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Paper art: Past and present
Published in Daily News Egypt on 10 - 02 - 2010

It is the thinnest and the most beautiful. These words are used to describe the fiber extracted from the Ganpi shrub that is the primary raw material for making Washi, traditional Japanese handmade paper.
And the admirer is Kyoko Ibe, who has been working with the paper fiber for more than 30 years with the intention of using her artwork to "show people the power of fiber.
As we increasingly embrace electronic commerce and move towards a paperless economy, the functional aspects of paper have diminished. Mohamed Abouelnaga and the Japanese artist Kyoko Ibe present the aesthetic role of paper in the "Paper Tales exhibition currently on display at the Darb 1718 center.
Ibe has taken her work to five continents and is dedicated to going beyond the functional aspect of paper to illuminate this "symbolic part of Japanese culture.
"I like Egypt because of papyrus, says Ibe. Papyrus was used for writing until the Chinese invented the art of paper-making around 200 BC; and the Japanese embraced paper by using it for almost all purposes of living, including clothing. As children, most of us worked with Origami crafts to create beautiful shapes.
Ibe deals with paper as an artist, moving away from the traditional uses of paper and creating fine art pieces for museums, large-scale installations in public places and a wide range of interior products.
Of the work currently on exhibit at Darb, I particularly like the "inverted wave creation in white that adorns the interior of a hotel in Kyoto, Japan and is made of acrylic laminated Washi.
"I always think of my installations as a three-dimensional drawing in space. How to layout the elements in a space is exactly the same as how a painter draws lines or paints on a surface, explains Ibe.
Ibe corroborates with seventh generation traditional hand paper-makers in Japan to produce Washi. The process is done almost entirely by hand, without the use of chemicals, thereby minimizing environmental pollution. Ultimately the fiber that remains constitutes a mere 2 to 3 percent of the original raw material.
Japan has a longstanding tradition of recycling paper, with the earliest record of recycled paper dating to 901 AD. In fact, in the past, the Japanese Washi was so precious that no single sheet of paper was wasted and records were written on both sides. When the records were no longer needed, the paper was reused as layering material in the construction of traditional sliding doors and folding screens.
When Washi is recycled, traces of the ink applied to the original surface remain in the fibers even after immersion in water, as if it is trying to tell about its past. The current exhibition is aptly titled "Paper Tales as Ibe builds on this tradition of recycling.
Some of Ibe's artwork is made of recycled Ganpi paper dating back around 100 years. She embellishes her artwork with calligraphy cut from official documents and textbooks, written about 200 years ago, as well as mica particles. She also experiments with shredded office computer paper and newspaper.
Whereas Ibe is influenced by Washi's cultural past, Abouelnaga draws inspiration from the reflection of shop windows.
For Abouelnaga, "paper means culture, and not only technique.
He finds paper to be closest to nature. The artwork in his new series "Vetrina (literally shop window), combine different kinds of paper such as cotton, linen, papyrus and Washi. He says, "Mixing paper is like having a dialogue between different cultures.
Abouelnaga uses mixed techniques by printing photographs on paper and then working on them with different colors and materials.
On his travels to different parts of the world, Abouelnaga photographed shop windows, which he describes as reflecting the character and culture of a place, giving him insight into the socio-economic structure of a society. He blends these photographs with different kinds of paper and other materials to reflect his personal vision.
Aboulelnaga rues the fact that despite being the country that gave the world papyrus, there are not many exponents of paper art in Egypt.
Ibe talks about paper as if it is a living thing, and she says Washi is felt to be a living thing because of its flexible and accommodating nature.
Darb 1718, Kasr El-Shame' St., Al Fakhareen, Old Cairo. Tel: (02) 2361 0511.

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