African Appliqué

©Nation Online Project Design: Moh. Salah

©Nation Online Project
Design: Mohamed Salah

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.

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Khayamiya is a decorative appliqué textile in Egypt

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Abomey appliqué – Benin

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.

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photo credit: René Gardi 1969″African Crafts and Craftsmen.

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.

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sitting cross legged on a diwan

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.

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design begins with drawing pattern on perforated stencil, dusting, redrawing the pattern on fabric

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.

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photo credit René Gardi 1969″African Crafts and Craftsmen. Patterns are stitched into place before attaching with a blind stitch

Egypt

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.

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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.)

Benin

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.

IMG_1832Throughout 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:

IMG_1834 (1)Gangnihessou: 1600-1620, the King of Allada and the big brother of the first Fon (king) of Dahomey. Royal Symbols: bird and drum

IMG_1834 - Version 2Dako-donou: 1620-1645. Royal Symbols: indigo jar & “briquettes”

IMG_1834 - Version 3Houegbadja: 1645-1685. Royal Symbols: fish and wicker trap (As a prince, he once avoided a trap which had been set for him.

IMG_1834 - Version 4Akaba: 1685-1708, crowned at 50 years old. Royal Symbols: wild boar, chameleon & sword

IMG_1834 - Version 5Agadja: 1708-1741  Initially resisted the slave trade, then became a major slaver.  Lost war with Oyo in 1720.  Paid tribute until 1818. Royal Symbols: boat

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (1)Tegbessou:1740 -1774

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (2)Kpengla: 1774-1789

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (3)Agonglo: 1789-1797. Royal Symbols: pineapple

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (4)Ghezo: 1818-1858, 40 years, 40 wars, “killer of elephants”. Royal Symbols: buffalo without dress

— (1798-1817): Despotic king written out of history for being internally violent and not interested in expansionism.

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (5)Glele: 1858-1889. Royal Symbols: lion (the teeth of the lion are pushed and feared also).

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (6)Gbehanzin: 1889-1906, opposed colonial invasion. Exiled by French and died in Algeria. Royal Symbols: shark and egg in hand

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (7)Ago-Li-Agbo: 1894-1900.  Enthroned by French and later exiled. Royal Symbols: leg kicking a rock, bow

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**All rights reserved by Lesley Lababidi. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required.

photo credit: African Design, Margaret Trowell

photo credit: African Design, Margaret Trowell, Dover Publications, Inc. 2003.  “The power and might of the chiefs are often expressed by symbolic forms or scenes; while the ceremonial staves and axes and paddles of many African tribes have a refinement and dignity of design which compare favorably with the regalia of more technically advanced peoples in spite of their limited choice of materials. ” p. 15

18 thoughts on “African Appliqué

  1. What a comprehensive and enjoyable post. The story of applique across Africa was extremely well written. I enjoyed reading and seeing all the completed pieces. It brings back fond memories and I will go and look more closely at the few pieces od applique I have. I also enjoy appliqueing, and know how much work they do. The African craftsmen are not known worldwide, but you are helping the world get to know them through your travels. Thank you. Joyce Mostard

    • Joyce, you as one of the most talented embroiders that I have met, know this craft well. I know your interest runs deep in this field and all the many beautiful handmade objects you have created over the years for all to love. I know I have your beautiful hand work in front of me as I type this. Thank you, Lesley

  2. Dear Lesley,

    What a beautiful way to start my day with your vivid and informative new post., on a subject dearto my heart (THE TENTMAKER’S WORK) and another rich folk imagery from Benin. That art is SO vivid- it makes my apple tremble!

    Lesley, do you have a copy of the book Avon and I did, “Molas, Folk Art of the Cuna Indians”- If you do not have it, I would like to send you a copy. Where should i send it? Much news from my bucolic hill in MA. I will write soon, but must be starting a busy day now.

    With friendship and admiration,

    Ann

    • Ann, It is so good to hear from you. I know your work with the Cuna Indians and their craft was one of the highlights of your life. No, I do not have the book and would love to have a copy. I would be most honored. I will send you my address in an email. Hope all is well with you, L.

  3. Dear Lesley,

    Again, you thrill me, thank you. This form of stitching, the appliqué embroidery, is a favorite of mine. Lisa and I were in the area of the tentmakers and found some lovely pieces both gifts and for ourselves. They fascinate me!

