4 February 2022

Collecting memories from a life well travelled

| Sally Hopman
Jenny Bowker

Jenny Bowker at her Garran home, which showcases much of her collection – from art to textiles and ancient artefacts. Photo: Sally Hopman.

For 15 years, Jenny Bowker called much of the Middle East home. She lived and worked in places like Syria, Israel, Jordan and Egypt, travelling with her husband, former Department of Foreign Affairs diplomat, Bob Bowker.

If she wasn’t a collector before she started to travel, she made up for lost time.

“Living in places like Syria, for me there was a sense of seeing things I’d never seen before and being so fascinated by them. I suppose that’s when I really started collecting,” Jenny said.

A visit to their Garran home is a true testament to the travels. It is papered with memories of those days, from shards of ancient utensils to the most exquisite textiles and chairs that would look at home in a palace, that Jenny has brought back to her life in Canberra.

Born in Bendigo, Victoria, Jenny grew up in Papua New Guinea before going to boarding school in Sydney. She has lived all over the world, but spent most of that time in Syria, Malaysia, Jordan, Israel and Egypt.

Bowl of shells, rocks

Shards and relics collected in the Middle East by Jenny Bowker. Photo: Sally Hopman.

But before she started travelling, she had already been bitten by the collecting bug.

“I collected natural stuff back then,” she said. “Wood and rocks, seed pods, anything I could draw. I didn’t have any money then, so collecting for me was not just a matter of going out and buying something.”

When her husband was posted to Syria, Jenny ended up teaching kindergarten there.

“I had no experience but I loved it. I was teaching in an American school, and picked up enough language quite quickly.”

She said understanding the culture was a steep learning curve.

READ ALSO When collecting knows no bounds – except more shelf space

“We would invite people to dinner, the men came but not their wives. The men always had excuses. Then I started using a bit of Arabic, talking about cooking, and then the wives came. After one dinner, a driver turned up at my door the next day and said I was to go with him – his wife was going to show me how they cooked in Syria. It was wonderful.”

Describing Syria as “the perfect post”, the Bowkers did a lot of travelling whilst there, driving around in a campervan.

“You’d go somewhere and on the side of the road, you’d brush off the dirt and see an ancient mosaic. The people there would keep it safe by covering it with dirt.”

It was there where she started collecting bits and pieces – little shards, bits of tools, crystals in a rock.

“There was stuff everywhere,” she said. “I’d bring them back – it was like a little catch of a memory. These things tell you stories about the people, if they were wealthy, what they did.”

bird quilt

Part of Jenny Bowker’s collection of textiles – a stunning work of bird art from the Middle East. Photo: Sally Hopman.

Although Jenny doesn’t stick to one thing when it comes to collecting, there is one mainstay – textiles, a favourite that complements her other skill, that of quilt-making. In 1997, she finished a Bachelor of Arts (Visual) degree at the Australian National University and decided to make her first quilt. Today, she teaches the craft and is renowned for her work, often using her Middle East memories as design inspiration.

But that first quilt is not one she looks back on with great joy.

“It was very badly made,” she laughed. “So I gave it to my sister. Then I started making more of them. By the time I went to Jerusalem, I discovered I loved working with textiles. I realised you could do anything with them. It was a great way to meet women and it wasn’t threatening for the men in Arab countries.

“It soon gave me a network to work with women – for me, it felt like the network gave them a voice.”

READ ALSO Teapot collection causes a stir in Boorowa Community Op Shop window

Since then, Jenny has exhibited her quilts internationally, has won a swag of awards and has shared her skills by teaching all over the world, including the United States, Ramallah, Iran, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Thailand, New Zealand and Australia.

She has also introduced the ancient art of tent-making to Australian audiences, including bringing craftsmen out to Australia and curating their exhibitions. She has collected many of their works, each telling a story of its maker, each boasting the most vibrant of colours and provenance.

And like everything else she collects, each piece comes with a story – and a memory.

Do you love collecting? Just email a few details about what you collect and why to [email protected], and you may well see your collection displayed right here for all to enjoy.

Original Article published by Sally Hopman on Riotact.

Weekly Wrap

Canberra is renowned for its restaurants, bars, arts and culture. If you want to know what's going on in and around the nation's capital, sign up for our weekly newsletter and have all the best of the Canberra community delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.