The collection was just displayed this week at the House of Wissaf Wassef, not so far from the setting of the pyramids
It is hard to have an encounter with Mahinaz El-Messeiry without thinking that she must have been a lead character in one of the animation movies. Her funky glasses, her bob haircut and her simple manners all add to this air of hers. Clearly, her designs manifest this commitment and diligence that has to inevitably pay off – notwithstanding an occasional hiccup here or there.
Discipline is clearly one of her unmistakable traits. It must have come from the manners of a police officer father whose attitude resonated with the idea of “to want to have something means to be able to work for it”. With the discipline came that equally unmistakable taste for art that she must have had from her mother, a graduate of the faculty fine arts who had an imprint in the world of fashion and whose studio held elegant outfits that are her signature designs. This mix of attributes have defined the lines of Mahinaz El-Messeiry poignant character.
Right from the beginning Mahi, as she is called by family and friends, was almost literally put to bed with art. In a bedroom that she had all for herself, Mahi had an art work that her mother did for a graduation project, not long after having given birth to the daughter.
“I had a room all for myself while my two brothers shared another room. In this room, my mother had put her toile that she titled ‘Mahi and the bulging elephants’ which is basically a drawing that subscribes to Naïve Art, with protruding dolls that were designed by Rahmi, the famous marionette artist who was a friend of my mom,” she said. It was actually this work of art that got Mahi’s mother to do a story for children. Mahi’s paternal uncle Abdel-Wahhab El-Messiry, a prominent intellectual and writer, helped out with editing.
This story, Mahi said, was about an elephant who boasted about having a long trunk. However, in the story, Mahi got to see so many other animals parading on. “And in the process, she gets to learn that what counts is the beauty inside which every single creature has deep down”.
With such a childhood setting and with the privilege of growing up in a context where art and music were the norm of everyday life, it was only expected that Mahi would want to pursue studies of fine arts. For all she knew, she would not pass the required aptitude tests and she could not join the faculty of fine arts. Having been declined by her path of choice, Mahi recalled that she asked her parents to “choose for her any faculty because they all seemed the same to me; they opted for the French literature department at the faculty of arts”.
And this was not at all something that she would come to regret. After all, it made perfect sense for this graduate of the Alexandria French School, Notre Dame de Sion, to further pursue her knowledge and understanding of the work of renowned French literary figures and to explore more around the corridors of French culture and history. “Studying literature have opened new horizons for me; I was able to read and feel these literary texts and to actually have vivid images of what I read; for example, a poem of [Charles] Baudelaire [a 19th century French poet],” El-Messiry said. She added, “actually, for me, it has always been the case, and it still is, that everything I see translates somehow into colours and images”.
Mahi said that when she works on a new collection of hers it is often at the late evening hours when she is going to bed that she gets to see when she gets to sleep that she finds the contours of the designs she is having in. “It is at these hours of the nightsleep that I can reach out to the harmony and equilibrium of the motifs I want to draw,” she said.
Mahi’s motifs transcend into being objects that carry the layers of Egyptian history and culture and that are perfectly made to fit the everyday life, including table and bed spreads, covers for cushions and more. For her, she argued, this is the true “call of heritage”. It is, she explained, about helping heritage to find its way in our daily life – to give it this sense of perpetuality.
The role of Mahi’s paternal uncle, Abdel-Wahab El-Messeiry , is someone she has to thank, at least partially, for this close bond that she has cultivated with the multi-layered Egyptian history. It was this uncle who would have her along with all other kids of the family on one tour after the other of the historic sites of Egypt. He wanted to get the kids to be fully in touch with their origins and their culture. He would not allow it to have those kids, who all attended English and French schools, to be talking to one another in any other language than their native Arabic tongue.
Upon her graduation, El-Messeiry worked for seven consecutive years at the administration of the Senghor University. In parallel, she would attend a range of drawing and art classes. She loved to explore and she did not immediately develop a taste for any particular school of art. And all the while, she would have her meetings, every now and then, with colleagues of her mom who were teaching at the school of fine arts, where she would get to learn more about her passion.
This meant that she never actually gave up on her dream to become an artist. She continued her pursuit of art in many ways and she seemed, inadvertently as it was, to be waiting for the right moment to unleash her talent abundantly.
When she met Yasser, the man who became her husband, Mahi decided to join him as he was studying engineering in L’École des Mines de Nancy, in France. In Paris, she would for four consecutive years study the art of design and art history, respectively at the Greta de la création and the evening classes of the Louvre School that are arguably among the best art schools for adults.
With a supportive husband, Mahi said that she was ever so motivated that she would work relentlessly, no matter how tired. “ I was endlessly on the mov, getting from one library to the other and from a library to a museum and then to an art center and back again and again,” she recalled.
In Paris, banging on being so well-versed on and immersed in Egyptian culture, Mahi got introduced to study with a prominent Lebanese decorator who was happened to be working in the French capital at the time. And there it was time for a new experience – this time in practice. Working for this Lebanese designer, she recalled she got to “go around the stores and to get introduced to all the key brands and also to all the places where she can find the best bargains possible”. And then, she also learned of “the need to be always on the go in such a highly competitive market”.
