I have just finished a new piece of work.
The making process has had to squeeze into a ridiculously limited number of days at home since early April. My good friend Lisa Walton won the Jewel Pearce Patterson Scholarship at Houston last year. She had contacted a group of us when the news was released and set up class times for us to learn some of the new skills she acquired and to make a quilt for her to take back to Houston for an exhibition this year.
I have really been remiss in my blogging. I tried some time back and simply could not work out how to put a photo exactly where I wanted it in the text - and my Flickr site had changed the way the 'share' system worked. I have just worked it out.
These photos are tiny. I am posting 'as-I-did-it' images from my mobile phone - done before I went to Europe.
I have been fascinated for a long time by small objects carried as protections or for good luck. Superstition is such a strong part of most people - especially when things are going wrong or when someone you love is ill. Growing up in New Guinea we often saw an image of a hand printed onto a wall or sign or rock. It meant Tabu - do not pass. There it was not a protection but in the Middle East - and I have lived a lot in the Middle East - it is the hand of Fatima, a powerful ward against the jealous eye. It tends to be most used there when things are going well. If you are newly married and happy, get a wonderful job, and then find out that your wife is having a baby and it is a boy - then you start to wear a hamza. A lot of Arab jewellery is based on amulets and talismen.
Prints from a great silkscreen Lisa made for me from my drawings!
Some attempts at free motion embroidery.
This was serious fun - emulating handprints on a wall without the actual blood.
Putting it together
I was not happy with the large light area on the right side with the stitched hands on it. Even though I wanted it to look rather haphazardly put together I felt that it seemed to be falling off the edge. I was also worried that the 'grubby wall' part with the large handprints (mine) was too pristine. I liked the quote from Sheila Payne's book, and had used it like a reference and in rough handwriting like a scribbled note, but I felt it was too dominant so I wanted to grey it down a bit. I brought out acrylics and a square sponge wedge brush and wiped paint over parts that bothered me. It looks charcoal but has ultramarine and silver mixed in for glint and an edge of colour.
I am happy with it now. I added the strong text at the bottom in my own writing, and painted it over, then spent the last two days facing and finishing it and adding a label.
I have just finished a new piece of work.
I have new work that I can put up since it has been well and truly launched.
The group I work with - tACTile - makes a new exhibition every two years. This year it is called Elements and was devised by Beth Miller and Helen Gray.
Each artist was to take one or more of the elements - earth, air, fire and water, and make a body of work to fill a four metre wall in any way we chose. Our collaborative this time was intended to be a sketchbook entry. A perspex piece at the top was to sandwich images we had used as inspiration, and below it we would hang sample pieces in fabrics as we played with ideas.
Frankly - the collaborative did not work. The 'jigsaws' were intended to slot together as a single piece with separate parts hanging below. Not only was the jigsaw reluctant to fit now that the perspex had sandwiched boards and images between them, but the images really did not work together. Strong ones killed the others and dominated and we could not change the order of the pieces because that had been decided from the beginning with the allocation of a unique jigsaw headpiece. We decided to hang each beside the main body of that artist's work. In retrospect it was a good decision and most people at our ANCA Gallery exhibition spent more time looking at the small ones than they did at the big ones.
Mine is based on an extraordinary trip that I have now done twice a drive to Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uweinat in the far south west of Egypt, just nudging into Sudan and Libya.
This is the blurb I wrote for the exhibition press releases, somewhat expanded.
Earth, Air and a Memory of Water
For the theme of Elements I decided to work with a recent trip across the Great Western Desert – the Sahara. We drove from the oasis of Bahariya in the Western Desert of Egypt to the Gilf Kebir – a plateau the size of Belgium at the junction of Libya, Sudan and Egypt. The trip took sixteen days, five 4 wheel drive vehicles, and we had to carry all petrol, water, and food on the cars. We saw no other car driving in the desert in that time, and the only people were desert police in one distant post. The desert almost became a living thing, the main player on the trip and the element of earth seemed to dominate.
I thought of this body of work as a series on earth – with the changing landscape and colours as we drove across it. Then I realised that the sky was a continual backdrop, so I thought of the series as Earth and Sky. Then I realised each item I used in the lowest panel has a memory of water.
