The children sitting around a tall rectangular table listen attentively to a Chinese artist as he shows them how to turn clay into an elephant. "You take this piece of clay and form it in a circular shape. Then you stretch it that way," Chinese artist Du Shao yong tells them, as the elephant slowly takes shape in his well-practiced hands.
“When you finish, you put wooden sticks through his stomach to help the clay stand upright," he adds in Chinese. An Arabic translator swiftly tells the children what Du just said.
The children’s clay workshop is one of several Chinese-Egyptian cultural activities that are organized at the Talaat Harb Culture Center in Cairo until Aug. 13. Du was invited by Egypt's Cultural Development Fund, affiliated to the Ministry of Culture, and the Chinese Culture Center in Cairo to hold clay workshops to teach the craft to the Egyptian youth.
“It is my first time in Egypt. I feel lucky that I am here to introduce the Chinese way of pottery-making to the Egyptian children,” Du told Al-Monitor. “The Egyptian civilization is one of the oldest in the world — especially in pottery-making and use of clay. So it is important for any Chinese pottery artist to make Egypt his first stop to introduce Chinese pottery to the Arab world.”
Fatma Ali, a pupil at an elementary school in Cairo who attended Du's course, stared in amazement while the instructor made an animal out of clay. Ali, 9, told Al-Monitor, “I have never seen this animal before, but the artist said it is very common in China,” pointing at the statuette of a Bactrian camel with two humps. “The artist promised to show us other strange animals and birds that we have not seen before and how he colors them as well.”
Chinese artist Du Shao yong explains to children how to form different shapes using clay at a workshop at the Talaat Harb Cultural Center in Cairo, July 31, 2017 (photo by Salwa Samir).
Chinese potter Li Hong liang teaches workshops at the Foustat Traditional Crafts Center in Old Cairo for students of Cairo’s art colleges and technical institutes, with the aim of exchanging experiences in pottery-making.
Born in 1958, Li has practiced the art of clay modeling for more than 40 years. “There is a difference between the Egyptian clay and Chinese one, as the latter is a bit hard,” he told Al-Monitor.
Both the Chinese and the Egyptians have a centurieslong tradition of pottery, by forming pots and objects out of clay and heating them in a kiln using a high temperature to remove the water. People in ancient Egypt used to make many items using clay, mostly vessels that were used to serve and store food. The paintings on some temples' walls and illustrations inside tombs provide information on the variety and quantity of clay containers used by the Egyptians. Ceramic jars filled with food offerings were also found in the Egyptian tombs from the early pre-dynastic period of ancient Egypt and continuing throughout Egyptian history.
Chinese pottery, on the other hand, is known for its use of ceramics in daily life. Vessels of clay were used mostly for rituals. The earliest evidence of any art consisting of crude, cord-marked pottery and artifacts decorated with geometric designs is found in Mesolithic sites in northern China.
The Foustat Traditional Crafts Center is an inspiring place for traditional crafts, where pottery and ceramics classes take place. Fustat, the first capital of Egypt under Muslim rule, is an ancient city built in A.D. 641 by Muslim Gen. Amr ibn al-As and became an important center for Islamic arts. Presently part of Old Cairo, Fustat hosts a number of pottery-making workshops.
Nada Abdel-Kereem, a professor at Helwan University’s faculty of art education and one of the attendees at Li's workshop, told Al-Monitor, “I noticed there is a difference between the Chinese and Egyptian pottery. The quality of the clay in China is better,” she said. “That’s why the product’s finishing is beautiful.”
Li said that the temperature of heating the clay is different in the Egyptian and Chinese pottery-making process. “In China, we use a higher temperature in heating the clay compared to the Egyptian method. That’s why there is a glossier finish,” he added.
Li has been practicing pottery for more than 18 years, and he established his own atelier where he creates pots, vases, jugs and seals.
He said that there will be an exhibition at the end of the workshop displaying the attendees’ art works. “I will also keep in contact with them for further collaboration in this field. I hope the students show their creations to their friends so that people become acquainted with Chinese pottery,” he said.