Later while still in Paris, Mahi got introduced to another decorator who was doing the interiors of one of the bigger department store chains in Franc, Monoprix. This, she said, offered her the perfect opportunity to put diverse items on display in a store to make them as appealing as accessible to the clients. “I was there learning how to put everything on display; accessories, porcelains, women’s ready-to-wear clothes and so on… this certainly contributed to my skills in interior designing and in product design as well,” she said.
Then, with her first child born, it was soon time for Mahi to come back to Egypt where she would be on an endless exploration track – both of people and of ideas, just as becoming of an animation movie princess who lands in a garden of endless wonders. For sure, Mahi just needed to travel around the country and get in direct touch with the diverse cultural territories to get inspirations for her successive collections and to build her own success story.
Mahi’s first collection was inspired by the arts of the oasis of Siwa, in the Western desert of Egypt, some 500 kms off Cairo. It was actually the devasting loss of her own father that took Mahi to Siwa as she was overwhelmed by the beauty of piece of fabric that he had bought from that oasis. “I kept staring at this piece of fabric for long and I was fascinated by its beauty,” she recalled. In the process of trying to overcome her grief, and with many trips back and forth between Cairo and Siwa, Mahi actually got her first collection out. She had the garden of her house at Sheikh Zayed as the first gallery space for this collection.
At the time, Mahi was already gaining an impressive word-of-mouth-based reputation as a designer who has done the interiors of several houses and private offices. However, with the first collection out, she got dedicated to continue her own line and for sure her designs were to find their way to London and Paris. For her the inspirations were endless and the motifs were just abundant and so was her wish to deconstruct and reconstruct these motifs into patterns that fitted their lines into modern items.
For Mahi, however, these modern items had to come with some context, just to explain their origins and history. “For me it is very important that those who are interested in buying my designs get to know the history and the origins of these motifs; I do care about documenting this history,” she said.
For 12 consecutive years, Mahi had put out designs with inspirations, from Siwa, from the Delta of Egypt, from Nubia and elsewhere across the country. And in each and every place she would find the overwhelming artistic character to capture and present. “In Siwa one cannot miss the strong impact of the colours of dates; in Nubia it is more the earth colours and the shades of beige while in the Delta, say in Behira, it is the place for the striking colours, like the fuchisas and oranges that your eyes can never miss and that offer the most beautiful contrast with white, the colour of the fields of cotton,” she said.
For her most recent collection, Nefertum, Mahi found inspirations from the history of Ancient Egypt. It was in April this year, at the Egyptian Academy in Rome, on the occasion of the international day of heritage, that Mahi got this collection first put-on display. Then this month, on 9 to 11 June, the collection was displayed at the Ramses Wissa Wassef Center, in Haraniyah not very far from Cairo. This collection of home décor items and dresses was displayed both in style and context. On the sideline of the exhibitions there were seminars and music performances that relayed the historic context.
“I started preparing for this collection in 2019 but I have been thinking about it for much longer; I think it is such an incredible and unique adventure for any designer,” she said. Mahi knows very well that it takes talent and courage for a designer to be able to decompose and to play with what could otherwise be perceived as heavy elements of the pharaonic themes. “One needs to be able to capture the abstract dimensions of the motifs there and to understand their symbols in order to be able to have them recreated in a modern application without compromising their concept of origin,” she argued.
For example, Mahi argued, it would make absolutely no sense to try to put the Horus Eye or the Oujda on a flip-flop. “It is simply impossible,” she stressed. In her new collection, Mahi is using a lot of papyrus and lotus flowers, “and I know that often enough many people would confuse one with the other,” she said. She herself is talking while happily fondling with a very delicate neckless with papyrus designs.
According to Mahi, the current craze for designs of Ancient Egypt is a trend in the world of fashion that only the selected few design houses “like Azza Fahmy and Coco Chanel” could really command into their designs. “But not many others really,” she said.
The world of Ancient Egypt has been mesmerizing Mahi more and more. Each and every day, she said, she is learning something new that is further attracting her to this world. “It is like when you meet someone and you admire their looks but then you get to know them well so you admire them more; and the more you know about them and the more time you spend with them, the more you like them and the more you want to talk about them with other people,” she said. For Mahi this civilization has so much “humanity entrenched in its underlying concepts”. “Think of death for example; for the Ancient Egyptians, death is not at all about an end but rather about a transcending path towards a place that is more sublime; this is not the case with Western civilisations,” she argued.
While strolling around the endless wonders of Egyptian heritage, Mahi is now getting closer in touch with the Coptic heritage which is arguably the uninterrupted continuation of the previous phases of Egyptian civilization. This is probably where she would get inspirations for her next collection. This, she is doing while still immersed in training house wives, children and art students to revive their own heritage in the most subtle of ways.
A version of this article was published at Al-Ahram Hebdo 15th June edition