I roughed out a plan for each piece on a scrap of fabric and used that as my first scrapbook piece.
Each piece has:
1. The sky as the top panel.
2. A charcoal drawing of the desert below, showing the colours on the day that we drove across it. I wanted this and the sky to have a sense of a Victorian-style heroic vista.
3. A grid of crosses to relate to the maps we followed and the way that we continually compared what we saw to what we knew – contextualising what we saw to fit a western construct. Also - I like to include an element of traditional patchwork in my work.
4. A low section which represents the earth we walked on and the things we found on it. The marks of previous peoples were on rock walls or on the ground. I wanted viewers to have to bend to see what was there – as we did.
I. The Water Mountain. The codes used by ancient Egyptians for water caches the horizontal zigzag is carved into rock walls with pharaonic symbols. The ground is littered with pieces of ochre - the reason that the ancient Egyptians ventured so far into a hostile environment. There are also pieces of ostrich eggs for the making of egg tempura. 76.5 cm x 163.5 cm
II. Ammonite Fields - fossil ammonites, sponges and coral – remnants of a great sea, long retreated. We drove over ammonites for a whole day while clouds changed the light continually and there were even a few drops of rain. 77 cm x 160 cm
III. Abu Bellas - two water vessels, part of another water cache left by Pharaonic Egypt to enable them push further into the desert in search of ochres for painting. Beautiful fine carvings on rock walls nearby looked almost African with their big-skirted bottoms and breasts. We were the first to find these - they have not been recorded by other expeditions.
IV. Acheulean Hand Axes - an Achulean hand axe from a site where there were many in a concentrated tool scatter – proof that in the days when they were abandoned thousands of years before the coming of the pharaohs - there was enough water to sustain life. 77 cm x 161.5
I have recently returned from Birmingham with the fabulous Egyptian Tentmakers - and I am writing up a report of that. Watch this space.
On Wednesday I loaded myself with the gifts I had brought with me for little Jenny, my friend Mohamed’s daughter from Tentmaker’s Street. I have a delightful granddaughter named after me with the slightly more modern Jenna instead of Jennifer. The only other baby I know was named after me is this one – a little girl born just after I left Egypt so I have only seen her on return visits. She is now almost three so I packed things like a fairy dress with Velcro wings to attach, and lots of pink summer clothes, and a pile of things for her new little brother Yasin. Wings are not easy to carry in a suitcase.
Then I realised that I wanted to see my other good friend – also Mohamed – who makes silver in the Khan El Khalili. His name is Mohamed Khalil and he used to be a designer for Azza Fahmy – a very well known Egyptian designer who makes beautiful but extremely expensive jewellery with old Bedouin style. They parted ways, but he still makes the most gorgeous pieces – clean lines, interesting ideas, lots of talisman pieces and a lot of beautiful Arabic text, and he mixes gold and silver and I have always loved that.
He has a shop in a rather elegant renovated building in the centre of the Khan el Khalili but absolutely no-one goes there. The business that has grown and become one of the great secrets of Cairo is up two flights of stairs in a building that looks like a crack house. The stairs are dark and filthy, and there may not actually be rats but it looks as if there should be. I am always reluctant to put my hand on the stair rails, but the stairs are long and steep so usually by the last half flight I have a hand on a very greasy rail and arrive slightly short of breathe. Cats often sleek and slink their way up with me winding around my feet – there is always a ginger or tabby spotted cat that seems to think you might be carrying food – and they are no cleaner than the stairs.
I did not take photos on this visit – but this is Mohamed and his assistant Heba on a previous trip, and a piece that I bought from him last time.
When you emerge from the stairwell you are looking straight into the main workshop. It is a small space with perhaps 8 men working on wooden tables. I once emerged on the landing to find Mohamed holding a glowing crucible in tongs and carefully pouring molten gold into moulds. You could see nothing of the gold except the incredibly red hot heat of it as it poured from the equally red hot crucible and it trailed red and oranges as it went into the mould. He was wearing thongs.
