The Carpet As Polysemic Notion

The Essay In the Carpet by the curators Salma Lahlou, Mouna Mekouar and Alya Sebti of the exhibition of the same name tells the story of reciprocal historical and cultural influences between the European and Moroccan crafts of carpet making from early Avantgarde and Fauvism to contemporary artists’passion for Berber carpets and Moroccan Pictorial Modernity. The story evolves around Sheila Hicks, a former scholar of Joseph Albers and one of the pioneers of textile art who was invited to Morocco, in the 1970s where the redefinition of the artistic value of traditional arts was at the center of discussion.


In the Carpet

»I tie knots, and then I untie them in order to understand. I have to admit that definitions and categories (such as art, crafts and decorative arts) are becoming less and less important to me. What’s important are the ideas, and testing them—how to react and interact with the material, study that to which we are receptive. My ambition and my everyday joy is to put into play the possibilities of each material to a visual result, which is elaborated by the hands, eyes and thought altogether.« [1] Sheila Hicks


The present exhibition questions carpet-making practices both in Europe (France, Germany, Great Britain), but also in Morocco, whose craft is wellknown. Through this twofold perspective, it aims to attest the fertile exchange between the two practices, the two universes, between the two territories. In order to stress the mutual influence of this encounter, the exhibition will revolve around the American artist Sheila Hicks—a pioneer of textile art, who traveled to Morocco in the 1970s upon an invitation from the Moroccan government, with a view to her reinvigoration of traditional designs.
In this context, the exhibition will tell a story of multiple timeframes, linking traditional pieces from Morocco with modern and contemporary works. Such works include Saâdane Afif’s Souvenir: La leçon de géométrie (2015) where the scribbles from a geometry lesson—itself the fruit of a performance—form the design of a carpet, which was subsequently produced in Morocco. Furthermore, Taysir Batniji’s piece Hannoun (1972–2009), where a carpet of pencil shavings evokes the artist’s studio. Traditional works will also be included to pinpoint the moment where a formal dialogue is taking place between Zemmour carpets (referring to the Moroccan Central High Atlas Mountains), Beni Ouarain carpets (referring to a tribe from the Middle Atlas) and major Bauhaus figures, such as Gunta Stölzl. This gathering of works—playing out artistic regimes and systems, but also the decompartmentalization of practices—will also enable a juxtaposition with the innovative, Bauhaus-modeled programme set up in 1964 by the Casablanca School of Fine Arts.

In this way, the exhibition will stress fusion and superposition as phenomena intersecting different artistic forms and practices, but it will also attest the carpet as polysemic notion—at the same time object and representation, space and territory, form and technique, gesture and performance.

The exhibition might be described as a tale about the artists’ fascination with this textile production, and the latter’s power to establish dialogues between different artistic forms and practices. If this exhibition does not have a historical approach, a rudimentary chronology should nevertheless be recalled. With the appearance of new worlds (archeological discoveries, technology, science) and the emergence of, still inactive, zones of sensibility—exposed by the attention towards a new psychological space, a radical change took place at the beginning of the 20th century. In this paradigm shift, the visual arts (but also architecture and the applied arts) found an alternative to conventional form; Wasn’t Fauvism fed, to a certain extent, by the modern artists’ new interest in carpets?

»…the carpet as polysemic notion—at the same time object and representation, space and territory, form and technique, gesture and performance.«

The presence of carpets, from 1906 and onwards, and more regularly from 1912, in the paintings of Matisse, is manifest. According to a wide range of motives and colors, he shows us their flatness. In that regard, the exhibition Masterpieces of Muhammadan Art (or. Meisterwerke Muhammedanischer Kunst), organized in Munich in 1910 by art historian Friedrich Sarre and curator Hugo von Tschudi, was decisive. [2] For the first time, a carpet was exhibited as an image, as a tableau. The exhibition marks a turning point, not only in art history, but also in the mindset of artists such as Matisse, Kandinsky and Franz Marc. The latter regrets »that it is not possible to hang Kandinsky’s wonderful composition and certain other works next to the Muhammadan carpets in the exhibition grounds. Comparisons would become inevitable and how instructive that would be for all of us!« [3] Fundamentally—in the words of art historian Rémi Labrusse—a »new way of looking« emerges. [4] The works exhibited in Munich encourage the viewer’s eye to look according to a centrifugal, rather than centripetal understanding. The surface of the works »un-limits itself« [5] : from now on, it unfolds in the space of the viewer.

