Despite its name, the Winter Academy is an extraordinarily warm place. This has little to do with weather–the attractive adobe-style buildings that constitute the campus remain warm during cold weather and cool during summer. This art school has no fences or enclosing walls of any kind. Every evening, students and teachers meet to cook dinner, watch movies and just hang out, drinking tea and making conversation under the starlit skies of Fayoum.
Located near the small village of Tunis–on a hillside overlooking Lake Qaroun–the Winter Academy is infused with the gentle spirit of its creator, Egyptian artist Mohamed Abla. Soft-spoken and perpetually stained with paint, Abla has spent the past 50 years establishing himself as one of the country’s most talented artists. For decades, his work has been displayed in galleries and museums around the world.
His remarkable career eventually led to the establishment of the Winter Academy, which, for him, represents the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. For the past four years, the academy has existed as a haven for artists seeking inspiration in the beauty of nature.
“As you can see, we have no walls,” says Abla, settling into his chair, shisha pipe in hand. “Fayoum is the ideal environment for a place like this because it’s quiet and beautiful–the water, the palm trees and the sand dunes. The people in nearby villages are all friendly and visiting artists find their way of life extremely appealing.”
Influenced by Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka’s Summer Academy in Salzburg–a city in which Abla has had his work displayed–the Winter Academy stands as a symbol of Abla’s artistic worldview. “I don’t like art in the way it typically exists, hanging on walls in galleries and showrooms,” he says. “For me, art is more like a diary; a journal of personal expression, based on personal experiences–places I’ve been to and people I’ve talked to. I can’t say that I’m influenced by art, but more by the situations that I find myself in.”
Unlike most art institutions in Cairo–brimming with inflated self-importance–the Winter Academy offers a truly liberating experience, with students finding their capacity for creativity enhanced by the enchanting location and stimulating workshops offered by a variety of established international artists. Abla prides himself on having created a place in which artists can comfortably immerse themselves, all in the name of art. “I’m inspired by artists who help other artists,” he says.
Another factor that makes the academy unique is the lack of tuition fees: students can attend workshops, which run annually from February to mid-March, free of charge. Limited accommodation means that some students and artists stay in a nearby ecolodge, but a tour of the academy soon reveals the additional option of bringing and setting up your own tent.
“It’s very open here, it’s very free,” says 28-year-old artist Sophia Ahmed, who has been attending workshops and helping Abla out with administrative chores. “People can do pretty much whatever they want. They can express themselves freely here.”
Workshops offered at the academy cover a variety of topics and mediums, including painting, sculpting, video art and more. Last week’s workshop was devoted to the famous Fayoum portraits–a theme Abla clearly enjoyed. “I’m very interested in art history,” he says. Earlier in the afternoon, he produced two unique Fayoum-style portraits of his own, exhibiting astonishing speed and skill.
Yet despite the diversity of interests which his academy caters to, Abla still is not completely satisfied. “I’d like to increase the number of activities,” he says. “I’d like to offer activities and events specifically created for groups like children–school trips and such. Ideally, these services would fit into the same framework we’ve already set up, creating dialogues between different peoples and cultures.”
Abla’s interest in intercultural dialogue can also be seen in his Caricature Museum, which, along with the Winter Academy, make up the Fayoum Art Center. Housing an impressive collection of cartoons from local newspapers and magazines dating back to the mid-twentieth century, the Caricature Museum is a tribute to the witty social and political commentary–and biting satire–for which Egyptian cartoonists were once known.
Having officially opened one year ago, the idea for a Caricature Museum was something Abla had contemplated for some time. “The inspiration for it came to me after that whole incident with the Danish cartoons, and seeing the response it triggered,” he says.
“Things have changed after 9/11,” Abla sighs, poking at the crumbling coals crowning his shisha pipe. “The world became a different place; certain ideas were formed as a result of those events, and that needs to be addressed. You can try to fight those ideas and preconceptions with lectures and debates, or you can do it through art.”
Abla’s belief in the power of art is unwavering, as would be expected from a man responsible for creating both a tuition-free art school and an art museum.
“I’m not a rich man,” he says. “Any money I make from art goes directly back into art. Into creating this,” he says, pointing to the surrounding buildings, bustling with energetic young artists expanding the scope of their talents. “If I live in a community that’s full of fanatics, then I won’t be living happily. But if I want to live in a community that cares about and produces art–if I want that kind of happiness–then I need to nurture it; help it grow.”