Just around the corner is where the real action takes place. It is a tiny office space with room for two desks, a filing cabinet and chest of drawers and a few chairs. The definition of happiness for me is to be able to rummage in these – plastic boxes like the ones I use for storing food are stuffed tightly with treasures. Each time I come the selections are different. This time I selected a beautiful chain with discs of silver and amethysts, long and distinctive. He had made another King Farouk piece – I bought one previously. This is a ceremonial piece he copied from an old photograph of King Farouk who wore it pinned and draped across a suit. Mohamed made it easier to wear by putting the three chains and their discs on another chain. I still find it one of my most special pieces.
I added more to my pile. A clenched hand holding a selection of talisman items which can be worn as a pendant, a bracelet with three parallel chains held together with a key, a padlock, and a disc with Arabic, a simple pendant with a deep red carnelian in a Bedouin setting, and another bracelet, gold and silver, with a long graceful pendant drop with gold Arabic on silver, and a small collection of talisman pieces. I realise that I love bracelets as you can see them when you are wearing them. These dangly ones make me feel pretty – but they are not easy to wear when using a sewing machine or computer.
I have to work out again how to share photos from Flickr - they have changed their systems and I find the new one almost incomprehensible. When I work out how to do it I will add images for you.
I had enjoyed the cup of sweet tea with mint with Mohamed in relative peace as several ladies came and went – but then a group of three very noisy ladies arrived and stated picking up pieces I had selected. Mohamed whisked them out of the way, and rather than finish in a hurry I asked him to put them aside for me and I would call back. He is always quiet around 6.30 in the evening.
Then I headed across the Khan El Khalili, over the road, and threaded my way through a very crowded Al Ghouria and into the Tentmakers’ Street.
I checked into the Grand Hyatt. I have never actually stayed in this hotel though it has been the scene of some of my higher points in Cairo. I met Richard Gere here and went with him and fourteen others on a Nile dinner cruise and that is still the bar against which all other great experiences are measured.
My dear friend, Tarek Mousa of Egypt and Beyond, had accepted that I was not charging a fee for my services on the Textile Tour as I knew that he was running it at a loss because of my cancellation of the Egypt section. I had asked him to book an inexpensive hotel on Zamalek - I usually do the cheap and clean version of hotels as I rarely do more than sleep there. He had - as a thank you - put me into a seriously swish room looking right up the Nile to Zamalek.
I think I was one of about half a dozen people in the hotel. Certainly I was outnumbered by staff.
I checked in, changed, and headed out again.
I had let Ibrahim go - that was stupid in retrospect as I now had to face the line of cabs skulking just above the security check area with its beautiful long haired explosives-trained German Shepherd and slightly long haired, dark eyed, sleek, tall, uniformed in 'deep v-necked black with boots' handler - equally beautiful.
I asked the first cab how much it would cost me to get to Bab Al Qalk - which is the most likely place a cabbie would know and almost at the Tentmaker's Street. It should be about 15 - 20 pounds Egyptian. Admittedly this is next to nothing - about $4 - and I have sometimes realised to my shame that I argue about the extra dollar many try to add in. The first one tried for 60 pounds and I almost recoiled n shock. I tried the second - difficult with the first one shouting as he chased me down the hill, "OK, WHAT DO YOU WANT TO PAY? I DO IT FOR $45? I DO IT FOR $30!!! BY METER? OK?"
The second cabbie seeing the absolute failure of the first to attract my custom, agreed to just use his meter.
He swept onto the Corniche. Immediately I realised that there was going to be a problem as he 'accidentally' missed the exit which is straight ahead from the Grand Hyatt's drive and this meant a very long detour - which would nicely jack up the meter. It did. For those who know Cairo - we even - with me protesting - shot past the aqueduct and were halfway to Ma'adi before we found somewhere to turn. He kept muttering 'Mamnour' for 'forbidden',though I saw plenty of others making the forbidden turns.
We had wondered if Cairo cabs would find a way to cheat on the meters and now I had my answer - they did!
Finally I was dropped off near the Tentmaker's Street and walked up to Bab Zuweilah. I have worried so much about my friends there that I almost had a lump in my throat to be going back. Rather than walk straight in so they would see me coming if they were peering down the street as they often are I walked around a small detour that would drop me into the street about a quarter of the way in so I had a chance of surprising them. No-one knew that I was actually coming. The only person I had told other than Tarek who made the bookings was Ibrahim as he was meeting me at the airport.
