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INTERVIEW : Louis Barthélémy by SAVERIA MENDELLA ET KHÉMAÏS BEN LAKHDAR

For the closing of our summer of interviews with our artist friends, today we have a wide-ranging interview with the artist Louis Barthélemy, an image and creation consultant for the laureates of the Maison Mode Méditerranée Endowment Fund.

The MMM Endowment Fund has now published interviews with three French and Moroccan artists: Amina Agueznay, Hicham Lalhou, and Louis Barthélémy.

These discussions cover their contemporary visions, both local and international, as well as their take on creation and design. The conversations were carried out by Khémaïs Ben Lakhdar, PhD Student in the History of Art and Fashion, benefiting from a Maison Mode Méditerranée Endowment Fund Research Grant, and Saveria Mendella, PhD Student in Fashion Anthropology and Linguistics, benefiting from a CIFRE Industrial Training and Research Agreement with the MMM Endowment Fund.

 

 

This is the third and last conversation is with Louis Barthélemy, a French artist and designer who spends his time between Cairo and Marrakesh. After completing his studies in Arts and Design at the famous Central Saint Martins School in London, the designer worked for Dior then set off on a long journey to find inspiration before settling down in Egypt where he met the craftsmen weavers with whom he works today. In his work he is interested in various forms of art and explores them in depth. From the idea to its realisation, from the drawing to touching the final product, Louis Barthélemy develops works which tell a story, his own story, meticulously accompanied by precise historic knowledge, always evolving and in movement. Currently attracted by working with textiles, the artist produces accessible works you can touch, which are imposing not only in terms of their themes and subject matter but also their variety in size.

 

His new series of works called The wrestlers will be shown at the IFAN Museum in Dakar, Senegal at the end of 2021. The artist is also working on a project for the Louboutin fashion house in Paris. In September, Louis Barthélemy also presented in Paris his first collection of scarves, whose designs represented certain of his creations. For the designer, this new form of expression is not simply another connection with fashion, but also provides a more direct and intimate access to his works via a day to day object, which is both a plaything and an object with multiple uses. The scarves are available exclusively on his website and are produced in small numbers.

 

With the ambition of contributing to the discovery of various cultures and ways of making art, Louis Barthélemy travels in time with the skilled craftsmen and women he works with, taking his public with him between the Maghreb and the Middle East to promote the contemporaneity of ancestral arts.

 

Saveria Mendella and Khémaïs Ben Lakhdar had the pleasure of talking to Louis Barthélemy about what inspires him, his career so far, and his status as an artist working in the field, at the crossroads of the worlds of fashion, craftsmanship and art, which make up his own personal universe.

 

 

« The wrestlers » © Louis Barthélemy

 


 

Khémaïs : To begin with, we would like to talk to you about the ‘appliqué’ technique you use in your creations, with pieces of fabric sewn or stuck on to a larger piece to form your picture or pattern. How did you come to include it in your work? Was it because of the craftsmen and women you work with in Cairo?

Louis : I did not know about this ‘appliqué’ technique before I arrived in Egypt. I was already interested in textiles and printed materials but, while wandering around Historic Cairo, where every neighbourhood is segmented by trade, I met a craftsman that I started to talk to. We remained in contact as I travelled more and more often to Cairo. The idea came to me that I should work with this craftsman and develop with him a technique and way of working. Progressively, we fine-tuned the work to correspond to what I was looking for. The first months were experimental then we gave ourselves the target of working together to make our first tapestry.

 

 

Saveria : I would like to ask you, how, as a student of fashion at Central Saint Martins, you became interested in a variety of different types of artistic creation, less subjected to a commercial dimension?

