Meet Zeinab Naggar: entrepreneur, mother and artist

Farah El Alfy
6 Min Read

Walking into the Art Center at the Cairo Opera House is like walking into a doll s house, filled with dainty porcelain ornaments.

Artist Zeinab Naggar has a eye for detail, which is demonstrated in her teacups, plates, vases, candlesticks and other bric-a-bracs she meticulously hand-paints.

From oriental designs to animals, the elderly lady’s style is as diverse as her personality.

Naggar’s first encounter with art was at finishing school, which was a requirement implemented by King Farouk when she was still a school girl at the Lycée Français du Caire. At finishing school, she learned literature, ballet, housekeeping and painting.

“Like all Egyptian girls at the time, at the ripe age of 18, I got married without going to university, recalls Naggar.

Years later, at age 30, Naggar would drop off her girls at the same school, right next door to the American University in Cairo, which she was inspired to join.

“I decided to join AUC studying political science and economics and graduated the top of my class with honors, Naggar said, “It was easy for me to get good marks … I had a lot of experience. My husband was a businessman and I met a lot of people from all walks of life.

After finishing her undergrad studies, she received a scholarship to do her masters degree in management.

Upon graduating, she taught decision-making at the university for a few years. However, she felt it was ineffective since the subject of her teachings was not applicable to Egyptian society back then, since it was based mainly on accurate and timely information, which was mostly inaccessible.

In 1973 Naggar decided to start her own company called Modern Management Methods (MMM) to introduce new management techniques to Egyptian industries. She ran the business for 20 years.

After selling her company, she was left with a beautiful open space in Zamalek, which she decided to turn into an art gallery, the only private galleries around then. The number of art collectors was also very small. But it was a time when a considerable number of talented artists began to emerge on the rather barren art scene.

Her mission when Riyash Gallery first opened was to offer a space for these artists and to create a new class of art collectors.

“I kept telling people that when they pay so much for shoes or a blouse it will be thrown away, but when you put the same money in art, the price goes up . especially when the artist dies, she laughs.

Another method she used is what Samuel Huntington calls the “demonstration effect. Naggar explains that once she put a painting up in her daughter’s house, their friends did the same, and their friends were inspired to collect art, and so on.

Through the gallery, she succeeded in accomplishing both of her objectives.

By the time she decided to close down, a number of other galleries had opened in Zamalek, a neighborhood that is now regarded as one of the country’s art centers.

That’s when Naggar became interested in porcelain painting. She took lessons with a friend of hers who had studied the craft in Europe. “I had a lot of time on my hands . we started it as a hobby, she adds.

Since her adolescence, Naggar had not attempted to use a paintbrush – except for brief instances in her Montazah cabin in Alexandria where she tried to capture the beauty of the sea.

After years of study, she had her first exhibition in Paris in 1999. “I had a show in Paris and after that they officially called me an artist … I was baptized, she said.

The exhibition propelled Naggar to take painting more seriously, and she started selling her work. She also volunteered at the Italian Culture Center, giving classes for about four years in painting on porcelain.

Once a year, she holds an exhibition like the one on display now, presenting her year’s work. “I think this year will be my last one though, she said.

Naggar ended the interview with a reference to Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

In her own words she says, “I recommend it to women of a certain age with time on their hands . if you don’t fill your own time with things you want to do people will give you work that you don’t want to do.

– Don’t miss Zeinab Nagger’s hand-painted porcelain exhibition at the Cairo Opera House.

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