I was recently brought face to face with the fact that I really love Egypt. Someone commented that 'they' (meaning Egyptians) 'could all have been blown up for all he cared,' and I was absolutely rocked with hurt as I have so many very much loved friends there. To my terrible embarrassment I was in tears in the middle of a conversation where I was dong my best to be professional. I realised that when an Egyptian makes you his friend - or her friend - all the walls come straight down. You know that no matter how poor they are, if you were ever in trouble they would do absolutely anything for you. Friendships in other places never capitulate in the same way - there is always something held back. Egyptians give friendship at a level that really involves a lot of love.
As I rounded the corner towards the Street I saw at the junction ahead of me, Tarek Fattoh. I have no idea why he was there - no-one just stands in this corner - but his face absolutely lit up as he recognised me. Next minute I was being hugged and kissed - that is unusual for a male Egyptian but flattering. We walked together to see Hossam El Farouk and Tarek held my arm as if I were a tender flower. I could never be called that.
Both Tarek and Hossam are coming to Birmingham to the Festival of Quilts with an exhibition of their work so I made the trip in order to make sure they understood what I needed them to do.
As we walked we met other old friends - it was a slow process through the first third of the street.
Hossam immediately ordered kakedeh - hibiscus tea - for me as he knows how much I like it. On my final farewell call into the street he had produced a giant bag of dried kakedeh flowers for me to take home and I had to tell him that I would not be able to get it through Australian Customs. It arrived, hot and slightly spicy, tasting like a rich strong plum juice, sweetened a little and with a dash of cinnamon and cloves. It is one of the tastes of Egypt for me. The two men sat with huge smiles on their faces as we talked - and it was a delight just to be there with them, with dust stirring from the street and people walking past, an occasional skinny cat curling around our ankles, sunlight dappling the ground in thin shafts coming through the old roofing over the Khan, the background lilt of Arabic from others in shops around us and even (turned right down) a very long and strange speech from Gaddafi on a flickering television right in the shop.
I moved on and talked to lots of other friends - Hani, Hossam Hashem, Rug Mohamed, Ayman who came to Australia. I drank a lot more tea, and kakedeh and a coffee just for a change. I had decided not to leave too late as nights are not as safe as they used to be - and walked down the street to find a cab at 6.00pm in the growing dark.
I found a cab, and told the driver we would use the meter but I would pay extra for a direct drive home without extra distance and even more if I was not frightened. He laughed - but it was a good drive and cost considerably less, even with a double tip, than the cab did this morning. My always pitiful Arabic is coming back - I even impressed myself.
Back at the hotel I washed the grime of Cairo off. I am always amazed that even after a thorough soap and water wash there is still more black grime to come off on white hotel towels. I flipped through the book of possible restaurants in the hotel and decided on Indian. Then I realised that I wanted to ring friends who just happened to be the British Ambassador and his wife.
I rang, talked to my friend, and was immediately asked to dinner. They inherited our wonderful and charming chef, Ahmed. They suggested I bring my passport and they would warn the gate that I was coming.
The house was just down the road - behind a high concrete wall is one of the truly stunning old mansions of the colonial period which used to hover over the Nile but lost some of its grounds when the Corniche road was pushed through. I walked down the Corniche, cut through the lane beside the Kempinski Hotel, and realised that there might be a problem. There was a road block, boom gate and many soldiers backed up by four tanks. This section also controlled several streets that led into the area and many people - well, four or five - were moving into those streets and obviously permitted to go through.
I talked to the officers, and told them I needed to get through as I was calling on a friend for dinner, and they permitted me into the next section. As I approached the house part though it got harder. There were another four tanks lined up beside their wall and another large and very strong concreted-in barrier across the road. A very small gap at one end had a soldier and machine gun and I went to talk to him.
I said I wanted to go to dinner.
He said "Ah, Tabouli?" He was not asking about the menu, but whether I was heading for a nearby well known restaurant. He indicated that I had to go back the way I had come, further along the corniche, and then up the next lane - and all with very expressive whirling of a machine gun muzzle.
