At age 50 Jenny Bowker graduated from university and like many before her, thought ‘what now?’
Her husband was working as the Australian ambassador in the Gaza Strip at the time, and with her teenage children unable to start schooling until later in the year, Jenny and the family were unable to join him for another seven months.
Her arts degree had given her a love of all things creative – but she was in an age group where arts grants didn’t come around all that often.
Stuck for ideas and harbouring doubt as to whether she’d make it as a painter, Jenny walked into a quilt shop for the first time.
With three pieces under her belt the self-taught quilter soon realised that anything she could do with paint, she could do with textiles instead.
Jenny soon found herself living in Cairo from 2005-2009, working with the Egyptian Tentmakers.
She’s set to share her adventures next month in Berry with the Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Society Shoalhaven. The local community group offers a series of informative and entertaining lectures covering a broad range of subjects relating to the arts. Everyone is welcome to attend.
Egyptian Tentmakers are men who do superb fine appliqué panels which were originally used for lining tents.
The art is dying, and the Tentmaker’s Street that had 247 skilled masters in 1979 is now down to 45. Collections are not held anywhere in Egypt, yet the work is stunning and beautiful.
The ancient craft of Egyptian tent-making may be revered in the West for its intricate applique, but in Egypt, it’s considered simple, common, and often no better than graffiti.
But Jenny set out to change that.
Jenny had first seen the work in the early 1980s during one of her husband’s postings. By the time the family was posted to Cairo in 2005, Jenny was a passionate quilter and realised the Tentmaker’s work needed to be seen and pitched to the right buyers.
“I was going to quilt shows and teaching overseas and it didn't matter where I was based, I realised the work needed to be seen by people who understood hand sewing and how long it takes,” she said.
“I started taking small exhibitions of their work to quilt shows and taking the men along to demonstrate how they did this work. The level of interest was fantastic and one I didn’t expect.”
Jenny said traditionally the most important tents were decorated inside with appliqué and were for people with money.
Nowadays the Tentmakers tend to make pieces that can be used as bedspreads or hangings, often used for parties or celebrations in Cairo.
As with all trends, the pieces have evolved.
“When we started taking these pieces to outsiders from Cairo we found that the fresher, brighter colours worked better to hang in Western homes than the murkier, older colours,” Jenny said.
The Tentmakers have now had around 60 shows outside of Egypt and Jenny said the men are able to support themselves financially.
“The works range from around $100 to $1000 so it’s not a brilliant income, but it’s much better than before,” Jenny said.
While she’s now based in Canberra, Jenny still aims to visit Cairo yearly.
The Tentmakers of Cairo have also been captured in an award-winning documentary.
Jenny’s hour long lecture will be held at the Berry School of Arts on Thursday, February 7. Tickets are $25 at the door or included in the $140 annual membership.
Information on the society and the 2019 program can be found here.
Find more on Jenny’s work here, along with the story behind her latest, incredible quilt, ‘After the Last Sky’.