a very slow process of producing an image because it was very important to him that when he started with the children that he did not give a prescribed design to the child, he would teach him/her the rudimentary of the weaving technique but he would leave the images in the child’s head to become visible on the loom. In doing that he opened so many channels.  First of all he began to open the self-confidence in every child because each one of them had his own personality and if you can capture the uniqueness of each of these kids and nurse it so they begin to build self-confidence, then these children, and I am talking about ordinary children, can produce something of value later on in life.

Now the school was in old Cairo as I said, it was like a part-time job for the kids three times a week.  It lasted between 1941 to 1945.  It did not materialize into something special because the committee of the school felt that Ramses was wasting their legal resources.  It was the time of the Second World War and everything was in short supply.  But he saw sparkles of life; he saw some hope so what he did from 1945 to 49 was he changed the garage in his own house into a small workshop.  Five of the kids who attended his art school activities came on a regular basis twice or three times a week.  He was supporting this activity through his own expenses but at his own pace. Soon he discovered that these children are no longer children they are teenagers and that’s the time they leave school and go and learn a craft.  So he was faced with the question ‘can I continue, can they make money out of what they produce?’  Art in a third-world country is not easy to sell in a first-world country.  So that was the time when he decided to start what we have today the Wissa Wassef Art Centre in a village called Harrounia.  His choice of venue or location was simple.  It had to be a village close to Cairo so that you can commute, this village had to be a very ordinary village where people just worked in the fields and buy and sell vegetables, nothing to do with art, nothing to do with craft because he wanted all the energy from his ideas to be concentrated on what he is doing.

Here you see, in some of the early days, this is in 58 -  weaving on the loom, the young man and the lady there, again they are all first generation.  You can see it’s a vertical loom, the weaver at any one time can see very little of his work.  You can see here, this girl at the bottom she’s weaving sideways, one of the techniques of weaving.  We also started ceramics and you can see the building itself was itself a very basic centre.  As I said, weaving is very slow and also it’s a very, I wouldn’t say tiring but there is a commitment. When the child sits in front of the loom there is a commitment, he is faced with what he is doing and he has to finish it, he can go and play but he has to return back.  But the magic is while the child is producing images, this is real, you can see it on the faces of these children standing with Sophie my mother-in-law back there.

Again, Ramses and Sophie with one of the first generation of weavers this is dating back again to the 50s, that was considered at the time quite a piece of weaving!

These are some of the images in the art centre today, it has expanded, Ramses started with 15 ordinary peasant children, we still have seven of them weaving we call them the first generation, they are ageing between 65 and 70 years of age and they still actively produce.  My wife Suzanne in 1974 she started the second generation of wool weavers and started with 15 now there are 18 weavers both men and women aged between 40 and 45 years of age.  Ramses designed all the architecture, it is Adobe architecture, and it won an Architecture Award in 1983 for being an excellent example, not just the architecture but its interior as well and the activity of the building. 

As I said Ramses was an architect, the simplicity and the beauty of all parts of Cairo and the special character of Egyptian villages always overwhelmed him.  He designed the path where you can see, this is typical of all medieval villages where you would have a narrow lane, normally oriented east west so the buildings on the south have shade in the first part of the morning and the reverse in the afternoon in the northern part, so you have a semi-shaded lane most of the time. Because of the weather courts are very important and are a part of the places of work.  As I said Ramses started in 1941 his first exhibition was in 1956, it took him that long to see the first fruit of his success.

In 1958 we had our International Exhibition and that was in Basle in Switzerland and people began to know about what Ramses was doing as a unique experiment in human creativity.  Over here (in the UK) we had a very successful exhibition in 1985, which Lady Diana inaugurated, it was held at the Barbican.  It was a one-year touring exhibition, which started in London, then went to Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and finally Swansea in Wales.  The lady on the left my right-hand side here, watching the loom is the Duchess of Kent standing with Ramses and one of the first generation weavers at the loom.  This is our permanent or what we call our collection museum we have at our centre.  There we keep all of our tapestries of all the weavers so it is like an archive of the history of the art centre, we show the progression and development of each of the weavers.  This is with my mother-in-law, this is with the Queen of Norway and in the other picture we have Joanna Lumley and Lady Weir the Lord Michael Weir former Ambassador of Britain in Egypt here that was 2005.

As you can see this is typical of work, there is no design, the weavers sit in front of the loom and at any one time he can only see a small portion of his work. The only time they can see a complete work is when it is sheared off the loom and on the walls.  So here you can see that ordinary children, they are nothing exceptional, of course we could of course have an exceptional person, but here Ramses idea was that ordinary human creativity could produce such work.  Again you can see that some of the works here are done sideways so you can imagine there was a cow on the top left hand side here, can you imagine that the weaver started with the tail of the animal!  I am just saying this because if one is asked to draw an animal there is a special way of drawing it, but these people can think differently they can or they have been trained to think differently.  All the subject matter you can find in the Egyptian countryside, but none of the tapestries will be repeated because each one of them is coming from the heart and soul of each weaver.  Of course they go through periods of stagnation like anybody else but this is where we step in and we try to boost their imagination with different ideas.

