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Kawkab El-Assal: Lessons for life
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 05 - 2001

photos: Randa Shaath
Kawkab El-Assal:
Lessons for life
She no longer teaches, paints, or is able to go out alone. So has life become limited? No, because she "has learned not to quarrel with herself"
Profile by Aziza Sami
A short history of Kawkab Youssef El-Assal: with steady hand she inscribes this legend on the top of the first of two foolscap papers that contain, she explains, all that she thinks should be known of her life, since she does not want to spend too much time talking about herself.
She was born in Shubra in 1909. Her father was an engineer at the Railway Authority, a stern but progressive man who encouraged her, when she graduated from Al-Saniyya School in 1929, to travel to England. She had won a scholarship, and she studied at the Hornsey School of Art, in north London, from where she graduated in 1934 with diplomas in drawing and painting. She returned to Egypt the year of her graduation to assume a pioneering role in what was then a relatively new vocation: she became an art teacher.
Not that she was alone. There existed, she is keen to point out, an older generation of women -- including Inam Said, Alice Barsoum, Adalat Kamal and Aziza Youssef -- who had studied abroad prior to moving into education. Nor was she alone when she travelled to England with her scholarship. From a nylon bag she pulls a black and white photograph of five young women, including herself. They are standing in single file, the scholarship girls, and the photograph was taken the day before they travelled. She has kept it ever since, a souvenir from another age.
On her return to Egypt she taught at Al-Saniyya and, following its founding in 1938, at the girls' section of the Art Education College, where she was instrumental in formulating the syllabus. When the boys' section joined the girls' in 1959 she became head of the painting department, a post she held until her retirement in 1968.
Though Kawkab insists that her real vocation was teaching she continued to paint prolifically, the two activities running in tandem. Her works can be found in public collections, including the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, though she refuses, and adamantly so, the appellation of artist.
In life Kawkab El-Assal looks far younger than she appears in photographs. And this, she says, is because she has lived the life she wanted, and because, she adds wryly, she never married.
An anecdote: she went to some friends for dinner once. The husband got up to wash the dishes while his wife continued to sit with the guests. One of the men invited strolled over to his host as he stood at the kitchen sink and asked incredulously: "Are you enjoying this?" "Of course not," replied the host, "but if I let my wife do everything she won't have the energy or the inclination to enjoy doing things with me."
She never met a man whom she felt she wanted to marry.
After returning from England she began living, once again, with her parents, helping with the raising of seven brothers and sisters and retiring, when she felt the need for privacy, to the living-bedroom that she designed herself and where she would host friends. The modernist design, based on cubes, was never appreciated by her father, though she still has the bed and dressing stool, which provides extra storage space for shoes.
The walls of her sitting room are filled with watercolours, many of them painted during summers spent in Europe, an annual retreat she was forced to abandon in 1997 when deteriorating health made travel impossible. The paintings are drawn from over seven decades of work, and seemingly from as many different places -- Upper Egypt, the Mediterranean coast, Palestine, the Levant, Europe -- places visited and revisited, alongside portraits friends made. Nothing is sombre.
The two bookcases that line one side of the living room are hidden by a velvet cloth. Once stacked with books, they are now almost empty, the majority of volumes either donated to public libraries a couple of years ago or else given to students.
Though Kawkab El-Assal has participated in several group shows, and received several awards in the 1940s, there have only been two solo exhibitions, in 1972 and 1999 . The latter showcased a series of watercolour nudes produced in the 1930s and elicited a virulent attack in one newspaper that criticised the event as "pornographic, licentious." As much a sign of the times, she thinks, as the prohibition of life classes in Egyptian art schools. Kawkab cannot understand how the human form can be properly studied in the absence of a model. When she taught, she says, she was meticulous in showing the muscles, the tendons and the curves of the human body.
Acknowledging that her attitudes and beliefs were shaped during the period of Egypt's recent history that many historians choose to describe as an "age of enlightenment", still she finds it difficult to comprehend how so many of the values her generation accepted as given can now instigate such controversy. In retrospect, though, such developments have served only to deepen her belief in one of the maxims of the great expressionist Oskar Kokoshka, with whom she studied in 1957 and 1963: art, Kokoshka would tell his students, is seeing with your eyes and not only an expression of emotion or of intellect .
Twenty years ago she used to give lectures on art appreciation, at the Cairo Women's Club and on the radio. No longer, though, and not just because of her age. She stopped because she knows the topic is no longer important, that it does not raise the interest that it once did.
Her work is everywhere, on the walls and resting on the floor, leaning against table legs, much of it unframed, including a still life in oil painted during her final year in art school in England .
It was only when the import of oil paints was banned in the 1960s, she says, sifting through paintings kept in a large green folder, that she turned to watercolours full time. She pulls a succession of paintings from the folder, and it becomes clear that they constitute a personal history, a life in paint. A bird's-eye view of Venice, painted from the roof of a museum; a rose garden in England which she painted from one angle while a friend painted it from the other -- they parted, each with her own perspective; a Swiss lake, painted when visiting an Armenian friend who had married a Swiss man; the temple at Abu Simbel, to which she sailed on the cruise ship Delta in the early sixties. There are landscapes from Salzburg, where she attended Kokoshka's painting courses. These lead to reminiscences of how, following the arrival of the Soviets, Austria was suddenly flooded with Hungarian doctors and engineers, many of whom resorted to modeling in order to make money. There is, too, the moment frozen in time from art school days in England when a young woman who had arrived late for the class was told to stand still by the teacher so that she might be drawn by her fellow students.
Kawkab has not painted since 1998, yet scores of old paint brushes remain carefully placed in three jugs. They are, she says, just a fraction of the brushes she once used. The rest, like the books, have been given away, along with the paints she no longer needs.
She was never competitive in her relationships with her friends, many of whom were artists, because, she says, she was a teacher, and because she never sought to become a part of "the art establishment."
Centre place, atop the console in the sitting room, is a black and white photograph of a pretty girl in her twenties -- Dorothy, whom she met in England 66 years ago. They have been in regular correspondence since, until last Easter when it was not Dorothy who replied to Kawkab's letter but her husband, saying his wife had passed away. It was then that Kawkab took out the photograph from an album and placed it in pride of place.
These days she rarely goes out, except on Sundays, when her diminutive figure can be seen climbing the steep steps that lead to the church in Mar'ashli street in Zamalek. Otherwise outings are rare, occasionally to the Opera House, particularly to see the ballet. Decent choreography and stage design remind her of her days in England when she frequently went to the theatre. And when she does go out it is always with a companion: she has seen, she says, too many of her contemporaries injured trying to negotiate unpaved sidewalks. She knows her limitations.
Many of her friendships stretch back for the best part of the last century. Of course, she says, it saddens one to see friends become incapacitated or infirm. Yet her walls remain full of intimations from the past, from younger and, one feels instinctively, happier days. Beyond the shadows at the end of the reception room is the image of a young woman, outlined in charcoal. It is a portrait of Kawkab, drawn by her professor at art school in England. On another wall, nearby, yet another portrait of Kawkab, caught during a sunny lunch outing in Austria by a German artist, one of her fellow students at Kokoshka's atelier. Stella, many of her friends liked to call her, a Greek equivalent for the Arabic word Kawkab.
Behind this last portrait is another painting, only the edge visible. She pulls it out, and it is yet another portrait, by yet another friend.
Why was it hidden there?
Kawkab is not sure. "There's no reason really. Maybe it was the cleaner. He probably did not like that one so shifted them round the last time he came to clean."
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