This new understanding of surface and volume also fascinated some of the great architects of the period, such as Le Corbusier. Among the great figures of the avant-garde, he might be considered one of the first advocates of Berber carpets [6] — also called zarabia in Arabic, or tazerbit in Amazigh. He was particularly interested in the carpets of the Middle Atlas—the predominantly white with black lozenge designs of Beni Ouarain, and the predominantly red of Zaiane. [7]

»This new understanding of surface and volume also fascinated some of the great architects of the period, such as Le Corbusier.«

»[Giving] scale to [his] rooms« [8] , he considered the carpets an enrichment of his architecture. The architect also features this feminine, rural, textile and Moroccan art together with modern paintings. Yet, those same Moroccan carpets also inspired the first pattern designs of Eileen Gray and Evelyn Wyld, who went to Morocco in 1909 in order to learn the traditional weaving techniques. Marcel Breuer—who also traveled in North Africa—was probably the one who introduced them at the Bauhaus School in Weimar. [9] Formal evidence that Bauhaus teachers and students were aware of Moroccan carpets is, however, of a later date; a photo of Monica Bella-Broner, a former student of Gunta Stölzl, shows her spreading out Bauhaus designs of hers on a Zemmour carpet. [10] An affinity also asserted in the exhibition where traditional Moroccan carpets are matched with works by Gunta Stölzl (Design pour un tapis tissé, 1926–2015) and Anni Albers, who developed a strictly geometric graphic style like that of Black-White-Gray, 1927–1964. Textile production—a dynamic process—sometimes, paradoxically, spurs the artists to play out these affiliations, or to reverse experiences; the work UNTITLED (Sans titre, 2014) by Yto Barrada is an example. In collaboration with the weavers of Darna, this carpet was produced from the pattern designs of the Dada artist Sophie Tauber-Arp, in Morocco in 2014. A hint of return, or of reinvention? The result of reciprocity, or of a tale in the tale? That is of little importance, considering the wealth of histories, experiences, journeys and encounters that each weaving, each carpet contains.

In this respect, it should be noted that the pioneers of textile art, such as Anni Albers, adopt this approach in their artistic practice. A child of Bauhaus, her work is fostered by her journeys as well as by the civilizations that she studies. Leaving Germany in 1933 in order to settle in the US where she taught at Black Mountain College, she became acquainted with the vernacular pre-Columbian plastic practices, which were later to enrich her formal vocabulary and color scheme. As it shows, she insisted upon the necessity of turning to artisan crafts, which was the only way—she said—to keep a contemporary, authentic and original production vibrant.

»The precision and sophistication with which the Peruvian designers mastered yarn crossing in three dimensions is exemplary. It was much more thought-provoking than the Bauhaus programme!«

It is with the same adherence and passion that her friend, Sheila Hicks—a student of Joseph Albers—takes and enthusiastic interest in pre-Columbian textiles. »When I was at Yale University, studying both painting with Josef Albers and pre-Columbian civilizations with George Kubler at the same time, I was taken aback by the latter’s weavings: their content, and especially their structures, their methods of manufacture’; by the relations between colors, designs and forms […] The precision and sophistication with which the Peruvian designers mastered yarn crossing in three dimensions is exemplary. It was much more thought-provoking than the Bauhaus programme! The ancient Peruvians knew, among other things, how to compose in a four-sided, predefined space, weave in shapes, and seamlessly—sometimes in astonishing dimensions; how to use rifts as a decorative or functional effect, play on symmetries and repetitions of the often intertwined motifs, accomplish double-siding and constructions with several densities of the same quality. My enthusiasm […] spurred me to go into it with a lot of freedom in the interplay of the yarns, allowing myself—following straight from these designers—intellectual play and the creation of a universal language«. [11]