These are two weavers from the second generation and as I said they are in their late 40s now and the guy on the left says he is one of the very special weavers we have at the moment.  Two of his tapestries are hung in the British Museum, one in the Petrie Museum the other in the British Museum collection itself, which acquired the piece recently.  My wife Suzanne does not interfere with the weaver in the sense that she puts her own hand mark on them.  She discusses ideas with them, they can describe how they want to create a tapestry, they sort of share ideas then an image begins to form in each ones mind, the weaver’s and director’s and this is where the teamwork begins.  We are asked so many questions: What happened to this weaver when they first learned the technique and when they become artists on their own accord? The simple answer is very few have succeeded on their own completely for various reasons, but basically it is that they don’t have enough intellect, they cannot go to exhibitions and view other art work because they don’t have that kind of education, that background, so somebody has to feed them ideas.  What feeds them sort of energises them but not overwhelms them - this is what my wife does when she discusses the progress of the work.  And you can see with the complicated design some of them are vertical and some are sideways, the number of different coloured yarns used, they arrange it mentally as well physically.  Their style of weaving is free, the mothers bring their children as you can see in this picture here, so we don’t have set times, the weavers come and go we when they feel like working, they can bring their children, we do have a playground where the kids can go and play.

This is part of the gallery at the centre and this is one of the special tapestries we have it’s called Hymn to the Sun, it depicts the four periods of the day, on the very left you have the sun-rise and the birds assembled there and then you have mid-day, then noon, then sunset and night.

This is called St Catherine or Cypress and Olives, it depicts St Catherine, which is part of Sinai where we have an old monastery and it’s very famous for its Cypress trees.  

This one is a typical of village scene.

This particular tapestry is called the Dahsure Lake it depicts a lake we have not so far from Cairo, actually Dahsure is about 30 kilometers south of Cairo, very close, it is an artificial lake which is filled with water in September every year when the Nile floods. The beauty about it is that a lot of migrating birds come from Europe at that time at the end of September early October and I took Sayed there the weaver to see it and that’s the tapestry he came with.  This particular tapestry was exhibited in 2006 at the SOAS Brunei Gallery and the director of the museum was just passing by and it just took his eye and he stands watching this tapestry and he said this tapestry sort of fills the gaps we have in one of the Tallumarine Murals, they have this beautiful mural called Tallumarinia and some sections are missing, so he saw what the ancient Egyptian artist meant to depict in this particular tapestry.  

This one is called the Donkey Market; again all these are in the collection of the centre.  That is the story of what happens in the animal market, you see the real tapestry everything, even a fight about who has bought an animal, ladies are raising their hands there is crying - it is full of life.

This is Africa life from Africa. You can see the subject matter does vary to a certain extent but again it all goes back to nature and the Egyptian countryside and stories from the villages.

This is from the opening of our exhibition at the SOAS  - now that’s an important attitude to have to discuss maybe you can ask me later it’s about natural colours.  The colours we use are natural vegetable dies we plant them ourselves at the centre and the weavers do the dyeing themselves twice or three times a year.  So we use historical plants actually some of them had disappeared from Egypt and my father-in-law brought them back and we are using them now.

These are two tapestries depicting the story of dyeing and what goes on during that, it’s like a festival because the weavers they see the colours. But I am told to stop now…..OK you can see we use the leaves of the pitcan tree to give the beautiful yellow you see here and for the beige colour we use the fruit itself, the skin of the pitcan gives nice beige.  The dark orange is the root of a plant called Maddock and eucalyptus leaves, which gives us this nice lemony yellow.  

This is fine cotton another side of weaving we have, it’s woven on a different loom, a horizontal loom.  Fine cotton is very sensitive and an old Coptic textile - of course the motifs are different now because all the weavers here are Muslims.

We also have Batik somewhere here. If you do have a design, then the process of thinking is different because the whole design is done at the first stage then you are just following the design, there’s no thinking there.  But if you begin to see as a child and by the way we start with children from the age of 10, 11 or 12 at the most.  The magic for him is using the technique of weaving to show a flower or an animal, this is, I cannot explain the pleasure it gives to the children, so we have encouraged them to think in that way and they have no problem thinking - upright or sideways on the loom like landscape.

Chair: Janis Jeffries

When you made the comment about design thinking, this process is also called loom thinking so you don’t solve the problems of the design on a sketch in advance you think it through in the process of the activity so it’s extraordinary work. 

Both our speakers have mentioned drive creativity and sustainability and have really emphasized this whole question of creative capital, of human creativity and I think that might bring us neatly to our next speaker Glenn Adamson.