ACT News


Master quilter brings wares to Egyptian Embassy for open day

The ancient craft of Egyptian tent-making maybe revered in the West for its intricate applique, but in Egypt, its considered simple, common, and often no better than graffiti.

But a master quilter and wife of former Australian ambassador to Egypt is on a one-woman crusade to change all that.

Jenny Bowker, who spent four years in Cairo when her husband Bob was posted there between 2005-2009, said the appetite for the massive handmade artworks was growing internationally.

She believed that the tradition would all but disappear if new markets were not found.

When she arrived in Cairo as a tourist in 1979, she said as many as 45 master tentmakers were flourishing on Khan Khayamiya – the street of the Tentmakers on old Islamic Cairo.

Now the number is less than 20.


With the financial support of donors and the Canberra Quilters, two master craftsmen Hany El Sayed and Ekramy Hanafy have arrived in Canberra to demonstrate their art as part of the Windows to the World series of embassy openings to celebrate Canberra's centenary.

This weekend, the pair will be at the Egyptian Embassy with examples of their work, as well as one antique piece of applique which is older than Canberra.

Egyptian Ambassador Dr Hassan El-Laithy said the works symbolised Egypt's history right through to modern political events with Mr El Sayed taking six months to complete a massive work depicting the January 2011 revolutionary scenes of Tahrir Square.

Ms Bowker said it was exciting to see the traditional repetitious patterns make way for interpretive work such as this.

Mr El Sayed said the images came to him in a day and he was able to create the enormous mosaic because of his "gift in using my hands – my golden hands."

He and Mr Hanafy had learned to sew as children and were passing their skills down to their children.

Mr Hanafy said his son Ahmed was showing great promise at age ten with his stitching lessons during school holidays.

Ms Bowker said the exhibition in Canberra was a small contribution to promote the ongoing recognition of the artform.

She was delighted to report the American Quilter's Society had signed a three-year contract with 18 remaining tentmaking shops to provide works for exhibition internationally.

"Unless people see these artforms for themselves and appreciate the work and craftsmanship that goes into them, then I really worry that it is a dying artform."

In Egypt, the trend is for tapestries, or cheap synthetic prints of ancient patterns.

"I fear they do not appreciate this treasure that surround them."

The Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt will be open on the weekend of 28-29 September, between 10am and 3pm, with the work of the Tentmakers on display, as well as lectures and demonstrations. Visits are open to all members of the public.