Sheila Hicks, who in 1964 decided to move to Paris, chose yarn for her creations—not weaving or sowing with it, but modeling it, like a material for creating volumes. In this manner, she constructs an original vocabulary, invents new ecritures, develops a repertory of new forms and instigates free associations like that of the small-format works that she calls minimes, which she has made since 1958. With an acute sense of composition, these small tableaux, which are based on abstraction, on color and material, are fabricated according to the same principles as her monumental pieces. They are made out of strings, fibers and yarns, which the artist fixes on a frame or lets flow freely, transforming each piece into reliefs or sculptures. The artist thus transports the viewer into veritable imaginary landscapes, which also trace her journeys across the world (including Peru, Mexico, Morocco and India). The intermingling of cultures, a taste for raw materials, the handicraft, her encounters with the artisans, the objects that she brings back from her journeys such as the Beni Ouarain handira (a rectangular, flat-woven shawl characterized by a multiple-row front and a back of wild wool strands) from her Moroccan journey, but also the architecture of the countries that she travels through, are equally constitutive elements of her artistic language.

Rich on these worlds and experiences, Sheila Hicks was invited by the Moroccan government for a collaboration with the weavers in the early 1970s. Yet, the invitation must be seen as having been made during a period of great turmoil in the Moroccan artistic and intellectual milieus. Indeed, the question of tradition and its articulation through artistic creation was at the center of the discussions and debates in the country. Art historians, anthropologists, professors and artists all offered resolutions on the subject. The art historian and Professor at the Casablanca School of Fine Arts, Toni Maraini, formulated the theory that modernity is taking place in the lucid equilibrium between these two sensibilities (»avant-garde«—taking place in the present in relation to the future, and tradition—taking place in the present in relation to the past), and that it is in this equilibrium that »the most important works are to be found«. [12] These developments involved a theoretic and practical redefinition of the artistic value of the traditional arts, by bringing together the figure of the artisan and that of the artist. Bert Flint, an anthropologist living in Morocco, compared the Moroccan carpets to Alberti’s window-paintings, but also to the copies of antique plasters. [13] A weaving studio was set up at the Casablanca School of Fine Arts by an artist and professor of Polish origin, Anna Draus Hafid. Mostafa Maftah—at the time student at the School of Fine Arts—enters her workshop and inscribes »doing« at the heart of his production. Each piece is done by his own hands, like that of the wall carpet, Feu en Océan (1979). He performs an epistemological rupture, designating his work as a »color object«.

Nevertheless, these elements are also constitutive of the Moroccan pictorial modernity, borne by the painters Farid Belkahia, Mohammed Melehiand Mohammed Chabâa from the second half of the 1960s. These three artists—also called the Casablanca School—partly derive their sources of inspiration from the traditional Moroccan forms (including the carpet, henna drawings and zellige-making) in order to renew their pictorial language. It is according to this approach that Mohammed Melehi explores and repeats the motif of the wave breaking down the space of representation.

This kind of decompartmentalization of practices and of techniques of the artists from the Casablanca School also triggers an opening towards the Bauhaus model, which considered the artistic activity part of a vast field of experimentation.

