Neil Hewison, author of Fayoum Pottery: Ceramic Arts and Crafts in an Egyptian Oasis shares his love of pottery and Fayoum in his new book, and gives insight on the death and rebirth of the art form, and its appeal to the outside world.
Interview by AUC Press
Pottery making has been a tradition in Egypt for a long time. How well has it survived over the centuries?
Pottery was a key craft in Egypt until the last century, as people relied on pots for cooking, storage, transportation of food and the cooling of water. But plastics, metals, and modern refrigeration have taken over many of those functions, and the demand for pottery has naturally fallen off, leading to a consequently steep decline in production.
Was the Fayoum always a cradle of Egyptian pottery making?
Pottery was made widely across Egypt, not just in Fayoum, and there are still important centers of pottery production in Upper Egypt and in the Delta. But Fayoum has held onto one unique form of the craft that has disappeared, except in the village of al-Nazla, where artisans still practice a skill passed down through the generations of a single family. The hand-forming of spherical water jars known as bukla is done using an ancient hammer-and-anvil technique that goes back centuries.
Are the local techniques of pottery making evolving and are they being influenced by potters from abroad?
In the village of Tunis, which had not been a traditional center of pottery; a pottery school established by two Swiss potters in 1990 has trained several generations many of whom now own workshops. They were trained in shaping, decorating, glazing, and firing clay to make bowls, plates, mugs, teapots, and much more. In al-Nazla, traditional methods are being applied to new forms, as the decline in demand for utilitarian water pots has led to diversification, and potters now make decorative items such as planters and garden lights, using the same hammer-and-anvil technique as they did for the bukla.
Is the art of pottery making in Egypt endangered or seeing a surge of interest?
There seems to be a renaissance of interest in the kind of local, hand-crafted, and unique home and kitchenware produced in Tunis, in a rejection of mass-produced items.
Are there different styles of pottery making in Fayoum? What is Fayoum pottery used for?
Each of the three pottery villages of Fayoum has its own style and techniques: Kom Oshim is known for the huge terracotta planters, popular in the gardens and terraces of hotels and resorts across the country; al-Nazla produces water pots, mixing chopped straw or ash with the clay to make it porous, so that moisture evaporates from the surface, cooling the water inside; and the potters of Tunis make bright, colorful, glazed ware for use or display in the home.
The giant unglazed garden pots of Kom Oshim are often fluted, ribbed, or adorned with floral swags and other flourishes. In Tunis, colorful patterns or lively scenes of rural life, palm trees, donkeys, and village folk are often painted onto the pots before glazing, colored glazes are sometimes used, and sometimes a Japanese raku technique is used for a subtle dark, smoky crackling in the off-white surface of the pot.
What makes Fayoum’s pottery popular abroad?
In an increasingly factory-made and anonymous Western world, people are attracted more and more to hand-made artisanal products, things that you can hold and know they were created by an individual with care and attention. Even if you don’t know who that individual is, it is a human connection.