“KEEPitREAL! Arts Meet Crafts: From Contemporary to Traditional” is a project that brought together Egyptian and European contemporary artists and traditional artisans of Cairo in the collective creation of artistic work. Nine contemporary artists from Egypt, England, France, the Netherlands, Poland, and Switzerland worked with Cairene craftsmen (an alabaster worker, a blacksmith, a candle maker, a carpenter, a glassblower, a potter, a sawyer, a stone-cutter, and a stucco worker) in their workshops located in the “City of the Dead”, in Fustat, in Darb-al-Ahmar, and in Shiq al-Ta‘ban to create collectively eleven new original works of art.
The glass lenses that David Murphy produced in the “City of the Dead” together with Khaled ‘Ali for the work that he called Magnifying Cairo can be seen as a metaphor for this project which, like a magnifying glass, increases the focus on details variously related, though seemingly unconnected.
The first of such issues is a long and complicated relationship between arts and crafts. We distinguish crafts which produce and decorate objects (whether for everyday use, of for aesthetic pleasure), from fine arts that express the artist's creativity and engage the audience's aesthetic sensibilities beyond the purely sensual. This distinction, however, is relatively new, certainly no older than the European Renaissance.
The rupture between arts and crafts was necessary to permit both of them to evolve. As a result, contemporary art could develop an almost infinitely rich variety of means of artistic expression, sometimes without involving material objects at all, in which the artist’s mastery in physically producing a piece of art is not necessarily central.
Crafts travelled a different path. On the one hand, the first and the second industrial revolutions, the arrival of mass production, and the outsourcing of manufacturing to cheap labour markets, dramatically undermined the position, and endangered the very existence of many traditional crafts. On the other hand, craftsmanship is nowadays more than ever synonymous with good quality and high value. In the context of mass production and devaluation of material objects, hand-work and the values of authenticity, continuity, and tradition are cherished again. In developed countries, craftsmanship has become a luxury, not a necessity.
The blurred border between art and craft is wonderfully illustrated by the work of ‘Amr ‘Amer with Hussayn Gaber, who played on the iconic image of Renaissance art, Michelangelo's sculpture of David. They produced identical copies of David's head in wax. One of them is just a copy of a piece of art, the other is a candle with a wick, and slowly burns out during the exhibition. How does it affect the status of each object as a piece of art? Which one belongs to high art, which one does not, and why?
In a society in which the role of material objects has been fundamentally re-defined, craft has become interesting for the world of art again. Some artists use the services of an artisan to create components of their work, others use “digital crafts” techniques that combine hands-on craft with digital fabrication, making it possible to combine an act of individual expression with machine-production.
Is it possible to create an environment where contemporary art and its questioning and contesting approach to reality can re-connect with craftsmanship, traditional skills, applied arts, and vernacular forms of expression? There is a significant discontinuity between arts and crafts in the contemporary world, and if we want them to operate in concert, we need to re-create a space and a context to bring them together. The KEEPitREAL! project is such an attempt. On a very specific scale of Cairene workshops in informal and under-privileged areas, it brought Egyptian and European contemporary artists into these places to work together hand in hand with the craftspeople collectively to create artistic work.
Here, we arrive at another issue magnified by our lens: the interaction between traditional craftsmen and the world of contemporary art. What happens when we bring contemporary artists to these workshops? What kind of interaction can we expect? How can both parties benefit?
One obvious answer is, by gaining experience which would not be possible otherwise, like that of Michał Puszczyński who worked with Karam al-Shaykh when creating the work Smoke. Michał Puszczyński’s interests include wood-fired ceramics. When he learned that the Egyptian government is progressively removing the traditional pottery kilns to relocate potters away from their age-old production areas in new workshops, more environmentally-friendly, but less suited to traditional crafts, he decided to preserve at least a memory of the venerable legacy. He designed ceramic vessels that can capture and preserve for posterity the smoke of traditional wood-fired kilns. For Karam al-Shaykh it was a unique experience, as the subject of the work concerned precisely his own condition and that of his fellow potters.
There are significant differences between the various traditional workshops in Cairo and the objects they produce. While the techniques and skills have mainly remained unchanged since time immemorial, the output of the workshops has evolved in response to changing circumstances. Some artisans continue to work in techniques and materials unchanged for centuries, and make objects not much different from those produced in the Cairo of Mamluk times. Others use similar tools and techniques to make very different products whenever they see a market opportunity, like tourist souvenirs, usually quite kitschy, that try to imitate ancient Egyptian art. Still others, including many potters and appliqué makers, breathe new life into traditional crafts by innovatively using new forms. As a result, in places like the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, one finds objects produced in traditional workshops using traditional techniques, but of very different qualities, intricately inlaid traditional decorations side by side with sphinx figurines in artificial stone and of artificial design. The borders between the authentic and the fake, between tradition and enterprise, are blurred.
These contradictions are skilfully illustrated by the work Concrete waves, souvenir of a revolution by Vincent Voillat with Sayed al-Mokh, in which a series of identical small decorative objects of alabaster were produced. Instead of pyramids, obelisks, or other forms in which one typically sees these objects, they take the shape of the concrete barricades placed in front of official buildings in the wake of the turbulent events of the recent years. Similarly, ‘Amr Fekry, working with the carpenter Khaled ‘Abd al-Hamid, in the work that he called “The Oscillation Key” explored notions of the authentic and the traditional revisited through inventing a musical instrument inspired by traditional Egyptian instruments, and decorated with beautiful inlay.
Every work in the KEEPitREAL! project is a critical comment on one of the numerous aspects of the unusual collaboration of artists and craftsmen. The artists spend many days in craftsmen’s workshops to find a common language, a way to work together, and the best way to make an idea materialise. By enabling the interaction between their two universes, and engaging the local populations in the process of artistic creation, the project could create a new paradigm for such collaboration.
Klio Krajewska is an art curator and consultant born in 1982 in Wrocław, Poland and living in Paris, France. A consultant in the field of digital, urban and social innovation in contemporary cities, she is associated with the Parisian scene of media and sound art. She regularly cooperates with the WRO Art Center and the WRO Media Art Biennale in Wrocław as a curator, and participates in creating the programme of performances and exhibitions. Since 2009 this involvement has included organising and moderating art symposia (Expanded City; Alternative Now; Pioneering Values). In 2013 she was the curator in the project Recording Against Regimes, carried out in Cairo by ARCHiNOS Architecture, concerned with art in times of political transition.