Two thousand five hundred miles span the distance between Egypt and Republic of Benin. Depending upon the route traveled, the countries are separated by the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Between the two countries of North and West Africa, respectively, there are few cultural similarities; however, there is one shared commonality: a handicraft—appliqué embroidery.
Questions of cultural diffusion arise. Cultural exchange over the centuries cannot be ignored. Let’s take a moment to imagine a caravan arriving at Timbuktu with embroidered tents from Egypt that move from person to person toward the Gulf of Guinea. Or a Portuguese or British ship docked at the old port of Whydah trading cloth and appliqué textiles for slaves.
Trade is a powerful stimuli for creativity and it might be possible that 200 years ago an Abomey king ordered a craftsman to embroider symbols onto fabric after acquiring an appliqué from Egypt.
There are some striking similarities when studying the art of appliqué from each country. Craftsmen from both countries utilize the technique of appliqué (stitching fabric to fabric) for practical use or for decoration. Both craftsmen use a blind stitch so the thread is not visible at the front of the design. Both craftsmen piece together shapes and designs that have an intentional pattern or a story. In both countries, appliqué is a handicraft made by men not women.
But there are differences. In Benin, wood specialist, gold and silver casters, weavers and embroiders were in the king’s service. All objects were connected with the dynasty or had religious motivation.
In Egypt, the ancient art of appliqué was practiced by artisans to create decorative tents used by the high-ranking military, members of the royal courts, and the wealthy to create colorful rooms in large open spaces.
In Benin, cloth and thread were an import and most likely only in the possession of the king as cotton is not native to the tropics. Whereas the history of cloth and weaving is traced back to ancient Egypt as early as 5500 BCE.
Decorative appliqué textile in Egypt is used as an art in tent making and is known as khayamiya (tent). This hand-stitched technique sewn to canvas decorate tents, wall hangings, and pillow covers used at weddings, funerals, and street parties. They are made in Cairo in a covered market known at Street of the Tentmakers or Sharia al Khayamiya. This craft has been in continuous use since the Mamluk era but intricate pieces of embroidered tents are recorded as far back as the Twenty-First Dynasty where evidence of a funeral tent for the Egyptian Queen Istemkheb was documented by Gaston Maspero in 1881 after excavation of the Queen’s tomb at Deir el Bahri.
Tent makers in Cairo hand stitch cotton appliqué over heavy cotton fabric. The thick materials used for tents protect from the heat, sun, and dust. Geometric designs derived from Islamic motifs and curvilinear arabesque are popular for tent interiors. Pharaonic art, calligraphic patterns, text from the Quran, and animal, bird and fish motifs are also utilized to create a beautiful products such as bedspreads, pillows, and wall-hangings.
Hand stitching is performed by skilled artisans who sit cross-legged on pillows in their stalls on the Street of the Tentmakers. Their technique begins with a pattern drawn onto a stencil, then the stencil is perforated, holes are dusted that makes a pattern on the fabric. The stencil is removed and a line is drawn that follows the dotted-line. A pattern on the fabric is revealed. Small pieces of fabric are cut with scissors, and a blind stitch is used to attach the fabric along the lines of the pattern. (See photo above.)
Formerly, the Kingdom of Dahomey, Benin, West Africa, was once ruled by a powerful dynasty of eleven kings from 1600-1900. In the land, then, known as the Slave Coast, the name of the capital city was Abomey. The kingdom ended under French occupation around 1900. But during the reign of the Fon (king), their armies and amazons were powerful and fearful, often instigating slave raids and attacked territories larger than their own.
At the time various handicrafts flourished in Abomey to represent the individual Fon’s superiority. Kings and ministers of the court brought craftsmen to the palace to carve thrones with symbols for the king that represent power and historical events.
Appliquéd cloth was a technique in early embroideries to create figures, symbols, and representations. The symbols were used to decorate wall hangings, flags, umbrellas, buildings and other royal items during the reign of the king. One observes gruesome warlike scenes, the head of a decapitated enemy, a prisoner hanged or impaled. Such representations are always direct references to the specific heroic deeds of a specific Fon, and because these stories and deeds were told over and over again, everyone knew what was meant by them.
Throughout its history each Fon (king) had special symbols and proverbs associated with his rule. To read more about the symbols and proverbs click here. The Fons were as follows:
— (1798-1817): Despotic king written out of history for being internally violent and not interested in expansionism.
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