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Heritage of hard work and tradition
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 04 - 2010

Mai Samih is impressed by artist Zeinab Khalifa's lyrical jewellery designs
Zeinab Khalifa's jewellery blends gold and silver in designs that ally the contemporary with the ancient, mixing ideas of Greek, Roman and Eastern inspiration to meet 21st-century taste.
Her silver bracelets and gold necklaces have a character that is different from more familiar designs. Khalifa, the artist behind the collection, is a graduate of the Philosophy Department at the Faculty of Arts at Ain Shams University in Cairo, and, beginning her career in the 1980s when she worked as an apprentice to traditional master silversmiths in Khan Al-Khalili in the heart of Islamic Cairo, she started from scratch like any other professional.
By the early 1990s, Khalifa had opened her own workshop and begun exhibiting her work. Her first pieces were exhibited in 1997, and she is now the owner of a workshop and gallery where her designs are produced by highly-trained craftsmen. Her knowledge of the region's jewellery-making traditions gives her work its distinct, organic quality. Though Khalifa lives and works in Egypt, her designs have been acquired by various private and institutional collections in America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Her jewellery draws on traditional jewellery-making techniques that she learned in Khan Al-Khalili, these being adapted to modern conditions and allied with more modern techniques.
"I use traditional techniques, but I also try to modernise them in order to bring them up to date," Khalifa says. Although she is not against using moulds in jewellery making, she never uses them in her own work since in her view jewellery making involves the craftsman, or craftswoman, interacting with the raw material as the work is created.
"Anyone who works in the arts has a certain inward character if he is self-aware, and this will predominate in his work," she explains.
Khalifa's work is inspired by Islamic designs, and this is apparent in a necklace made in the shape of crescents and stars that resemble those on the Turkish flag or the old Egyptian flag, with its crescent and three stars. Islamic sculpture impresses her, and the designs used in the mouldings on Islamic buildings provide ideas for her jewellery designs.
Some of her ideas come from her own experience, while others are drawn from everyday observation -- perhaps the design of a window, a door, a piece of cloth or textile, or even a piece of metal. "I can't say that I am inspired by any one thing," she says.
In Khalifa's view, jewellery does not have to use expensive materials in order to be beautiful, and she argues that wood, iron, stainless steel, enamel, silver, brass or ivory can be used in creating original ornaments. "The most important thing is the piece's innovation, creativity and originality," she explains.
Khalifa works with local materials, though she often has difficulty estimating the value of the materials used in her jewellery. It depends on the size of the piece, as well as the expertise and skill of the person who made it. Moreover, "there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration, such as the weight and the stones used in a piece of jewellery. This will determine the value of the piece, depending on the type of stone used. Another factor is the amount of work involved, or the type and nature of the inscriptions on the piece."
The amount of time a piece takes to create will depend on the "mood of the artist", the size of the piece and the number of people working on it, she says. Khalifa prefers to work with a team of craftsmen, feeling that this method gives the best possible results. "We work as a team, and we complete each piece as a team. Each team member has his or her specialty," she adds.
Some craftsmen work individually, while others prefer to work in a team. Ismail El-Gamal, 47, who joined Khalifa's company eight years ago, prefers to work in a team. "A necklace would take around 15 days for a group of craftsmen to finish, but it would take about a month for any one craftsman to accomplish the same job," he says.
His colleague Emadeddin, 53, agrees, adding that team members combine their experience with Khalifa's artistic talents. "The work starts with Khalifa's sketches. We then divide the work between us and hope that the result is what she expected," he says. According to Khalifa, Egyptian craftsmen have different abilities: one might excel in one area, while another might excel in another.
In 2007, Khalifa exhibited her work in Syria and discovered that Syrian taste is similar to Egyptian. "Art is everywhere, but only some people buy it. An artist struggles to attract clients -- people who will appreciate and buy an artist's work," she comments.
In order to extend her client base, in 1996 Khalifa organised what she calls a "recycled-silver" exhibition in which only jewellery using recycled silver was displayed.
"This gave me a lot of freedom, because I did not have to worry about the cost of the material, which I did not pay a lot for in the first place. Even if I had failed to sell all the jewellery, it would not have been a great loss."
Today, however, Khalifa laments that she does not have the time for such exhibitions, even though she thinks they may represent the future. "Recycling represents the future at a time when the earth is running out of raw materials," she says.


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