Thinking through Egyptian Tradition: The Potential of Pre-Colonial Craft Working Methods in Art Education
Shafer, Ann, Art Education
Egyptian art tradition emphasizes learning from masters and focusing on precision and practice, which can be incorporated into- or compared to-Western art methods.
The January 25th 2011 Revolution in Egypt brought the eyes of the world to the "cradle of civilization" once more, as existing power structures toppled and hidden voices surfaced to forge a unified vision for the future. In many parts of the Middle East, and indeed all over the world, the visual arts embody cultural values and remain a touchstone in times of great change. For this visual arts educator in Cairo, the process of political revolution has underscored the important role of certain deep, shared cultural values in the making of new, potentially unifying national expressions. As student work in an experimental curriculum in Egypt called The Language of Traditional Arts has revealed, both before and especially after the Revolution, there is a persistent desire to cultivate, preserve, and reinvigorate what is considere an essential element of Egyptian cultural identity: its Coptic Christian and Islamic cultural heritage (Figure 1). Although media coverage may focus on conflict between religious groups, what many Egyptians would rather emphasize is a long-standing shared cultural affinity. The 2011 Revolution thus strengthened young creative people's resolve to re-activate Egyptian interconnectedness and sense of community, especially in the arts. The present study shows the value of espousing traditional Egyptian crafts working methods to access and strengthen attachment to heritage, and introduces one curriculum as an example of how that might be done, not only in Egypt, but also in other cultural communities throughout the world.
My own catalyst to examine the history of the visual arts in Egypt was my physical shift to a teaching position in Egypt. For 6 years I served as director of an undergraduate studio arts program in Cairo, based primarily on a Western Fine Arts curricular model that included basic courses in drawing, painting, and Western art history. As my exposure to the arts and methods of the region increased over time, however, I felt the imperative to expand our curriculum to include the "Traditional Arts of Egypt," especially those architectural arts mediated by the historical influences of pre-colonial Coptic Christianity and Islam (Figure 2). The new curriculum was inspired by my own experiences in the heritage-rich city of Cairo, and particularly by the medieval period when craftsmen began producing stunning works in a variety of media including ceramic, wood, stucco, glass, stone, and textiles. Fortunately, those centuries-old practices are still very much alive today in architectural heritage sites and craftsmen's quarters throughout the old city (Dobrowolska, 2005). The dialogue between historical architectural monuments and intangible heritage (contemporary craft production) thus forms the basis of our curriculum, connecting theory with skills, and historical analysis with creative expression (Shafer & Gaber, 2011). The resulting curriculum for art majors consists of a core foundation course, described here, with a more specialized series of upper-level courses focusing on materials and craft.
Confronting Conceptual Boundaries: East vs. West?
Although my impetus to engage Egyptian traditional forms and processes came out of an inspired necessity, the underlying theoretical issues speak more broadly to those interested in cross-cultural hybridity and postcolonial theory. Even a quick look through recent art history reveals that the West's interest in the so-called "traditional" cultures is not new. Whether historic or contemporary, this interest reveals a complex desire to know and to connect with an "other" that is at once exotic and familiar. In the last severa decades, educators in particular have consistently championed cross-cultural awareness and implementation in the classroom (Bequette, 2007). Others, meanwhile, have critiqued and even rejected this perspective toward heritage as romanticized, Eurocentric cultural imperialism (Desai, 2000; Butler, 2006). …