Louis : I grew up in London and was fascinated by the Fashion houses, which, at that time, were developing a way of marketing and openness to ideas which were very stimulating and inspiring. I was very young when I decided I wanted to study fashion, and hoped to join one of the teams of the figures I found the most interesting at the time: Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. I ended up joining the creative studio at Dior, when Galliano was there. I drew a lot of motifs for scarves. Through this job I discovered that I had more of an affinity for the surface and motifs than the volumes of garments. For two and a half years, I really learned how to work with printing, the relationships between different elements, and studied embroidery and jacquard loom weaving with intricate, variegated patterns. This exercise was exciting, but in parallel I quickly understood that I was not really convinced about following a career in fashion. I was not really enamoured by having a life governed by the hierarchy in terms of policy and creation, but I did enjoy the creative exercise in itself. So I left the maison Dior and searched for a way to transpose this creative exercise into other fields of creation. But I didn’t stop working with fashion houses, such as Ferragamo, but I worked as an independent and moved to Morocco.
I found new worlds of creativity and different people, particularly craftsmen and women. By seeing new new things and other propositions during my travels, which were becoming more and more frequent, I sharpened my eye to other forms of expression. So, as I told you, during my travels in Egypt I met this craftsman, with whom I still work. In my personal approach to creativity, I was impregnated with a sincere need for dialogue and the elaboration of a bond. In a natural and spontaneous way, I became the craftsman’s partner. This type of unplanned relationship is the result of the spontaneity in my approach. I had never thought about a career plan, but concentrated on fulfilling my desires for creativity. My travels allowed me to permanently re-evaluate what I wanted, without being crystallised in some form of universe which would be my sole form of expression.

 

 

« Nile Gym » Louis Barthélémy – picture Sean Thomas for Vogue British May 2020

 

 

Saveria : As far as my experience in the fashion world goes, I was very happy to join the industry, but it was spoiled somewhat by having to comply with the routines of a business. But I am not an artist and was preparing a career with a classic rhythm. You, however, are an artist, so did the norms for a company or business, like having a hierachy and working set hours, motivate your desire to liberate yourself from the constraints of the fashion industry?

Effectively, I am satisfied with my choice not to be subjected to this model. The fashion industry is an undeniable source of revenue for artists. It is also an industry which produces beautiful and fascinating images, which obviously attracts creative individuals. The decadence of the fashion world is an agreeable experience to have, from time to time, and the joie de vivre produced sometimes by its members, has enabled me to meet some fantastic people. But I believe that there are other sectors which are just as fascinating, and I didn’t want to confine my freedom of expression.

 

 

Saveria : Et ces collaborations avec des maisons de mode vous ont-elles offert une notoriété que l’on pourrait qualifier de “grand public” ?

Tout à fait, la mode permet une visibilité. Et c’est aussi très encourageant de s’apercevoir que la mode s’intéresse à des créations en apparence éloignées de ses méthodes et habitudes, qui plus est en dehors de l’Occident. Ces collaborations permettent aussi de développer des projets ambitieux, tout en connectant des artisans égyptiens aux entreprises de mode parisiennes. Je suis très intéressé par cette idée de trait d’union. Créer des ponts humains, des relations entre mondes que je côtoie et fait se connecter est l’une des dimensions stimulantes de mon travail. Me positionner en trait d’union à la fois humain et créatif m’a été permis par mes déplacements géographiques. 

 

 

Saveria : And these collaborations with fashion houses, did they offer you a notoriety that you could say was with the ‘general public’?

Louis : Absolutely. The fashion market provides visibility. Furthermore, it is very encouraging to see that the fashion industry is interested in creativity which, obviously, is a long way from their methods and habits, and even more so, outside of their Western sphere. These collaborations also allow ambitious projects to be developed, while at the same time connecting Egyptian craftsmen and women to Parisian fashion companies. I am also very interested in this idea of connectivity. Creating human bridges and relationships between the different worlds that I frequent, and making connections, is one of the stimulating dimensions of my work. Having the position as a vehicle for human and creative connectivity was created by my geographic travels.

 

 

Saveria : Another geographic location where you work with people on the ground and where you live now. Your daily experience is, therefore, a total rupture with Western ethnocentrism. The periphery of the fashion world has become your centre. And craftsmanship, which for a long time has been looked on disparagingly, is now at the heart of your creative process. Have your works contributed to this rehabilitation of craftsmanship in fashion? Do they create a connection between craftsmanship and fashion which enhances the value of manual trades in our collective imagination?

Louis : Perhaps. In fact, it is a comment often made about me. Particularly in Egypt, which was a caste system, where craftsmen and women are not very well considered. They are right at the bottom of the caste pyramid. For a long time the Egyptian upper class denigrated its own heritage as well as local craft work to the point of reducing local investment. This was a phenomenon dating from colonial times which spread the idea that excellence was somewhere else. However, in recent times, when I have had an exhibition in Cairo, they are often surprised to learn that the work was carried out in their own country, and only a few kilometres from where they lived. So, thanks to several of my projects, I was, in a certain way, the link between these two societies. I am still surprised that it never came about before. But I didn’t go to Egypt to appropriate a traditional craftsmanship. My dialogue is with a present day heritage, which I am attracted to, and I do not prevent anyone from working in the same way, as long as each piece work is personal.

