The French illustrator, textile designer and overall artist Louis Barthélemy considers each of his artworks an object of respect and love, as he studies Egyptian society and conducts research to understand the culture that identifies them. In his own words, “I love connecting worlds apart in a creative process,” and that is why in his recent projects we can see everything from Moroccan sandals, to illustrations of Senegalese wrestlers and even his own sustainable brand Udjat, to which he can add fashion designer on his resumé.
Louis, you are known for being an artist, textile designer and illustrator who turns his attention to Egypt's past. When did the culture, architecture and history of this country begin to interest you? Why did you choose it to be your muse?
I first visited Egypt 4 years ago and fell in love with somebody right away. This short-lived passion allowed me to step foot in a country full of wonders which I have been exploring since. It was not a choice per say but a fortunate storm of circumstances.
If I'm not mistaken, before starting your own career, you worked for haute couture brands like Dior, Gucci or Salvatore Ferragamo. What did you learn from these experiences?
Prior to engaging in an intimate and artistic journey, I was in fact designing prints and patterns for fashion houses after having studied fashion design at Central Saint Martins in London. I joined Christian Dior at the age of 20 under the helm of John Galliano. I learnt a certain discipline, a sense of refinement and attention to detail and, overall, I realised I did not want to have a career in the fashion industry and work in-house but instead take an unknown yet personal path.
You decided to move to Cairo for the love of art, did it change your style and your personality?
I initially moved to Cairo for a man I fell in love with. Today I keep coming back to Egypt for the artistic work I develop locally with communities of artisans. Egypt, in general, has taught me to let go of the control and leave room to the unexpected, it is what they call mektoub, it had been prophesied, it was meant to be...
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Could you tell as an element that could define your work?
Your projects are full of life, could you tell us a bit about the creative process? How long does it usually take you from when you have the idea until you do it?
I consider each artwork an object of love. Usually, it starts with an encounter; an artisan I meet for example. I then engage in a dialogue with that person, trying to understand its social and cultural background. Later on, I share drawings and illustrations I wish to interpret, in conversation with the skills mastered by the artisan. I never set a time frame when developing a piece. It can take 4 months, sometimes a whole year or more. Ultimately the aim is to create something I love.
Your creations titled Siwa, which are handcrafted curvilinear salt-glazed clay vases, are inspired by the sensual landscape of this desert. What is the trigger for you to describe this horizon as something almost erotic?
The beauty of nature and the human body are often celebrated in my work. I am always fascinated by the sensuality of the desert; the curves, soft lines and gold shades of the dunes remind me of languid naked bodies. When developing ceramics in Siwa I wanted to translate this idea through anthropomorphic vases.
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Like the ancient Egyptians, in many of your sculptures, we can see influences from gods such as Anubis, Bastet or Anuket, and from mythological creatures like Tête the Sphinx. What fascinates you the most about these creatures?
What fascinates me from the cult of ancient Egyptian deities is how humankind translated and projected natural phenomena from intensive observation of the surrounding (hostile) environment into mysteriously fluid creatures they would faithfully worship. This respect and love for nature ancient Egyptians had, paired with a certain submission to its power is humbling.
Masculinity is another of the themes that define your work. I observe pharaohs, warriors and Egyptian men working out their athletic bodies and lifting weights. Despite its superficial appearance, is there a hidden message behind these illustrations?
The masculine men and athletes I represent in my work are often depicted together in lush greenery, In those blissful compositions, I aim to illustrate the proximity, tenderness and complicity between men. In a conservative society like Egypt, it is hard for men and women to bond on a physical/sensual level before marriage. Instead, same-gender individuals spend a lot of intimate time together and tie strong connections they would not have with a person of a different gender.
Moreover, I like to question why it is acceptable for a man to partially undress his body in public or social media, be acclaimed for his physical attributes and on another hand, it is considered indecent for a woman to show her hair and some skin.
Not only did you collaborate with Moroccan artisans to create a line of woven raffia and leather sandals, but they were used in the Maison Rabih Kayrouz fashion show. How does it feel knowing that your designs have walked the runway?
I had been designing handcrafted sandals with an artisan met in the souk of Marrakech for quite some time to please a personal need. I couldn’t find beautiful men’s sandals on the market at a price I found reasonable. Therefore, I had my own designs made. Over the years, I had unconsciously developed a little collection.
One day in Beyrouth, I met Rabih Kayrouz, he fell in love with the pair I was wearing, and he asked if I could adapt the style to women’s feet for his upcoming runway show. I accepted the challenge, and I was so pleased and touched to see the work of a humble Moroccan artisan recognised and appreciated for its exquisite craftsmanship on a Parisian podium. I love connecting worlds apart in a creative process, I draw a great feeling of satisfaction and achievement in these moments.
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Recently you have shown a new series around Senegalese wrestlers. An abstract composition where the clash of colours and mixed patterns is the essence. Could you tell us about the artistic process behind it?
During a stay in Dakar (Senegal) last spring I met wrestlers. These moments spent with them allowed me to better understand their condition, their aspirations and the universe in which they evolve. A universe steeped in sacredness, sublime, respect for ancestors and the forces of Nature. From my stay in Dakar followed by a trip to Cairo was born a blend of influences and colours celebrated through a unique exploratory triptych of tapestries.
The omnipresent duality between light and dark, life and death, mastery and abandonment that these men embody, invites me to chromatically express this fiery infighting through rival colours and motives. The heartbreak of the vanquished, the glory of the victorious erected as gods on Earth and acclaimed by a bewitched audience make me wonder about the echo that this performance elicits in us. This series in the making will be exhibited his year at the Théodore Monod Museum in Dakar.
Changing the subject, you were in Cairo when Covid-19 appeared in our lives, but for you it was not an impediment. You created the Udjat brand, where we can find accessories and sustainable garments with printed hand embroidery with Egyptian cotton and fabrics to unique lifestyle objects. Is reviving the forgotten Egyptian art and craft heritage one of the firm's priorities?
Udjat is committed to revitalising threatened traditional handicrafts and support responsible manufacturing via sustainable, low impact production methods. By collaborating with rural communities of artisans and refugees, it aims to empower the men and women involved often excluded from traditional economic circles.
Other than creating Udjat, what did you do during the quarantine? Did you take advantage of your spare time to research for upcoming projects?
Absolutely, my time in Egypt during covid last year allowed me to follow up a number of projects including a piece for Christian Louboutin’s flagship store in Paris, and various commissioned tapestries as well as spontaneous creations of mine.
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