Jenny Bowker was 30 when she first visited the Middle East. Forty years later and the Australian quilt-maker remains as captivated and inspired by the region as she was when she arrived. Bowker’s quilts – vast, colour-soaked things that buzz with life – depict scenes from the many countries where she has lived with her husband, an Australian diplomat. A Bedouin guide in Egypt; an elderly man sitting on a cobbled street in Damascus; a burqa found at a stall in Amman – Bowker celebrates the ordinary and the forgotten.
Her work, though, is far from ordinary. Last month, Bowker was named as an officer in the Order of Australia in the 2018 Queen’s birthday honours for services to Australia-Middle East cultural relations and for her role in preserving traditional crafts. “My husband came in with this crested envelope and I actually thought it was for him,” she says from her home in Canberra. “I was gobsmacked. It’s just extraordinary to get that appreciation from your country. It’s like a great big pat on the back.”
From a young age, Bowker displayed a remarkable talent for working with fabrics. When she was just 10 years old, she learnt how to sew. “I remember my mother showing me how to make a dress and the next day I made one by myself,” she says.
Later in life, Bowker also made her daughter’s wedding dress. Despite this creativity, however, she pursued a career in science and it wasn’t until 1997, when she and her husband moved to Jerusalem, that she began to make quilts. From then on, wherever she happened to be in the Middle East, Bowker would wander the bustling streets and markets with her camera looking for subjects for her work. “Often these people are poor and may not have seen a photograph since their wedding day,” she says. “It was always a blast taking the pictures back to them. It helped me to become accepted.”
Finding her way in Syria
Bowker has always relished getting lost in new countries. It was not only a way of discovering the local culture, it also helped her to establish an identity in foreign lands.
“Before I arrived in Syria as a diplomat’s wife, I had my own professional career. I went to work in the morning and didn’t get back until late,” she says. “Suddenly I found myself just floating around and I couldn’t speak the language. It was strange. It was as if I had disappeared as a person.
“I found that by going out in the car and getting lost and then having to find my way home, I made friends and discovered interesting places. You [should] always buy your lemons from the lady on the corner, never from the supermarket, and your strawberries from the little boy with the cart. That way, you become known locally and create a network in your area.”
For a long time, Bowker focused on archaeology and abstract designs for her quilts. She was always particularly transfixed by Syria. “I loved the tiles, the little alleyways, the old buildings almost touching across the streets of the old city,” she says. “The shops were like little jewelled caverns on the sides of cobbled streets, just absolutely gorgeous.” But she decided to start incorporating the people she met in the Middle East after a student she was teaching in America told her: “You couldn’t turn your back on those Arabs – they’d stab you.” Bowker was appalled. “I was so offended for my dear friends,” she says. “They are good people, kind, generous and affectionate at every level of society. [Through my quilts], I wanted people to look into the eyes of some of the people I knew – who were not well off – and see that they were gentle.”
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Honouring the tentmaker artists of Cairo
One of Bowker’s more recent projects also set out to address an injustice. On the Khan Khayamiya – or Street of the Tentmakers – in Cairo, hundreds of people could once be found stitching intricate designs onto fabrics, which were originally used for lining tents. It is, according to Bowker, “brilliantly coloured appliqué”. Now, though, there are less than 50. Machine-made synthetics have devastated the industry.
“The art is dying,” Bowker says. “There is the feeling of a loss of something really valuable, with a very old history. I realised that these fabrics needed to be seen by people who understand how much effort is involved in work such as this.”
Since 2007, Bowker has helped to stage dozens of exhibitions (where the tentmakers’ work is also sold) around the world, including three in Dubai. “When the tentmakers returned to Cairo after these exhibitions of their work, you could almost see everyone walking taller,” Bowker says.
So what is it about fabrics and the art of quilt-making that Bowker finds so powerful? “When you look at a painting, you can get a sense of reflection from the image. The image is very much on the surface,” she says. “But a quilt implies time and effort in a different way. There are ripples and bumps and an almost three dimensional feel to the surface. And they absorb colour, which adds depth. When you display a quilt, people reach out straight away and want to touch it.
“People always ask me how long these quilts take to make. And what they’re really acknowledging and admiring is that I was willing to spend as much as two years on the work. There are things that you can do with fabric, which make it more meaningful, more evocative, more interesting than a painting.”