 

 

Khémaïs : In fact, both in your work and your public speeches, you really highlight the ‘appliqué’ technique. We also note a desire to become aware the history of this technique and its sources. You do not use this technique simply for personal ends.

Louis : In Egypt, history is all around you! What we as Westerners know and understand has its roots in thousand year old customs, know-how and rites, which are often overlooked. Once on site, we are obliged to dig to understand where these characteristics come from. My work, which involves research and historical contextualisation, is, therefore, fundamental and essential.

 

 

Saveria : On this subject, I would like to ask you if your motifs, which sublimate an imaginary homoeroticism, make local collaborators uncomfortable, particularly the craftsmen and women?

Louis : You must always remember that the representation of nude male bodies has always been present in Egyptian iconography. The term “gay” is a Western construction, linked to Western preoccupations. My drawings obviously contain a sensual dimension, but the same types of nude bodies were already present in the frescoes of tombs for example, 4,000 years ago. The presence of nude bodies is permanent in Egyptian heritage. When I ask the craftsmen what they think about my motifs and drawings, they refer to the bridges they have with their own cultural representations, with which they have no problems whatsoever. However, I do not deny the symbolism in my work, but I also adapt it to be acceptable to local culture, out of respect for the craftsmen, so that they are not put in any danger. This symbolism has no unique way of being read, nor is it fundamentalist, any interpretation remains free. When I talk about the ambiguity of relationships between men and women in Egypt with craftsmen who are at the centre of a society which abounds with norms and rules, our ideas converge. So, visual symbolism permits suggestions but also fluidifies connections, obviously shared, but sometimes difficult to address orally.

 

 

Khémaïs : In your work, you are interested in the synthesis between the worlds of ancient Egypt, the worlds of the Pharaohs, and the contemporary arab world. How do you develop an aesthetic which is both pharaonic and resolutely modern?

Louis : As a child, one often associates Egypt with the time of the Pharaohs. But when I arrived in Egypt, I realised that this heritage is only present in certain zones, particularly touristic. Egypt has many layers of civilisations, including references which are Copt, Christian, Roman, Greek, Arab, Ottoman, Persian, Western and American. It is this superposition of currents that I found fascinating, as today it has created an original identity. The History of Egypt is obviously very violent, made from wars and conflicts, but these different periods now form a unique identity, which brings together all the moments of its history. It is this juxtaposition of influences that I want to illustrate in a ludic and joyous manner.

 

 

 

Khémaïs : So, concerning your illustrations, do you think of your works as sequels, like in a comic strip, with an ongoing story? By using this assertive aesthetic style, does linearity take prominence?

Louis : Yes, I am not sure if it was a conscious decision, but I do have a form of narration, more of a personal story based on my relationship with the creative process. I explore subjects and phenomena which develop an oriented sensitivity, but in a spontaneous manner. Perhaps later we could read all of it as a chronological story.

 

 

Khémaïs : While looking at your works, I can’t help but make a link with the Egyptomania artistic movement, in particular during the 1920s, driven by the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Have you been influenced by this historical and artistic period for your inspiration?

Louis : All the imaginary Egyptian stories told in the West are of particular interest to me. I have a sizeable collection of pieces from this period, whether glazed ceramic ware, textiles or lithographs. It is a form of documentation that I still enjoy revisiting today. It is something close to being caricatural, steeped in fantasy. All of this iconography, inspired the the Egypt of the Pharaohs, ultimately elaborates the bridges between antiquity and the modern period.

 

 

Khémaïs : How long does it take you to finish a work? How do you get on working with the craftsmen and women?

Louis : That depends on the technique being used. My large format, very ornamental needlework ‘appliqué’ pieces take on average between 4 to 5 months of work. It takes a long time, and that is why my production is limited.
Concerning the creative process, I provide the craftsman with a coloured, real sized model. For the ‘appliqué’ technique, I give him two: one in black and white with simply the lines being real size, and another in colour which serves as a guide and base to choose the samples of cotton which will subsequently be used for the ‘appliqué’. The drawing is transcribed onto the canvas and afterwards the lines are completely covered with fabric.

