In the documentary film “Rawya,” by the late Egyptian director and journalist Ateyyat El-Abnoudy, we learn about the experience of Rawya Abdel-Qader, a girl from the village of Tunis in Fayoum, southwest of Cairo. The film shows Rawya learning the arts of ceramics and pottery with the Swiss artist Evelyne Porret, who passed away on June 1.
The film, which received many international and local awards, reveals how Porret managed to create an institution that helps rural women use art to change their destiny.
“I was a little girl when Evelyne helped me play with pottery along with her two children, Maria and Angelo,” said Abdel-Qader, who is now a woman on the verge of 50. “She then invited me to learn the craft of pottery and the art of ceramics, and my life changed forever. Today, I cannot imagine my life without her.”
Porret, whose funeral was attended by hundreds of peasants in the village of Tunis, changed the reality of the village, turning it into one of the most important cultural and artistic tourism destinations in Egypt, thanks to the school she founded to teach pottery and ceramics.
“Porret gave the village the spirit by which it lives now,” said Mohamed Abla, director of the Fayoum Art Center, one of the art centers that emerged in the village. “She managed to turn it into a destination for artists and intellectuals from all across the globe.”
Insisting on Living in Egypt
More than 50 years ago, Porret moved to Egypt after studying decorative arts in Geneva and marrying Sayed Hegab, the late Egyptian colloquial poet. The marriage lasted for a short period, during which she resided in the village and used one of her houses as a private studio. After their divorce, she went back to Switzerland for a short time and married Michel Porret, a Swiss fashion designer. After their marriage, she insisted on returning to Egypt and settled with him in the village of Tunis, which she loved and where she raised her children.
Porret “was not living in isolation, she was part of the fabric of the village,” said Abdel-Qader, the subject of El-Abnoudy’s film and one of Porret’s most prominent students. “She ate with the people, sat with them, walked barefoot like them, and wanted to know all the secrets of the homes and worked to solve their problems.”
Porret “was not living in isolation, she was part of the fabric of the village. She ate with the people, sat with them, walked barefoot like them, and wanted to know all the secrets of the homes and worked to solve their problems.”Rawya Abdel-Qader
An early pupil of Porret’s who now runs her own pottery business
On her experience of learning from Porret, Abdel-Qader said that “when Porret established her school to teach pottery making, I was the first and only girl to study with her. She saved me from early marriage, and I was seen by many as the one who broke traditions. When I traveled with her to Marseille, I came back to find all the village’s women willing to see their daughters repeating my experience.”
After seeing Abdel-Qader succeed in learning pottery and earning a living from it, the villagers flocked to Porret’s school, forcing her to limit the number of students she admitted. Abdel-Qader succeeded in educating her family members before she married a colleague who had also worked with Porret.
Now, Abdel-Qader owns a large workshop in the village, and has clients who buy her ceramics from the galleries she works with, and her work has been exhibited around the world.
“Porret convinced the villagers with her hard work, and thanks to her tolerant spirit, she helped everyone, so her memory will stay alive,” Abdel-Qader said. “She did not change my life alone, she changed the whole village and taught me credibility, commitment and keenness on quality.”
Exceptional Talent and Spirit
Heba Helmi, an Egyptian ceramic artist, believes that Porret understood the “psychological structure of the peasantry” and was part of the details of their daily lives. She exchanged visits and food recipes with them, and they resorted to her to obtain recipes to treat their diseases. She was very familiar with alternative medicine and herbal treatment, and was considered a source of trust and safety.
“She lived like any peasant woman, even though the village, when she came to it, lacked water and electricity,” Helmi said. “However, she strived to change her reality in an unusual way.”
Gallery: A Village Mourns
Abla also believes that Porret was not an ordinary person, but rather an exceptional artist with the spirit of a teacher.
“Thanks to her continuous endeavor to teach farmers and children the arts of ceramics and pottery, and the establishment of schools, the demand for education increased and the standard of living in the village rose after ceramics became one of the components of the creative economy,” he said. “The village turned into a destination for artistic residence or tourism, which also contributed to the improvement of daily behavior, as the village enjoys a degree of sophistication in dealing with strangers that is seldom found in other villages.”
Badr Al-Rifai, an Egyptian writer and translator, thinks that the secret of Porret’s success came from her ability to work among ordinary simple people. She “dealt with people without those Orientalist tendencies and without any form of condescension to the local culture,” he said.
Haji Abdul-Sattar Abdul-Sami’, one of those who learned pottery and ceramics at Porret’s school, says she overwhelmed him with motherly tenderness, so that her absence seems irreplaceable.
“I was playing with her children when she asked me to go to school. There I learned everything; writing, reading and art,” he said.
Porret instilled confidence among the villagers, he added. “She taught us that rural children are capable of creativity and instilled in our lives new values of commitment and honesty.”
“She taught us that rural children are capable of creativity and instilled in our lives new values of commitment and honesty.”Haji Abdul-Sattar Abdul-Sami’
One of those who learned pottery and ceramics at Porret’s school
Official and Local Farewells
The Swiss Embassy in Egypt bid the late artist farewell in an official statement, describing her as “a pioneer in creative community service and community development and a pillar of the Swiss community in Egypt.”
Egypt’s Ministry of Social Solidarity also saluted Porret’s efforts and stressed in a statement that “the entire craft sector will not forget the great role the late woman played.”
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In a Facebook post, Ghada Waly, director-general of the United Nations office at Vienna and executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, wrote, “Today, Egypt lost one of its loyal fans, and development workers lost one of the pioneers of development.”
According to her wishes, Porret’s body was not buried in the Swiss Cemetery in Cairo, but in a Coptic Christian cemetery in a village near Lake Qarun.