By Stephanie L Anderson
Having spent 15 years living in the Middle East, Canberran Jenny Bowker [pictured below] has experienced things many of us will never know. Her memories of Syria, Jerusalem, Egypt and Jordan are expressed through her artwork. Originally trained as a painter at the ANU Bowker later turned to artistic quilting to express her work, a medium that is growing worldwide. Bowker has created a series of quilts portraying everyday men in the Middle East.
“They are all my close friends, they have to be,” she said.
Included in her quilt series are striking portraits of a Bedouin guide, a mosque caretaker and a junk stall owner. But the stories behind each of the faces are what really bring Bowker’s quilts to life.
Faces of Egypt
Hashim Ahmed, one of Bowker’s subjects, is a guard at one of the ancient pyramids in Egypt. Hashim, illiterate and poor, dreamed that one day his son would go to university.Bowker recalled, “He said, ‘life in Egypt is hard’, but it was a statement and not a complaint.”
When Bowker describes her subjects, sharing stories about each of them, you can’t help but feel how much she cares about and misses them. Bowker is attracted to her subjects for who they are as people and this is reflected in her work.
She said that many Egyptian people who came to see her quilts couldn’t understand why she was creating portraits of such poor and ‘insignificant’ people. When asked why she only did portraits of men, Bowker laughed, “The women would be much too embarrassed to have portraits of them exhibited for everyone to see.” She did mention that the men could get a little bashful too. One male subject told Bowker his wife would never give him a moment’s peace if she found out a Western woman had made his portrait.
Creating her quilts
Bowker starts the process of creating a new quilt by taking a photograph of her subject. From there she carefully plans and maps out the detail for each quilt. For some she uses a machine, others she sews by hand, it all depends on the message behind the artwork. Due to the meticulous skill required, one piece can take as long as six months to complete.
It may seem strange that a trained painter would turn to quilting as a preferred form of artistic expression, but Bowker favours the more tactile medium. She explained, “I like making quilts because they’re warm and soft – there’s just something about it. I think of women, sitting in front of a warm fire, sewing quilts, it’s so natural.” Bowker has now produced around 160 stunning quilts. Today she exhibits her work, teaches quilting, lectures at universities (about her work and the Middle East) and leads tours in locations around the world. “It is a job that can travel with me no matter where I am or where I’m going,” she enthused.
Finding oneself while abroad
This all started when Bowker’s husband, an Australian diplomat, was posted to the Middle East. In a new country, with no support network, Bowker said she felt herself “disappearing” in many ways. “I went from having my friends, my family and my job, to nothing.” She had to adjust to an alien place with different customs and a new language. “[Making these quilts] was something I could do that was fun and really felt important. I wanted to show that the Middle East isn’t what people think it is. It’s warm and rich, and the people are welcoming and loving.” Bowker’s subjects appear in such detail, it is as if they are in a photograph or a painting, rather than the traditional idea of a quilt. Faces come alive and hearing their stories only enhances that feeling.
To see more of Bowker’s work and read detailed stories behind her quilts, visit www.jennybowker.com.