 

 

Louis Bathélémy for Christian Louboutin

 

 

Khémaïs : Have you already thought to ‘hybrid’ this technique of ‘appliqué’ with other craft processes discovered on other travels?

Louis : I am currently developing a series called The wrestlers that I will present at the IFAN Museum in Dakar, Senegal at the end of the year For this project I worked on the technique of ‘appliqué’, moving it in the direction of something else, as I integrated West African ‘bazin’ starched cotton, coloured fabrics. The base canvas of my works are now covered by these fabrics which practically become cards with a patchwork of bazins in different colours. My subject, which is initially figurative, is transformed by using this process and the effects of scale, into something which is close to being abstract. Exhibiting this work in West Africa also allows me to build bridges between this region and Egypt, as Ghana, for example, also has a tradition of using the ‘appliqué’ technique, called Asafo.
When I went to Dakar, I was very interested in wrestling, which is a national sport. It is also practised in Sudan. In this country, which in Antiquity was called Nubia, you can still find ancient tombs of wrestlers with a whole series of representations of combats. That is what interests me in Africa. From one region to another, you can find similarities shared by worlds which did not necessarily know about one another. These pockets of culture, which are in different places geographically, continue the debate on cultural appropriation. Finally, wrestling had different forms, and originated in different countries. For example, Greece, Nubia and Western Africa. These pockets of development came into being without necessarily having any external influences, I wanted to celebrate these different connections rather than enclose each on in a sarcophagus.
This evolution in my technique happened progressively, thanks to new discoveries, and particularly my discovery of Senegal, which is very important to me. In another register, I am now developing another project with a leather workshop in Florence. It is a tent which will be decorated in khayameya decorative ‘appliqués’ made in leather, rather than fabric. In fact, I am in a period of experimentation and in a cross-cultural dialogue between these countries where I travel and which inspire me.

 

 

 

Saveria: In your creative process, experimentation in the field seems to be a fundamental preparatory phase. Your research phase seems basically like an exercise in ethnography.

Louis : Absolutely! It is true that I need to be in the field to develop a project, to meet new people, dialogue with them, etc. I am a very curious person, but I also have a need to make contact with people and to work in concert with the craftsmen and women (as I usually work alone, without any structure). We also come back to this idea of recognising the input of other people, which is extremely important in my approach, whether in Egypt, or lately in Syria. And I find the term ‘ethnography’ quite appropriate. My studies are anchored first and foremost in the field, and are expressed in a dialogue with the people I meet.

 

 

 

Khémaïs : You had the opportunity of meeting the Egyptian sisters who created Okhtein, the luxury craft leather goods label [laureate of OpenMyMed 2017]. This summer, the Qatar based investment fund Bidayat, which owns the labels Valentino and Balmain, made an investment in their brand, as part of their contribution to the promotion of regional brands in the Middle East. What can you tell us about this crucial stage for the two creators?

Louis : Mounaz and Aya have a very precise vision of Egyptian craftsmanship and the development of their label. They collaborate with with local craftsmen and women not only to promote their work, but also because they, more than others, have the capacity to develop their creations. The Bidayat investment group is becoming more and more important in the Middle East. I totally agree with their ambition to create a luxury goods group made up of local brands which develop creations for a regional clientele, which for too long has not been taken into consideration by Western fashion houses.

 

 

Khémaïs: Finally, can you talk a little more about your news and what you are doing now?

Louis : As well as my exhibition in Dakar and my project in Florence, I am planning for this winter, with Pierre Frey, to produce a small collection of wallpapers and embroidered fabrics with a universe of Egyptomania. For the opening of a Louboutin boutique for men in Paris, I have also developed a new tapestry, which is a pyramid of shoes. In my own name, I launched a collection of scarves, which I photographed in the Printemps department store in April. It is a reinterpretation of my tapestries. For me, a scarf is not only a fashion accessory, but can also be a collector’s item. I like to say that the scarf is, in a way, the lithograph of a tapestry. With the group Bidayat, I have another potential project, which is more at the ‘conversation’ stage at the moment. They want to create a Middle East centre to support and promote fashion projects in the region.