Erotic Tapestries, a Kyoto Inn Inspired by Sweets and More

Erotic Tapestries Inspired by Traditional Egyptian Crafts

Five years ago, the French textile designer and illustrator Louis Barthélemy was developing prints for Salvatore Ferragamo while splitting his time between Paris and Marrakesh, where he liked to wander the souks in search of inspiration. On a trip to Tangier, he came across “Mère et Fils,” a 2014 book of photographs by the now 61-year-old French artist Denis Dailleux, who lived in Egypt for many years. The images, at once erotic and tender, were of shirtless male Egyptian bodybuilders photographed with their mothers. Barthélemy, now 30, was so struck by them that he decided to go to Cairo himself, where he fell in love with the chaos of the city. He later moved there, into a spacious but faded ’60s-era flat. One day, he visited a tiny stall south of Bab Zuwayla in Suq al-Khayamiya (“Tentmakers’ Market”), where an artisan named Tarek Abdelhay Hafez Abouelenin was hand-making a khayamiya — a vibrant quiltlike work featuring ornate appliqué patterns sewn onto a plain cotton canvas backing, a textile that has been used to cover the insides of tents at weddings, celebrations and funerals for over a millennium. Not surprisingly, the meticulous, time-consuming work is a dying art (most contemporary khayamiya are digitally printed), which made Abouelenin’s work all the more extraordinary. The two men agreed to collaborate on a different sort of khayamiya, one that would stray from traditional arabesque and calligraphic motifs — and would defy the Islamic taboo against both realistic representation and homoeroticism.

“I drew a fantasy — a naïve and sensual scene of an imaginary gym on the Nile,” Barthélemy says. Then, once he and Abouelenin had determined a palette (cornflower blue, seaweed green), Abouelenin began stitching. The result, a lush 70-inch-by-70-inch tapestry depicting muscular Egyptian men lifting barbells and kettlebells amid stylized palm trees and native birds, was purchased by Barthélemy’s friend, the hotelier and creative consultant Philomena Schurer Merckoll, who hung it in her cult favorite hotel, Riad Mena & Beyond, back in Marrakesh. In mid-October, Barthélemy will debut a collection of six more tapestries that elaborate on the same theme at Tawlet, a cultural culinary hub in Beirut, Lebanon. “One of the pieces is a pharaonic take on the Parisian cabaret Crazy Horse,” he says.

As much as Barthélemy’s work is a celebration — of pleasure and of craft — he doesn’t shy away from certain tensions. “I’m very aware of the fact that in Islamic countries, women are covered but men are allowed to be quite exhibitionist,” he says. “This has become even more exaggerated on social media and is something I want to explore.” When asked about potential accusations of cultural appropriation, he responds, “To me, it’s appropriation if a luxury house takes a craft as it is, for purely commercial purposes.” He’s been inspired by the socially minded mid-20th-century Egyptian architect Ramses Wissa Wassef to start a workshop in Giza where laypeople can experiment with khayamiya, adding, “I’ve realized this initiative really moves me beyond the purely creative side of making things; there is a community that I want to nurture.” — GISELA WILLIAMS

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