An ancient craft, now made here

Local artist’s handmade shoes are turning up on feet throughout the East Bay and beyond

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 9/26/21

Handmade of suede, intricately woven fabric, or leather in a variety of colors from the sedate Sequoia Brown to the eye-popping Yia Yia Green, the shoes hand-crafted by Bristol resident Selahattin …

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An ancient craft, now made here

Local artist’s handmade shoes are turning up on feet throughout the East Bay and beyond

Posted

Handmade of suede, intricately woven fabric, or leather in a variety of colors from the sedate Sequoia Brown to the eye-popping Yia Yia Green, the shoes hand-crafted by Bristol resident Selahattin Sep, a multimedia contemporary artist, are elegant in their simplicity. The Yemeni shoe, the style made and sold by his company, Tigris Handmade, has a 600-year history in the region around Southeastern Turkey, Syria, and Yemen — and it is one of the few products that have survived, effectively unchanged, for centuries.

The hand-sewn heelless shoe is cut, molded and sewn of animal skins and all-natural materials. Each pair takes about 5 to 7 hours of work, creating a product that will, with wear, mold to the foot and with care, last for years. Selahattin does not have a studio per se; his hand work is mostly accomplished with materials small and simple enough to fit in a bag.

Every year, Selahattin returns home to visit family and source materials — chiefly the leather, which he has dyed in one of three tanneries which have been dip-dying using traditional methods for over 3000 years. They use vegetable dyes, which produce colors of surprising vibrance and depth: a rich orange is the result of dying with carrots — but the greens, not the roots. A deep yellow gets its tone and saturation from turmeric, saffron, and cardamom, and the Yia Yia green gets its incredibly vibrant color from rocket (arugula) and parsley. It’s an inexact science, and Selahattin finds that there is a lot of variation in color from one batch to the next, but that’s also part of the charm of the product.

For Selahattin, home is Diyarbakır, a majority-Kurdish city located in southeastern Turkey near the Syrian and Iraqi borders. It would be the presumptive capitol of Kurdistan, if the Kurdish people had their own state. “I’m Kurdish, not Turkish,” he said “Unfortunately we don’t have a country.”
The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has resulted in the explosive growth of Diyarbakır in the past few decades, as tens of thousands of people moved into the city when Turkish forces depopulated Kurdish villages. In fact, much of the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish separatist groups has played out in and around Diyarbakır.

It was the refugee crisis in Turkey that brought Mr. Sep and his wife together. Amanda Esons, a native of Bristol whose father is a political science professor at RWU, met when both were working for an NGO in Turkey during the crisis. They decided to come to Rhode Island after the birth of their first child, in part to spend time near Amanda’s family. That child is now 4 years old, and their second was born nearly a year ago.
Still, Diyarbakır is never far from Selahattin’s heart. “The name means Land of Copper, there’s so much craftsmanship,” he said. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site with one of the world’s biggest fortresses and an intact, 6-km wall build between 367 and 375.

“I loved living there; we would like to move back eventually,” he said. “But right now there is COVID, and it’s an economical and political mess.”
“I love my country, life is beautiful there, but now is not the right time.”
Selahattin doesn’t work alone — he has a friend back home who does some of the piecework, creating components of the shoes before shipping them to Bristol to be finished. He used to have a location stamped on the sole of the shoe, but they stopped doing that because too many people thought that he was simply importing a product. “I’m making them right here in Bristol,” Selahattin said to one customer who was admiring his work and asking about the provenance of the shoes at the State Street Fair on Saturday.

He wants people to know is that it's a collaboration between him and his partner in Turkey. “My family has been creating these shoes for hundreds of years, these traditional Kurdish shoes.”

“I’m an artist, and since age 10 I’ve always been interested in craftsmanship. Continuing this family tradition — that’s giving me joy.”
For more information, visit www.tigrishandmade.com.

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