The graduation projects of art students in Cairo this year reflect the conflicting feelings that many experienced as a result of the social restrictions imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Drawing inspiration from multiple patterns of Egyptian heritage, the works combine experimentation in the use of raw materials with the latest digital technologies, thus revealing a connection with the contemporary world.
There are five faculties of fine arts in Cairo and other parts of Egypt, in addition to the faculties of applied arts and art education. Students at these institutions recently completed the academic end-of-year exams and submitted their graduation projects, the fourth stage in a five-year course leading to a bachelor’s degree.
The course starts with a preparatory year, after which students choose a major, usually painting, sculpture or graphics. The fifth year ends with theoretical and practical exams, but the graduation projects make up a large percentage of the final grade, and a good grade on the project is essential to graduate.
Randa Fakhry, an assistant professor of painting in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Helwan University, says the graduation project is the first thing to put in a student’s CV, because it “is considered a turning point in practical life.”
Fakhry, who is an independent artist as well as an academic, notes that students discuss their ideas and initial sketches with the teaching staff before choosing the methods and elements of artistic approach.
Reflections of Life in Isolation
Most of the student artworks on view in the exhibition halls of the Faculty of Fine Arts, in the Zamalek district of Cairo, reflect the reality of living in isolation since the shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic. (See the related articles “Art in Isolation: Arab Artists Express Emotions Evoked by Covid-19” and “Arab Artists Respond to a World Disrupted by Covid-19.”)
“We discussed with the student how to implement the idea, and she was enthusiastic to rebel against the formal stereotypes that society imposes on us.“Randa Fakhry
An assistant professor of painting in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Helwan University
While some works come close to documentary diaries, others show students’ efforts to counter stereotypes about women or the consumer images of body shape imposed by fashion.
One painting depicts a girl preparing for her wedding and her mother cutting her flabby belly to a more slender profile to fit the dress.
“We discussed with the student how to implement the idea, and she was enthusiastic to rebel against the formal stereotypes that society imposes on us,” Fakhry said.
“The artist was biased towards the traumatic perception of violence in evaluating the society that appeared in her project at the end, which is very influential.”
Some students seek inspiration for their graduation projects from visits to museums and art galleries. Maryam Shoaib drew several sketches and took dozens of photographs of the antique piano exhibited in the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Giza.
“I asked the museum’s directors to sit at the piano and engage in a spontaneous dialogue as if it were a movie shot, and they helped me a lot to complete my graduation project,” said Shoaib.
Gallery: Art Students’ Graduation Projects
“Despite the stress of the graduation project, the atmosphere of cheerfulness that is associated with the students exhibiting their work in the halls of the Faculty of Fine Arts is a special kind of celebration,” she added.
Experimentation with Pottery
Khaled Siraj, a professor in the pottery department at the Faculty of Applied Arts of Helwan University, said that during their two years of specialization, students investigate the interaction of materials and how this modifies their properties, such as the effects of heat on the final color of pottery. They used the technical data “during the implementation in a period that takes about two months to prepare,” he said.
Siraj described graduation projects as “the first step of professionalism,” noting that subjects studied at the Faculty of Applied Arts permitted the integration of architecture, engineering, design and art into an integrated scientific field.
The graduation projects of the pottery department this year reflect the students’ interest in the ancient as well as the modern. One is a simulation of the QR code used in electronic scanning technology. Another represents the 4,700-year-old Step Pyramid of King Djoser at Saqqara in various degrees of color. A third piece looks for aesthetic values within natural symbols, such as the leaves of trees and their color variations.
Stressing Arab and Local Identity
Sally El Zeini, an artist and an assistant professor of graphics in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Cairo University, said she was keen to impress on her students the importance of Arab, Eastern and local identity in their work, even with the application of international design standards.
“We have treasures of the Arab, Coptic, Islamic, Nubian and coastal heritage,” she said. “I direct the students to address their visual ideas through this authentic heritage without resorting to ready-made and stereotypical design solutions from Google”.
“We have treasures of the Arab, Coptic, Islamic, Nubian and coastal heritage. I direct the students to address their visual ideas through this authentic heritage without resorting to ready-made and stereotypical design solutions from Google.”Sally El Zeini
An assistant professor of graphics in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Cairo University
The book design projects this year echoed titles from famous Arabic literature, including the “Granada” trilogy by the late Radwa Ashour. Picture-book projects recalled materials from the memory of art, such as the famous radio series “The Marzouk Effendi Family” and the puppet operetta “The Great Night.”
Some graphic projects included works inspired by the landmarks of Cairo and its ancient neighborhoods, including one titled “Cairo 360.”
Others featured the simplicity of the oasis cities such as Siwa in the Western Desert, the focus of a book set designed by student Radwa Rajab. “My preparation of the project was preceded by an extended research on the privacy of Siwa Oasis, the customs of its people and its daily details,” said Radwa, “and I have prepared drawings and sketches as internal drawings for my graduation project.”
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The academic year was cut short by the pandemic and “it took less than 35 days to prepare” the graduation projects, said Sally El Zeini.
She and others noted the difficulties that supervising professors have faced in following up on “online” graduation projects during the last two academic years.
In the past, graduation projects were done over 45 days and students worked in the faculty throughout the day, said Randa Fakhry: “It was more like a camp spirit.”