Miniaturism is a type of applied art that relies on making very small figures, often the size of the palm of the hand or smaller, that simulate reality through tiny people, animals, plants, food, and almost anything else that can be made far smaller than its normal size.
Egyptian artists were among the first in the world to make such miniature scenes, with wooden dioramas or scenes of fishing boats or granaries being found in tombs dating back to the ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom.
“In the art of the miniature or diorama an artist sees an image of real life and starts imitating it in tiny three-dimensional figures. I see scenes from everyday life, especially traditional aspects of life, and embody them in my miniatures,” said miniaturist Abeer Saadeddin, or the mosagharateya (miniaturist in Arabic), as she calls herself.
She has been working in the field for five years and explained how it all started. “I am the mother of two children, and my youngest son is into art and likes making things. One day, he showed me a YouTube video of a doll’s house and told me he wanted to make something like it. I really liked the idea, and this is where the idea of making miniatures came from,” she said.
“After I had finished the doll’s house I built with my son, I started searching the Internet for miniatures that were related to Egyptian traditions, but I could not find any. So, I started to experiment with many types of material.”
According to Saadeddin, some examples of the miniatures she has done so far are of Nubian homes, farm houses, homes in traditional areas of Cairo, homes from Fatimid Cairo, and modern homes. Some of her clients ask her to make models of their own houses to give them to someone they care for. “People send me pictures of a place and I make a miniature of it,” she said.
“I have always had a passion for arts, especially handicrafts. The first fair I organised was when I was 16 years old and was at the khayameya [tent material] arts gallery at the Giza Cultural Palace. The pieces I made were a blend of oriental and modern art because I am obsessed with traditional art,” she said.
She graduated from the Faculty of Specific Education where she majored in fine art. She also holds a postgraduate degree from the Academy of Arts at the Higher Institute of Art Criticism. This background was useful to her when she decided to work in the field of miniatures because it meant that she was already familiar with many arts and crafts. In one miniature, an artist can be working on many types of art like sculpture, pottery, decoupage, interior design, carpentry, and painting, she said.
Through her traditional pieces, she also hopes to remind people of the past and make the new generation familiar with the lifestyles of their forefathers. “I chose the Egyptian traditional arts as a main theme in my work because it is the heritage of my country and I am proud of it. I also like Egyptian art for its inscriptions, colours, and designs,” she said.
“People remember their childhood memories from such traditions. In addition, I am working on preserving and spreading the traditions through the miniatures I make. I also introduce aspects of these traditions to children. No house in the past did not have a wabour ghaz (a gas burner), which was used by many of our grandmothers to cook food like on a stove today.”
The small details in the miniatures Saadeddin designs like the traditional oven, furniture, pottery, and doors and windows also attract foreigners who have never seen miniatures that embody such details of Egyptian rural life before.
“Whenever I participate in fairs abroad, many foreigners are amazed by such things. This type of art is sending a message to the world about the beauty of our heritage with all its colours, inscriptions, and motifs that stay in the memory,” Saadeddin said. “Through these international events, we are spreading the traditional Egyptian and Arab heritage among foreign artists and people who know very little about it.”
“My aim is that this form of art should spread all over the world… I teach students of different ages, and I now have students from other countries attending my workshops like students from Morocco, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.”
TEACHING: Some of Saadeddin’s foreign students are making use of the skills they have learnt to display their own heritage at home.
One of her students was a Moroccan doctor, Latifa Echakhch, for example, who has now become a famous miniaturist in her own right and has participated in a fair in Ankara in Turkey. The main theme of her miniatures is traditional Moroccan heritage.
Saadeddin trains children starting from the age of seven so that they can handle the sharp tools used while working like scissors. “When a child is given the opportunity to make a miniature of a Nubian home and displays it in a fair, the idea of belonging to his country is engraved in him,” she said.
“This is an important aim. But another is that these activities take hours and help to absorb the energy of the children in a positive way and makes them more creative. The most important aim is to make the children love their country and its heritage.”
The material Saadeddin uses in her work mainly consists of recycled objects. She uses any unwanted pieces of wood, cans, paper, or glass bottles. She also teaches her young students to recycle their broken toys and make use of them in their miniatures. “We use clay, wood, ceramic paste, porcelain, clay, a lot of things. The most important thing is how to process the material we get,” she said, explaining that she buys the wood she uses from carpenters or nearby shops.
Saadeddin has now participated in over 100 fairs inside and outside Egypt. The most recent was at the Al-Nasiriyah Cultural Centre in Iraq, where she displayed a miniature of Iraq’s famous Ishtar Gate. She was the only Egyptian participating in the fair, as the rest of the participants were Iraqis, and the fair was related to the ancient Babylonian civilisation. However, she earlier took part in another fair in Iraq, this time at the Beit Al-Nabi Ibrahim in which she displayed miniature pieces representing the Egyptian heritage.
She has also organised two workshops at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in Cairo and organised the first miniature workshop for children at the Museum of Islamic Art to mark the centennial of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun last year. She made miniatures of pieces displayed in the Museum of Islamic Art and displayed them on the occasion of International Museum Day. She has participated in fairs like Turathna (Our Heritage), the Handicrafts Egypt Exhibition at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and Dyarna (Our Home).
Not many people understand the art of miniatures, so Saadeddin has got used to being creative in making room for miniatures in people’s homes. “I am constantly being asked why I make my miniatures, so I decided to give them a function at home. For instance, I have made miniature rooms that can be used as key chains. I have made traditional coffee shop chairs with people’s names on them and note books with traditional doors in miniature on their covers,” she said.
In future she intends to organise more miniature workshops to spread Egypt’s heritage, customs, and traditions through this form of art.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly