Egypt’s traditional unglazed clay water jugs, commonly called "ollas," have been revamped in bright colors decorated with modern or traditional motifs and calligraphy. This comeback is the work of two young Egyptian artists, Hadeer Mohamed and Esraa Magdy, who launched project Shababik (Windows) in 2015, to give a fresh look to the clay water jugs that date back to Pharaonic times. Yet many Egyptian farmers, particularly in Upper Egypt, still make and use them. Jugs with similar designs can also be found in North Africa.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Mohamed, a graduate of the faculty of fine arts at Alexandria University, said she aims to design innovative objects. “I wanted to relaunch the clay water pot by giving a face-lift to an object of Egyptian heritage."
Mohamed and Magdy are inspired by Egyptian and Nubian styles and Pharaonic and Islamic decorative arts. They create custom-made jugs, too. Mohamed said, “Sometimes the customer selects the water pot's design and we implement it.”
To create vibrant colors, the two artists use acrylic paint on the outside of the ollas. They leave the outside unglazed, so that the customers can use it as a water pitcher, not just for decoration.
“People can safely drink from them. We only paint the outside of the clay pot because we want these traditional pots to be used again in Egyptian households. They can be used as a pitcher, to store water or as a decorative piece in the home," Mohamed said.
Trying to expand their work, Mohamed and Magdy have started painting larger unglazed clay pots, dubbed "zeer." "Painting ollas is difficult, since there is only a small area for the design and you have to be extremely accurate,” Mohamed said. “Zeer pots give us a larger area to draw and paint on.”
The artists fill the holes of these pots before they start painting to protect the colors from peeling. They use concentrated colors to make these water jars more attractive, before they draw the design that is either modern or uses old Egyptian and Islamic motifs. It takes them roughly 1½ days to paint one olla, and a zeer is completed within two days.
The Shababik founders have also introduced Arabic calligraphy into their designs, with the help of Magdy's husband, Mohamed Adel, who is a professional calligrapher.
"Hand lettering has various designs that require a high level of accuracy. The calligrapher has to strike a balance between the design of the letters, the length of the quote and the pot's size," Mohamed said, adding that many customers like calligraphy on their pots.
Starting from a single gallery in Cairo, Shababik products have now spread to other galleries and the local markets. They also receive requests from governorates nationwide through their Facebook page. Mohamed and Magdy are determined to bring Egyptian art heritage to other objects as well, with clay plant pots being their next target.