I said, "No, at the British Ambassador's house." The shock that hit his face was almost comical. No elegant car, not driver, a nylon jacket over day clothes, no written invitation card, and obviously no warning from the gate - so no way was I going to get through.
"Mamnour," he said - forbidden. He had shot to attention and obviously really REALLY meant it. I stepped back a few paces and rang my friend. Thank goodness for a mobile phone.
Five minutes later he was full of apologies as I was beckoned to the gate and all was well. It did not worry my one iota. He was just doing his job and protecting my friends.
My friend had warned Ahmed that there was one extra for dinner and had told him that it was Jenny. He laughed politely, used to her teasing, and said "No Ma'am, Jenny is in Australia. She would not come at this time." She tried to insist that it was me and he just laughed.
As I was being served my gin and tonic by their butler I asked him to tell Ahmed in the kitchen that Jenny said hello. A few minutes later I saw Ahmed's curious face peering around the corner and then he lit up. I was hugged, kissed on both cheeks and his delight was absolutely heart warming.
We had a lovely and interesting meal - from a wonderful prawn curry from Kerala which was funny when I had decided on the Indian restaurant in the hotel - and then I walked back past eight tanks to the hotel. On the way on the Corniche I was handed a brochure for a new waterside night club and they tried to get me to promise to come next day with all the guests in the hotel.
I am not sure that the few guests in the hotel would have been enough to fill one table in a new nightclub!
I have just returned from a marvelous trip to Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
I had a textile tour planned and had to cancel the Egypt part of it. I was so sad about that as I knew that many of those coming really wanted to meet my friends the Tentmakers in Cairo. We changed the trip to start as planned in Syria, and then to go on to Jordan instead of Egypt. I left my bookings as they were - flying into Damascus and out of Cairo three days after the tour, and just before we left, when Egypt was looking calm, I booked another flight - from Amman to Cairo.
We had been watching the news as Egypt erupted weeks earlier and seemed wild and frightening for a few days. Police were firing at and killing fellow Egyptians and the mosques seemed full of wounded. Foreigners were being regarded with suspicion. The Embassy was very busy moving people out. Then the police simply disappeared.
Many major gaols in the city had been breeched and all the prisoners escaped - or were they released? As one interviewee said,"Six gaols in one day? It is not logic." With no police presence people were warned that the thousands of released prisoners would be robbing houses to find money and food. Militias formed in every street in Cairo and many friends of mine bought guns. Every person I could contact by phone in this time - from middle class to somewhat lower - was just frightened - and tired after night after night of standing guard and barricading their streets. There were good sides too as many neighbours had time to chat in the long night watches and drank tea together.
Tanks trundled around the city and set up large army bases. The army seemed to simply sit and watch. Then the army announced that it would not fire at Egyptians.
At this point the demonstrations seemed to steady. There was almost a sigh of relief. Fridays remained high points with masses gathering after the mosque. Counter groups formed that were pro-Mubarak.
I decided not to take the group when I saw camels and horses with their riders in Tahrir Square. That was just weird. There is no way that the riders were from the pyramids as the announcers claimed. In the days that followed this was confirmed by others who worked in tourism and had never seen these riders before. They were a mounted 'rent-a-crowd', and the oddness of this after the mass gaol releases and the disappearance of the police was enough to make me cancel - regardless of how things might change.
They did change of course - and the 'Do Not Travel' travel advisory should have been enough to make me cancel anyway. There would be something infinitely tactless about an ex-Ambassador's wife deciding to lead a tour into a country against the advice of the embassy.
I want to jump the events of my tour in Syria and Jordan - though I will get to it in the next few days. I am still buzzing over seeing my friends in Egypt most recently.
I had to go to talk to the Tentmakers. I have been able to set up two exhibitions for them later in the year. One is at the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham in England - and it is huge and brilliant and one of my favourite shows. The other will be at the University of Durham which has a large Middle East Politics section.
