CAIRO: “Whenever her name is mentioned, I am immediately reminded of her smell. It’s the same familiar scent that always told me I was in her home. She was an avid storyteller and so my memory of her is marked by a hint of magic.”
The Egyptian artist Rasha Saafan is talking about her late maternal grandmother, whose memory serves as inspiration for Saafan’s hobby-turned business, Ghazala.
Ghazala, which translates as ‘female deer,’ is a Cairo-based jewelry and accessories brand that specializes in distinctive handmade accessories, with a focus on necklaces and earrings. The brand stems from, among other things, Saafan’s fascination with the past.
A graduate of both Cairo’s Helwan Faculty of Fine Arts and the Higher Institute of Theatrical Arts, Saafan spent the years after college sketching at her Manyal-based atelier. A while later, she began experimenting with creating accessories using a range of textiles, including fragments from her late father’s shirts as well as woven fabrics collected on her travels to India, Nepal, Thailand, Tunisia, Romania and Turkey. Saafan also used snippets of her late grandmother’s clothes discovered during frequent visits to her house.
“I was tidying her room one day when I found a suitcase stored under her bed. When I opened it, I found old photographs of her with my grandfather, a handful of her clothes and a collection of fabrics,” Saafan recalls. “I could recognize her traces in her garments, in how they carried her distinctive smell, and I wanted to capture these hints in a beautiful necklace that would always keep me company.”
But Saafan was also honoring her grandmother’s vocation as an avid arts-and-crafts lover. “Grandma had a sewing machine and was adept at crochet and hand knitting. She made all of her children’s clothes from scratch. She was truly an artist at heart,” Saafan says.
Typically, Saafan mixes her fabrics with beads and old silver to create her accessories. “This blending of materials is what renders something unique,” she explains.
More than celebrating the memory of loved ones, Ghazala also attests to the remedial power of art. Saafan responds to the loss of loved ones by sewing fruit seeds on to the heart of an accessory then wrapping it with fabric. “It’s exactly as if you’re planting something within an otherwise lifeless object, pumping life into it,” she says.
A self-taught jewelry designer, Saafan thinks of Ghazala as her own rebellion against the academy and how it grounded her art education in technicalities.
“I think education ruins an artist’s spontaneity,” she says. “Whenever I sketch, I start thinking about proportions right away. I can’t seem to free myself from this excessive obsession with technicalities and this is precisely why I never wanted to ‘learn’ jewelry making.”
In fact, Saafan recognizes and takes pride in the beauty of imperfection. From keeping untrimmed threads to preserving visible signs of wear on her accessories, she places strong emphasis on “the spontaneity that drives the creative process.”
With every purchase, a Ghazala piece embarks on a new journey. So far, Ghazala accessories have been bought by clients in Germany, France, the UK, the US, Lebanon and Tunisia. Saafan takes meticulous care of the packaging process, personalizing every new order. She puts her artful pieces in hand-made boxes carrying the client’s name. She also scribbles a few words about her feelings towards each artwork.
“I want to remind Ghazala’s clients that these accessories were crafted by human hands,” she remarks.
When Saafan’s not traveling and “showing Ghazala the world,” she’s in her studio, testing new designs and working on orders. She hopes to start incorporating sequins, “an under-rated decorative spangle,” into Ghazala’s designs soon. Her upcoming projects include working with families who have lost loved ones to cancer. The idea behind that project, Saafan explains, is to try and keep their memory alive by upcycling their clothes and reworking them into another of her inimitable accessories.