For Louis Barthélemy, a deep fascination for Egypt began with a book of photographs. At the time, the 30-year old French artist and illustrator had just finished a stint designing fabric for Dior and was living between Paris and Marrakech, freelancing for the Florentine leather house Salvatore Ferragamo. One day, in the spring of 2015 in a bookshop in Tangier, he came across a large format book entitled “Meres Et Fils” (Mothers and Sons) by the French artist Denis Dailleux, who had lived in Egypt for many years. The series consisted of dozens of images of shirtless Egyptian bodybuilders with their mothers, who were covered in headscarves. The images haunted him, in a pleasurable, dream-like way; he started plotting a trip to Egypt, and eventually, less than two years later, he finally made it to Cairo.
The day he arrived he not only fell in love with the chaos of the city, he met and fell in love with an Egyptian man from a wealthy, upper-class family; fewer than ten months later he returned to Cairo and has lived there on and off for two years, voraciously consuming the history and artisanal techniques of Egypt and feeding them into his own tapestries and drawings. “I love twisting ancient craft that initially served religion to please my own fantasies,” he says wryly.
When in Cairo (he travels back and forth several times a year) Barthélemy searches out fragments of Egypt’s past and uses those images to stitch together his own fantasy of the city’s most tolerant and extravagant era during the late 1800s and early 1900s, a time when Egyptian princes and British aristocracy would mingle in grand casinos, opera halls and Art Deco lobbies in the cosmopolitan Talaat Harb district. “I picture in my mind the blissful frivolous scenes and parties that happened over a century ago in these grand buildings and lush gardens, now faded and overgrown, and those images often find themselves into my tapestries.”
Working with artisans in the city, specifically those skilled in the dying art of khayamiya, ornate appliqué work on canvas as if on quilts, that was traditionally used to decorate the inside of celebration tents, Barthélemy has completed a series of tapestries which he describes as “naïve and sensual scenes of what I call an imaginary gym on the Nile”. Recently these were on show at Tawlet, a restaurant and cultural space in Beirut, Lebanon. “I love the feeling and challenge of creating something born of harmony and beauty within the dusty, frantic chaos of the city,” he explains.
An elegant acquaintance from Cairo named Leila Benamatalla encouraged Barthélemy to journey to Siwa, a remote desert oasis where she sources much of the candle votives and furniture carved from salt rock which she sells at her boutique, Siwa Creations. The historic site of the ancient temple to the oracle of Amun, one of ancient Egypt’s most powerful Gods, Siwa is close to the border with Libya. It was such an eminent, auspicious pilgrimage site that Alexander the Great made a trip there from Alexandria in 331 B.C. and was said to have returned to his campaign as a descendant of Amun, the Egyptian equivalent of Zeus. “It’s such an incredible place,” said Barthélemy. “It’s always been somewhat independent from Egypt and you can somehow feel a special magic there.” For centuries, until the 20th century, Siwa was ruled by Berbers and had its own rules; male homosexuality was accepted and even marriage between two men was practiced. “I think that is actually the real reason why Alexander had such a great time,” laughs Barthélemy.
In Siwa, Barthélemy stays at the Adrere Amellal resort, a passion project of Mounir Neamatalla, a complex built of the same rock that surrounds it, which is like a beautiful mirage of a monastery complex or glowing fortress out of One Thousand and One Nights, especially by night when all the rooms are candlelit.
The atmosphere of Siwa’s ancient temples and surreal, Biblical landscapes and the Bedouin people he meets there have influenced some of Barthélemy’s most recent works. He is creating a large scale artwork for Christian Louboutin that will be shown in the shoemaker’s restored flagship boutique in Paris. (The two designers share a strong love for Egypt—Louboutin has a felucca boat anchored in Luxor). In the next year Barthélemy will head to Syria, working with several artisans in Damascus that he was connected to through Syrian acquaintances of his in Cairo. “I am fascinated with Syrian marquetry work—the furniture made from rosewood and inlays of mother of pearl. I am now working on a piece that will translate my figurative scenes into that marquetry.”
Traditionally the designs represented with this Syrian marquetry have always referred to Islamic religious symbols and ideas. As always Barthélemy is interested in reinventing the language of craft. But while he champions appropriation, he never takes advantage of the artisans he works with. “I consider them collaborators and always give them full credit. It’s a visual conversation.”