Whether in Egypt or anywhere else in the world, the creative industries are a troublesome, unruly field of work. Just the phrase in itself is somewhat of an oxymoron. Can art really maintain its purity in the market? It's a clichéd argument, yes, but it's one that will continue to rumble with little tangible compromise in sight.
In this part of the world, the Arab Spring has empowered youth far beyond political awareness and social responsibility. From artists to musicians, Egypt has been enriched with a new wave of conscientiousness that, although very much still tied to the January 25th Revolution, has given Cairo creatives a new lease of life. The shackles are off and ingenuity reigns free.
But there's only so much an individual can do. Even within their respective communities, there is still a ceiling; one that isn't allowing creatives to step out of their cosseted practices. For all the art, music and craft that's out there, the audience is still bounded, which subsequently makes artistic pursuits fruitless and unpractical.
This is something that the Azza Fahmy Design Studio is looking to resolve. The newly opened school offers designers and entrepreneurs a means to not only supplement their skills, but also a way to break into the industry.
Although Fahmy's success means that she doesn't spend as much time in Egypt as she used to, the internationally renowned jewellery designer hasn't lost touch with her roots and has come to appreciate her humble beginnings. "I definitely faced a lot of challenges at the beginning of my career" says Fahmy, defiantly. "When I first took an apprenticeship in Khan-El-Khalili, I took on the challenge of entering [what was then] a male-dominated industry."
Now, Fahmy is helping lead the way in the field of jewellery design, giving young artisans a platform to learn and express themselves.
"Education is one of the key pillars to a successful community and, in the case of Egypt, to a stable nation. My way of giving back to the design industry and the arts is to allow for young potential to learn a craft that can help them succeed both locally and globally."
This isn't the celebrated designer's first foray into education, however. Having initiated design program, Nubre, with the European Union, Fahmy's goal of preserving old jewellery techniques has extended to the Azza Fahmy Design Studio (AFDS) with the help of Alchimia; a contemporary design school based in Florence, Italy. This is no vanity project or run-of-the-mill workshop. AFDS offers full courses with an intricately conceived curriculum that covers both theory and practice in regards to jewellery design and metal-smith work. "You learn all aspects of jewellery making; sawing, filing, soldering, casting, forging and decorative metal techniques such as inlay, filigree and chasing, as well as the particulars of working with silver, gold and stones" says Fahmy.
But just as Fahmy once struggled to convince those around her of the path which she ultimately chose to take, she appreciates that potential students might also face the same roadblocks. "I can't determine people's outlook on our initiatives. What I can do, however, is keep working on guaranteeing that jewellery making, design, art, culture, history, fashion and beauty are appreciated, understood and educated. My work is not to change people's minds, but to educate them with the choices they may not know they have."
With arts and culture in Egypt experiencing such a surge, it seems like a fitting time for AFDS to open its doors. But with an analytical head on her shoulders, she admits that crafts need to be treated carefully if they are to ride similar waves. "The tricky part with the crafts is preserving its authenticity. So, as much as we'd like to see growth in that department, if there aren't enough organisations that help preserve the crafts scene in Egypt, it will be forever neglected. This is why I felt AFDS – amongst many other projects – was a way for me to help sustain the importance of jewellery-making and design techniques. Through my books, my workshops and the school, I hope to document the beauty that we unfortunately may take for granted."
Although these sentiments hold a hint of regret, Fahmy is confident that AFDS can make a significant and lasting contribution to arts and crafts on every level, because she knows firsthand that initiatives like these can turn ambitious, creative students into established house-hold names. Having studied jewellery craft at the City of London Polytechnic School after securing a fellowship with the help of the British Council, Fahmy hopes to facilitate similar arrangements for others. "I returned to Cairo with wider horizons and greater confidence, and by the early 1980s, I had set up my own workshop with a staff of two. Now we have more than eighteen outlets worldwide."
Located steps away from Darb 1718 in the El Fustat area of Old Cairo, there's plenty to be inspired by at AFDS. But asked what advice she would give to aspiring Cairenes, Fahmy maintains that the most important building blocks come from within. "Be original and do not imitate other people's work or trends. Create your own visualisation of the future and stay proud of your own heritage."
For more information, check out the Azza Fahmy Design Studio website.