Textile themed exhibitions are uncommon in Egypt despite the long legacy of that art. They are reserved for, and associated with, the occasional state-sponsored annual handcrafts fairs held in the fluorescent-lit halls of conference centres.
Khayamia, the centuries-old Egyptian tentmaker appliqué, is no exception. It receives little recognition in the art world and has probably never featured in art galleries. Which is why the khayamia exhibition, “Reimagined Memories: Textile Hangings of Cairo”, curated by art historian Seif El-Rashidi at the elegant Ubuntu Art Gallery in the upscale neighbourhood of Zamalek is an event in itself.
The diverse and contrasting pieces on display offer a striking festival of colours, themes and motifs, reflecting eras and styles and so doing a clever job of delivering the essential story of this uniquely Egyptian art. They are appropriately complemented by a small selection of textile paintings by, among others, the celebrated painters Seif Wanly, George Bahgory and Samir Fouad.
Framed photographs of public and private events that capture facets of Egyptian life with khayamia and tent pavilion backdrops welcome visitors down the stairs leading into the exhibition. The Arabic phrase “Look again, you will find beautiful craft. I have given you the proof that in Egypt is the best of all art”, plastered on the entrance wall in black letters, holds true for what is inside.
One spectacular 330 x 479 cm piece named The Thatcher Panel stands out for its size, fine stitching and intricate details. Dating from the 1920s, the faded red cotton piece of textile – part of a private collection – is named after its first owner, a wealthy American who visited Egypt on the Grand Tour. The design is inspired by the floors of Cairene homes of that period and comes from a high point in the technical production of the craft, related to a revival of Islamic art in Egypt.
This section of the exhibition features other examples from this era including an ancient Egyptian-themed piece (circa 1900-1920) designed to cater the huge demand by European visitors. A 354x198 cm, hand stitched textile showing the calligraphic epigraph, “Justice is the Key to Dominion”, a recurring phrase that appears on tent hangings through the 1920s.
The exhibition text suggests the phrase, which appears on judges’ badges from the same time period, is probably related to the post-1919 revolution constitution of 1923. The hanging, also from a private collection, demonstrates the influence of Egyptian architecture on the craft, as details and colours of this piece indicate it might have been inspired by an inlaid marble mihrab (prayer niche).
The Thatcher Panel circa 1920s (private collection)
El-Rashidi masterfully contrasts these wall hangings by placing them next to contemporary pieces bursting with colour, which reflect the radical transformations and influences of today’s khayamia.
“Ubuntu owner Ahmad El-Dabaa and I felt that Egyptians don’t really know much about this art, that it’s much richer than people realise and that it’s also alive and creative today and produces things of good quality,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Artists who practise the art abound. Hala El-Shohyeb’s modern geometric motifs are expressed in predominantly minimalist black and white, contrasting with Tarek El-Safty’s colourful animals and plant theme. Calligraphic diversity is evident in Ashraf Hashem’s dense and bold calligraphic motifs and Hossam El-Farouk’s elegant strokes.
The exhibition makes room for a stunning piece by the internationally renowned French textile artist Louis Barthélemy, which captures his fascination with ancient Egypt with a take on the famous Parisian cabaret ‘crazy horse’ depicting a pole dancing show of ladies wrapping themselves around palm trees while incense burns and a eunuch plays the harp.
Chant Avedissian; Louis Barthélemy
While Barthélemy’s textile hanging is eye-catching for its quality and verve, it raises a question about the inclusion of a French artist in an Egyptian khayamia exhibition with such a strong message about local artisans and the traditional craft.
El-Rashidi argues that the exhibition is also about how khayamia is used and how it reaches into contemporary art. Barthélemy’s work is heavy with Egyptian themes. “It’s not like he’s using khayamia to represent France.” The work of the 31-year-old French artist, who designs for haute couture names like Christian Dior, “demands the highest quality and attention to detail,” says El-Rashidi. “And I think through his work today you see the ability of the craftsmen to produce amazingly detailed, fine intricate things, as detailed as a nail in a finger for example.”
Moataz Nasr, the prominent artist, shows one of his signature pieces exploring the possibilities of the craft, by borrowing geometric motifs made from matchsticks on wood, with no textile involved.
One of the highlights of the contemporary pieces on show is Ahmed Hamid’s 233 x 238 cm Sky Stars (Night), inspired by Andalusian tile work from Spain’s Alhambra. Textile hangings by Markaz, the traditional crafts store, in collaboration with El-Rashidi and Mohamed Abdel-Wahed, recreate the faded colours of old khaymia in contemporary design inspired from Cairene Mamluk and Ottoman marble work. The patterns used come from two 15th- and 17th-century mosques in the vicinity of the Tentmakers street.
“Justice is the Key to Dominion, circa 1920- private collection”
The timing of the exhibition coincides with the the Golden Parade, an event of much fanfare in which 22 royal mummies were moved from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir square to their new home in the National Museum of Egyptian Heritage in Fustat, Old Cairo, which evoked questions of heritage and identity.
Identity is authentically present in “Reimagined Memories”, which displays, in addition to traditional Islamic-inspired art, neo-khedival styles, another echo of the 1920s when Egyptians grappled with the question of identity and national independence, as well as a khaymiya piece by Hani Abdelkhader that resembles a mural of the January 2011 Revolution.
“I think the pieces have meaning,” El-Rashidi says. “Art reflects society and community and identity and I’m trying to show that in the pieces. I don’t think every piece reflects identity – but identity has been expressed in khayamiya and is indeed expressed in certain pieces.”
The exhibition runs until 24 April in Ubuntu Art Gallery, 20 Hassan Sabry Street, Zamalek.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly