When Ibrahim al-Dessouky, a professor of painting at Helwan University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, wanted to teach his class a lesson on how to draw flesh, he had to do so with an advisory note.
“I wanted to explain the history of a certain kind of painting, a Courbet painting of a vagina and how Lucien Freud and other artists used it later,” explains Dessouky. “I gave it to the students with a note, telling them it is anti-Islam, and if they want, they can look at it.”
It is not the ideal way to conduct a class, but such stories are commonplace at the Faculty of Fine Arts today, and at this point, the situation is familiar. Nude models have long been banned from painting and sculpture classes, and it was five years ago that a conservative dean removed the Venus statue once situated on the faculty grounds. Every Ramadan, some students cover other small statues on campus.
But in conversation with professors and students at the faculty, it becomes clear that these changes are not what concerns them, nor are they particularly worried about the consequences of one group or another’s ascendance to power in government. On their minds are more basic issues of supplies and facilities, of structure and curriculum in an institution strapped for cash, unequipped and unsure of how to prepare students to confront the changing world they live in.
An aging system
Maryam Labib, a student of painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts says her greatest frustration as a young art student comes from a sense of her own inability to interact with society. “Society is not engaged with art, so as artists, it makes it difficult for us to engage with society. We are in a prison of academic art,” she says.
The traditional academic program of the Faculty of Fine Arts is strictly medium-based, focused almost completely on technical training, and provides little flexibility or potential agency for students.
“It is a very academic style of education, and it is very old,” says Ahmed Yehia, a student in the architecture department who is also the faculty’s first elected head of the student union.
Students often work with only one professor for the duration of their education. Marwa al-Shazly, a young professor of painting at the school, describes stark generational separations within the faculty that contribute to making the institution difficult to reform. Upon hiring, professors are guaranteed their jobs for life, and often continue working long past typical retirement age, until the age of 70 or 80, continuing to exert influence as elder statesmen of the university, while younger professors attempt to gradually take on the aging generation’s responsibilities.
“A student in the painting or sculpture departments could have the same professor for five years,” Shazly explains.
Rumblings of reform
For Shazly, the biggest issue with aging professors is their lack of will to work on improving the faculty, combined with the fact that they nonetheless hold positions of power. When 44-year-old Sayed Qandil recently became the very first elected dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, and the youngest person to ever hold the position, Shazly was happy.
“Because he is young, he wants to achieve more,” says Shazly. “Former deans did not have any will to change anything.”
Qandil is indeed setting about on a path of reform. He has been directing funds toward providing a much-needed update in classroom technology, and working on providing more support and training for teachers.
“We need more room for students to use new equipment; we need more Internet. We need to update the system,” says Qandil.
As a part of this update, he hopes to adapt the curriculum at the Faculty of Fine Arts to better respond to the needs of a commercial market, with plans to adjust departments such as Graphic Arts to cater more to graphic design, and include more market-friendly projects like puppet and mask-making in sculpture curriculum work. Many of Qandil’s hypothetical curricular reforms reshape the Faculty of Fine Arts in the form of Helwan University’s Faculty of Applied Arts.
What is this education for?
This development addresses an understandable anxiety among students about what follows fine arts education, and the incorporation of new technological processes is an essential development for many programs. For Yehia and his classmates, for example, it is a problem that the architecture department does not teach students how to use essential new computer modeling software.
But in other contexts, the emphasis on professional training moves the fine arts education into a problematic direction.
“I think there is some confusion in our faculty in terms of what we want to be doing,” says Shazly. “Are we trying to make these courses to teach students how to be graphic designers? Or are we training artists?”
For Dessouky, the very question of profession after a fine arts education is a source of annoyance, and reflects the frustrating fact that many students go into the Faculty of Fine Arts without any serious interest in art.
The limits of the system
The very issue of how and why students choose to go to the Faculty of Fine Arts is a source of difficulty.
Selection for government institutions is based on grade point average. Art institutions require a high grade point average, but not as high as such fields as engineering or medicine. So students finishing school find themselves faced with a certain array of choices for where to attend university based on their grades, and often the final decision results from a number of arbitrary factors, not a desire to study fine arts.
“The whole disaster is in the system,” says Shady el-Noshokaty, a professor in the Department of Performing and Visual Arts at the American University in Cairo who graduated from the Helwan Faculty of Art Education and taught there for many years.
Noshokaty has essentially given up on the state educational system, and feels the only way to move forward is by constructing parallel pathways that include conceptual education along with technical training. He is opening his own alternative education institution, ASCII, in Ard al-Lewa later this year. ASCII will focus on new media work while incorporating contemporary art history as well as art theory, all absent from the public art education curriculum.
A renewed focus on commercially applicable skills at the Faculty of Fine Arts is consistent with Noshokaty’s sense of the system.
“The ideology of the system is based on the history of crafts. The artist is the craftsman, it is not about creating ideas,” he says, “To create something in this structure is impossible.”
Some students do find ways to use their education to create, but often not with much help. What third year painting student Fady Galal appreciates most about his education is that it provides time and space to work.
“There is some freedom, we can do what we want, and we have free time,” says Galal.
Doa Aly attended the Faculty of Fine Arts and went on to become a successful practicing artist. Reflecting on her own experience in university, Aly remembers, “It gave me space, lots of it. I think it was important in that respect, because there was a lot of contemplation and thinking about what I was doing and what I wanted to do.”
But it still left something lacking, “I think I was just looking for someone to talk to, who would say something besides ‘do this’ or ‘do not do that’ — an education, basically.”