Monday, February 18, 2013

The Tentmakers of Chareh El Khiamiah

Illustration: A Khayamiya by Hosam Hanafy. Photo by Jenny Bowker.

A slight departure today from the usual article post, a guest post. I have given space over to a project not my own. I was approached by Kim Beamish to help publicise a documentary film 'The Tentmakers of Chareh El Khiamiah', a feature length film following a small street of Egyptian textile artists who have been forced to adapt to the consequences of the 25 January Revolution. Every project and worthwhile endeavour needs funding and this project is no different. Funds are needed for the documentary, and if you are lucky enough to have enough to spare, a contribution would be more than welcome. 

The world of generational craft seems to be constantly hanging on to that of the contemporary world by its fingertips. I don't endorse projects lightly, but anyone who is a regular visitor to this site knows that I have always underlined the fact that a robust creative world, particularly in the crafts, is an infinitely better one. We should feel that we have contributed, whether through personal creativity or deed, to the betterment of creativity generally, leaving the creative world a better place than when we arrived and in better shape for the future generations to come.

 Illustration: Yehia at work on the Street of the Tentmakers in Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Jenny Bowker, 2012.

The Return of the Tentmakers

In the cluttered and dusty shade of an ancient covered street in Old Cairo, men sit cross-legged in tiny shops to stitch the most spectacular of the traditional Egyptian artworks: the Khayamiya, or Tentmaker Appliqués. Despite their extraordinary craftsmanship and creative vision, the art of Khayamiya is largely ignored in Egypt. Two Australians – Jenny Bowker and Kim Beamish – are now working hard to bring the living heritage of the Tentmakers of Cairo to the attention of the world, and save it from extinction.

‘Khayamiya’ comes from the Arabic word for tent, ‘Khayam’. Many Middle Eastern cultures owe a great deal to the tent. It reflects their heritage, and has influenced their architecture, communities and identity. The city of Cairo was once named ‘al-Fustat’, which means ‘The Great Tent’. In the days of the Ottoman Empire, superb tents were embroidered and decorated for military commanders and public ceremonies. In Cairo, Khayamiya were used as huge backdrops to distinguish any major event, such as weddings, funerals, concerts, political rallies, and Ramadan feasts. Sadly, these brilliantly coloured screens and pavilions were seen by affluent Egyptians as ‘peasant’s work’ rather than an art form to be appreciated. This prejudice persists today.

 Illustration: A Khayamiya by Ekramy Hanafy, 2012. Photo by Jenny Bowker.

As the local market for such extravagant tents waned, the Tentmakers turned to the emerging tourist industry by sewing smaller panels featuring Pharaohnic scenes. Photographs in the Australian War Memorial record soldiers and nurses from the First World War acquiring such Khayamiya as souvenirs. However, the importation of mass-printed patterned fabric has undermined the need for hand-made panels for ceremonial events. The recent reduction in tourists visiting Egypt has left the Tentmakers of Cairo face a precarious future.

Most visitors don’t realise that the Tentmakers are just a fifteen-minute walk south from the Khan el-Khalili, the iconic tourist market in central Cairo. By walking down a flamboyant street of sequin-studded local fashions, the magnificent minarets of the gate of Bab Zweylah frame the entrance to the Tentmaker’s Street, the ‘Chareh el-Khiamiah’. For the Khayamiya, this unique street houses their market, their workshops, their heritage, their lives and their dreams. It is the last of its kind in Cairo.

 Illustration: Ahmed Naguib (Tentmaker) in Melbourne. Photo by Jenny Bowker.

A typical Khayamiya today, if there is such a thing, is a magnificently intricate network of looping arabesques in unconventional colour combinations, radiating from a centred composition.  Usually square in shape, they range in size from cushion covers to vast wall hangings. They are made entirely from small pieces of coloured Egyptian cotton, appliqued by hand to a strong canvas backing – the legacy of serving as the exterior walls of tents in the desert sun. The Tentmakers also create Khayamiya featuring striking Arabic calligraphy, folk tales, orientalist scenes, and birds derived from the tomb paintings of the ancient Egyptians, but their complex arabesques retain the greatest similarity to their historic role as spectacular decorated tents. As art for homes, they are more carefully made than they used to be.

Two Australians have been transfixed by the breathtaking designs, vivid colours, and fine craftsmanship of the modest Egyptian men who stitch new Khayamiya by hand each day. Jenny Bowker, a renowned Australian quilter, and Kim Beamish, a documentary filmmaker, have both volunteered to promote the work of the Tentmakers to the world. Neither receives funding from the Khayamiya.

 Illustration: Hosam Hanafy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. Photo by Jenny Bowker, 2012.