My funding for Birmingham might fall short and I needed to talk to the men about this and find out if there was any way they could raise some funds if necessary. I can talk to them easily face to face. Their English is just not good enough to manage with a phone and Skype is not an option for people without laptops and easy internet access. I was in the area and travel to Cairo meant a ticket that cost about $300. If I had to come from Australia again when things were totally stable it might have been eight times that.
I had decided that if things were still bad I would simply book into an airport hotel and let the tentmakers come to me during the day.
Ibrahim picked me up at the airport.
Within five minutes we had passed six tanks on the airport road. Ibrahim told me about the days of fear, the worry that they all have now. He talked about the fact that he was not sure that they would be better off. He said that Mubarak kept the country stable and calm and he had subsidised bread, petrol and other basics so poor people had a chance of surviving on their incomes. "Sometimes", he said, "you need a strong father who does what you need and not what you want and that is the problem with a democracy - that leaders are afraid to lose an election if they do what you need."
We came past the City of the Dead and I asked after my friends there. Ibrahim pointed out that there were police on a lot of the entrances - "Because perhaps people were afraid that the convicts had gone there to hide."
We came past the Khan and there were a couple of tanks on the road near the Muslim University.
We hooked up over the flyover and I was able to look down on Medan Ataba. This is the main shopping area - a huge market that threads through many alleys and streets. It is always so packed that I used to say that you could lift both feet and keep moving. In the open area we could see from the flyover it is always a seething mass of people around small tables of underwear, socks, and shoes.
It was empty. It was a real shock to see this - the stalls were there and were stacked with the usual goods, but there were no people at all. When I exclaimed Ibrahim pointed out that people were really afraid. There was not much money coming from anywhere, and if they had money they were afraid to spend it, and if they didn't have any they could not spend it. "You can always manage a few more weeks without new clothes," he said, and I was struck by the truth of this. Of all the things I saw in this first day it was Medan Ataba that was the thing that made it clear that everything was not yet normal.
We threaded through the streets of downtown Cairo and Ibrahim announced that he wanted to show me what was happening in Tahrir Square. I had a moment of trepidation but I trust Ibrahim. Bob had asked me to use drivers I knew as much as possible as he also trusted Ibrahim and Mohamed.
Imagine a huge open area the size of a large football stadium. It has at least six streets that lead into it. Most had tanks, a sultry greyed yellow, like desert sand, squatting like large toads in the corners. In each one soldier was visible standing in the opening often laughing and chatting to people. There is a grassed area in the centre with a low wall around it - like a very large centre of a roundabout. It was so full of people that I could not even see if there was still grass. It had tents and stalls - so many food stalls selling boiled chick peas, khoshary, toasted newspaper cones of the seeds that Egyptians love to eat, roasted sweet potato stalls with black sugary trails bubbling out of the tiny ovens, and whole sweet potatoes keeping hot on racks around the oven. I saw dozens of small children on their father's shoulders.
Sellers moved through the traffic - weaving through tightly packed cars and offering flags, balloons, bubble blowers, long ribbons of Egyptian flags - anything you can imagine that looked festive and cheerful. All the kerbs were newly painted in crisp if somewhat blurry black and white. The square sparkled - another shock in a city that was never known for its civic pride or cleanliness.
On one side road traffic was blocked off as a demonstration moved through chanting loudly - and the demonstrators looked about 14 and were almost all male. They were, according to Ibrahim, asking for better high schools.
The museum is a rich reddish terracotta, a festive colour, and looked quite shocking with the building behind it working as a jet black backdrop - the multi storey headquarters of the leading party which was burnt in the first days of demonstrations. That was the elephant in the room - a stark reminder of violence.
There were no police in an area that was always thick with police. Traffic was being controlled by demonstrators and civilians. Two had whistles on strips of ribbon in the colours of the flag. One was doing a good imitation of the style of an Italian policeman - with his arms twirling in the air. The crowd were joyful and noisy and though it took ages to get through the square it was so entertaining that I really did not mind. At one stage I passed out 5 pounds to a young man with the striped ribbons draped on his arm to buy one and got five instead of one ribbon plus change - I kept them knowing the family would enjoy them.
Ibrahim delivered me to the hotel. It is hard to believe that the pages you have just waded through take me only to noon on my first day. I planned to visit my dear tentmakers in the afternoon so - more later!