»The work of Sheila Hicks seeks to give shape to a synthesis between painting, architecture and sculpture, but also between archaeology and anthropology, modernism and craft.«

It is in this context of intellectual and artistic turmoil that Sheila Hicks’ invitation must be seen. Resulting from her experience in Morocco are around thirty prayer rugs of different sizes. By means of two-dimensional and functional form, this collection—inspired by different local techniques, but also by architectural forms like those of the horseshoe or pointed arch—differs from traditional carpets. Some are presented in the framework of her exhibition at Bab Rouah—the national art gallery in Rabat. [14] Hanging from the ceiling, they are free of the wall, so as to conquer space and become veritable sculptures. To that end, the artist plays on interactions between color and architecture, between space and modules, creating a novel dialogue between architectural structures and stylized forms on the carpets. The work of Sheila Hicks seeks to give shape to a synthesis between painting, architecture and sculpture, but also between archaeology and anthropology, modernism and craft.

It is in the wake of Sheila Hicks’ approach that we find the work of Amina Agueznay, who explores the vast repertory of regional Moroccan expertise. Living in Casablanca, this artist—who gives primacy to the creation process—initiates novel encounters between competences, techniques and materials, stressing, by extension, the collective dimension of all textile production. In the framework of the present exhibition, she presents a re-reading of the manchar motif (chevron in Arabic) through a collaboration with weavers from Tiflet, thereby weighing dialogue and exchange. »One thing is sure, she insists: Textile is a means of communication with the other. Anyone can come see me here, sit down in my studio and start a conversation, just by pulling the strings«. [15]

Hence, the exhibition In the Carpet is neither a history of the carpet, nor a state of things. It is a conversation between different works that accounts for the carpet’s importance and significance in contemporary artistic production. It sheds light on the complex phenomena of superposition—or even fusion—that notions of carpet give rise to; the exchange between these two worlds, and the reciprocal effects between these universes.

(First published in In the Carpet, exhibition catalogue)

  1. Jump Up Sheila Hicks interviewed by Clément Dirié, published in the press release of »The Paris Autumn Festival« 2016, which is the framework of an exhibition with the artist taking place at three locations in Paris from September to December 2016, Musée Carnavalet, Vitrines Parisiennes and Nanterre-Amandiers, Centre Dramatique National.
  2. Jump Up Annemarie Schimmel quoted in Jurgen Adam, »Magiciennes de la laine. Moroccan Carpets and Twentieth-Century Painting« in Marokkanische Teppiche und die Kunst der Moderne, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, Stuttgart, 2013, p.103.
  3. Jump Up Rémi Labrusse, »The Avant-garde and Islamophilia : Anatomy of an Exhibition« in Chris Dercon, Leon Krempel and Avinoam Shalem [eds.], The Future of Tradition—The Tradition of Future. 100 years after the exhibition Masterpieces of Muhammadan Art in Munich, Haus der Kunst/PRESTEL, London, 2010, p.29.
  4. Jump Up Ibid., p.31.
  5. Jump Up Quoted by Philipe-Alain Michaud in an interview with Damien Guggenheim and Morad Montazami, Zamân, mars 2012, p.185-201.
  6. Jump Up Paul Vandenbroeck, »Métamorphoses de l’oeil« in Paul Vandenbroeck, Azetta, L’art des femmes berbères, Ludion Gand. Amsterdam-Flammarion, 2000, p.110.
  7. Jump Up Jurgen Adam, »Magiciennes de la laine« in Marokkanische Teppiche und die Kunst der Moderne, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, Stuttgart, 2013, p.106.
  8. Jump Up Ibid.
  9. Jump Up Ibid.
  10. Jump Up Ibid., p.107.
  11. Jump Up Sheila Hicks interviewed by Clément Dirié. See note 1.
  12. Jump Up Toni Maraini, »Situation de la peinture marocaine« in Souffles 7-8, Situation des arts plastiques au Maroc, 1967, p.15.
  13. Jump Up See Bert Flint, Formes et tissages dans les arts maghrébins, Tome 2- Tapis, tissages, 1974 and Maghreb Art 2 – Art populaire, published by the Casablanca School of Fine Arts, fall 1966.
  14. Jump Up Betty Werther, »Radical Rugs From Rabat«, Design, no. 270, London 1971, p. 48-53.
  15. Jump Up Quoted from a conversation with the artist in her studio.