In 2005, Jenny Bowker moved to Cairo as the wife of an Australian diplomat. She was intrigued that a community of highly skilled textile artists worked in Cairo without much recognition. She started writing about the Khayamiya on her “Postcards from Cairo” blog and described them to her international quilting friends. In 2007 she curated the first exhibition of Khayamiya in Australia (the AQC) which sold out within hours. Other exhibitions have followed in France, Spain, the UK, and the USA. The Tentmakers set their prices, and directly benefit from all sales. These exhibitions demonstrated a thriving new forum for the Khayamiya. In recognition of her voluntary work, the Tentmakers have fondly dubbed her ‘Umm al-Khayamiya’, the ‘Mother of the Khayamiya’.

Jenny Bowker said “It is thrilling to watch crowds of women around a man stitching in a quilt show, and to see on their faces the same excitement that I felt when I first watched them. The admiration is first for the artistry, skill and speed of their work, and that is followed with astonishment that a man is doing such exquisite appliqué.” 

 Illustration: A Khayamiya by Mohamed Dendon, 2012. Photo by Jenny Bowker.

Kim Beamish is currently producing the first feature length film dedicated to “The Tentmakers of Chareh el-Khiamiah”. After moving to Egypt with his wife and two young children in March 2012, Beamish has spent five days a week interviewing, filming, stitching, and drinking sugary black tea with the Tentmakers. The men have accepted him as part of the Khayamiya, and invited him into their family homes. He has followed the Tentmakers from their private workshops in Cairo through the upheavals since the 2011 Revolution. He travelled with the Tentmakers to ‘Art in Action’ in the UK. He will travel this year to major quilt shows in the USA and France, where the men of the Khayamiya who are granted “rock star status” from crowds of mesmerised quilters. 

For the first time, Beamish has captured the way they develop their striking designs, the fast pace of Khayamiya stitching, and their personal responses to sudden fame from new audiences. The Facebook page and website for his film is gathering fans in anticipation of a worldwide release in 2014, and provides followers with rare images of new Khayamiya as they are created. 

 Illustration: Mr Farouk stitching a large Khayamiya bedcover in Cairo, 2012. Photo by Jenny Bowker.

Both Jenny Bowker and Kim Beamish have encountered challenges along the Tentmakers Street. The eighteen remaining Tentmaker shops are interconnected and competitive. Copyright is not acknowledged, so they seek to protect their original designs from each other. Their feuds can be long-term and dramatic. That said, when a Tentmaker is sick, they will help each other by selling his Khayamiya on his behalf. It is a street of suspicion and compassion. Kim Beamish said “If you think you know everything about the Khayamiya, you don’t.” 

The process of bringing the Khayamiya to the world remains complex. Yet going by initial responses, the results are worth it. As the Tentmaker Ahmed Naguib said: 

 Illustration: Kim Beamish filming in the Chareh el-Khiamiah, Cairo. Photo by Jenny Bowker, 2012.

"I walked back in my street again when I was home, and I know that someone will try to tell me that my work is not good and that they will pay only half the price that they agreed. But inside I know that in Melbourne a crowd of women all clapped when I finished one flower."

Support the work of the Tentmakers of Chareh El Khiamiah and the documentary film by going to  

The above text was kindly supplied by: Dr. Sam Bowker, Lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture at Charles Sturt University, NSW, Australia.

Illustration: A Khayamiya by Mohammed Dendon, 2012.

Please be aware that all photos in this article are copyrighted.


Kim Beamish said...

I cannot thank you enough for giving over your fantastic blog to a guest post. I am incredibly privileged and your opening remarks are very humbling as well as a great reminder that we need to hold onto what we have a cherish those things that take time to create.

Thank you again and I really hope we get the chance to create this great film about this uniquely Egyptian art form and the men who create it.

Kim Beamish
Producer/ Director
The Tentmakers of Chareh El Khiamiah

pansypoo said...

OOOH! gorgeous.

Margaret said...

I continue to follow this project with delight, and am so pleased you gave space to it here. I liken the work of Ms. Bowker and Mr. Beamish to that of the collectors who brought to light the Gees' Bend quilts.

Jane S. said...

Amazing works! Thank you for sharing them through your guest's post. :)

John hopper said...

I'm glad I did this, even though I have not allowed guest posts before. I hope the project does well and I also hope that creativity in all its many forms, whether generational or individual, are with the human species for many generations to come.

Els said...

Incredible artworks ! said...

These are so delicious and beautiful! I love the history, the spirit and the tradition of this art form. Is there a place where we can purchase these?

John hopper said...

I should imagine that the only place you could purchase the work is direct from the maker, though I could be wrong.