    Do you have a collection of pieces from Egypt and Benin? If so, what do you do with them?

    Best wishes to you and your family, today July 23 Revolution holiday, and I think…which one should we be thinking of???

    Hope to see you back sometime soon,
    Hugs-
    Mary

    Sent from my iPad

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    • Dear Mary, Thanks so much Mary. I too, enjoy going to the tentmakers, it is always such a lovely hours to spend admiring all the beautiful and imaginative pieces. Yes, I have a collection of pieces but unfortunately they are kept in a big trunk. The children use to hang them in their dorm rooms. The ones from Egypt gave tranquility and usefulness as bedspreads and pillows; the ones from Benin due to the themes of violence sometimes were not appreciated but interesting…then back into the chest. So I am glad I found an avenue to appreciate them again. See you soon! L.

  4. Dear Lesley,

    What a terrific way to make the link between two different, but still close great cultures. It takes an experienced eye and artistic acumen to capture and magnify the issue in front of the eye on such enjoyable and informative article. Interesting, you point out that the stretching, a female domain in general, is done in this case by men. A fact ignored by many but the a ware! Thanks for being part of our life enriching it every time we hear from you.

    We are in NH for some R&R with cool weather and fresh air. Mellen sends her love. Mohamed Tanamly

    • Dear Mohamed, It is great to hear from you. I know you have extensive African experience and with your connection to Egypt, your words and support are a great compliment to me. I read an article interviewing one of the artisans at the Kayimiyya souq and he said women do not make good embroiders because they have to much to do taking care of the house and children. i.e. they can’t sit all day sewing. But it is true that in Africa some crafts are just for women and some crafts are just for men and both genders respects the boundaries as I perceive it is for a traditional reason, social or religious. Thank you so much for your lovely response. L.

  5. Hi, Paula.

    Thank you so much for this article. I knew about Benin metal work and sculptures but not about their appliqué. When we were in Egypt, we visited the Tentmakers’ Street, a very amusing trip. Our taxi driver had never heard of it, got general directions and then stopped at almost every street corner to verify until we got there.

    Gay

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    • Hi Gay, the Benin bronze and sculptures that you mention are from the area of Benin Kingdom in Nigeria. This appliqué work is from the Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey). It is an area that incompasses south-east parts of Togo as well where the handicraft appliqué is found.

      Thanks for the lovely memory of your adventure to the Tentmakers.
      Best,
      Lesley

  6. Fascinating article Lesley. I just finished reading it while inside with the air conditioning running! It’s hot here……but how can I say that to you when you are in Cairo. I don’t quite understand how the characters are sown on with out any rough edges showing. Is the ‘blind stitch’ part of that process?
    Love your articles so much, Lesley

  7. Thanks Karen for your kind words, interest and support. I am so glad that you enjoyed the article. Yes, the blind stitch is not visible from the front. Stay cool! L.

  8. I have maintained a Abomey Applique (large the one shown with a figure hanging at the bottom) since it was gifted to a gallery, The Cumberland Gap, I once owned in Laguna Beach, California in 1976. Your world-class site has brought the applique, which has always hung in my home, to life. Its spirit and artistic strength has always permeated my soul and dwelling. I have spent the past several decades in Utah discovering and recording Archaic and Prehistoric, Barrier Canyon and Fremont Rock Art which also etches in ones soul. Thank you again for your hard work. Best regards, Craig Evan Royce

    • Dear Craig,
      I am honored that you find my site and subjects of meaning. The appliques are powerful of human need and survival, of power and emotion, portrayed in a simple structure. Thank you so much for your comment, which gives me motivation to keep writing. Your work sounds fascinating. I’ve spent sometime (before the revolution) traveling around southern regions of Egypt looking at rock art. The discovery and study is all encompassing. I would like to learn more. Do you have a site on line? Im not on Facebook.
      Warm regards,
      Lesley

  9. Dear Lesley: Thank you for your wonderful words. I do not maintain a web site though there is a little info. on Google under Craig Evan Royce or Country Miles are Longer Than City Miles (book) or Uranium Seekers (book). If you would like to forward a mailing address to me at P. O. Box 5 East Carbon City, UT 84520-0005 I would be glad to send you some images and a tad of info. Best Regards, Craig Evan Royce

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