Current Issue #488

A Thread Runs Through It: Khayamiya

A Thread Runs Through It: Khayamiya

Appliqué, an ornamental style of needlework in which small pieces of fabric are sewn onto a base fabric to form a pattern, appears in different styles across many cultures. A unique form of appliqué is currently on show in Adelaide: Khayamiya.

The history of Khayamiya — elaborately patterned and colourful appliqués handsewn onto Egyptian tent panels — dates back centuries. This ancient art form has been kept alive by a group of men, known as the Tentmakers of Cairo, working and living in a narrow market street in downtown Cairo, called Khan Khayamiya. Today their customers are tourists and locals buying smaller panels as décor items. The days of the traditional tents are long gone. Fortunately, this dying art has been discovered by a new audience from an unlikely source.

The Tentmakers of Cairo travelled the world visiting quilt fairs and craft shows to display their distinct appliqué technique to people who understand and appreciate their craft. They owe much of their revival to a few enthusiastic Australians led by quilter Jenny Bowker, her son, art history lecturer and Khayamiya researcher, Dr Sam Bowker, and filmmaker Kim Beamish who made the award-winning documentary (The Tentmakers of Cairo) on the lives and work amidst the turmoil of the Arab Spring in Cairo.

Two of these tentmakers, Essam Aly and Hosam Hanafy, were in Adelaide last month as guests of the Quilters’ Guild of South Australia where they hosted workshops and demonstrations on their unique stitching techniques.

The Tentmakers’ visit coincided with the opening of a new textile display within the Ilm: Art and Knowledge in Islam exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia. The exhibit features three rare and valuable Khayamiyas from the Bowker collection and three appliquéd and embellished garments from the gallery’s own collection of Asian and Islamic textiles.

Khayamiya-art-gallery-sa-thread-runs-through-adelaide-reviewThe Syme Panel

The Bowker collection includes the very impressive Khedival Khayamiya, known as The Syme Panel. It was the first Khyamiya to be discovered in Australia and was formerly in the possession of David Syme, the original proprietor of The Age newspaper. This piece dominates the space and sets the tone for the rest of the installation.

The second piece, known as The Swiss Panel, depicts a typical Egyptian scene with pharaohs and pyramids and was produced specifically for the western market. During WWI, these panels were popular with European soldiers and nurses stationed in North Africa.

The third piece, by artist Mohamed Dendon, was completed in 2010 and is a masterpiece of contemporary Khayamiya. Known as 99 Names it depicts a collection of divine attributes by which Allah is known, including The Loving, The Eternal, The Majestic, and others. Dendon began sewing this panel shortly after being diagnosed with a serious illness, in accordance with the belief that a person who knows each of the 99 names will be admitted to paradise.

Khayamiya-art-gallery-sa-thread-runs-through-adelaide-reviewThe Swiss Panel Touristic

The three Indonesian garments include a remarkable talismanic jacket from Sumatra dating from the 19th century. This garment is assembled from 626 pieces of Indian and European trade cloth. Patchwork jackets held special significance in Indonesia as the first garment is believed to have miraculously fallen from heaven through the ceiling of the Great Mosque of Demak.

The second, an opulent ceremonial jacket, arrived in Indonesia from the Middle East with the introduction of Islam to the country and was a popular garment among the Muslim elite from the 15th century onwards.

The third garment, a black velvet women’s court jacket embellished with gold thread and glass bead embroidery, was intended to convey the qualities of refinement and humility valued in Javanese culture.

Appliqué and patchwork are by definition the arrangement of small pieces of textile with the intent of creating a bigger, more impressive whole. The Ilm exhibit lives up to this philosophy by bringing together exquisite pieces creating an exotic textile tour de force.

Ilm: Art and Knowledge in Islam
Art Gallery of South Australia
Until Sunday, October 29

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