The Women of Chiadma in the Middle Atlas region of Morocco weave a world in a rug.
In one rug, a zigzag line across one end tells of high mountains, deep valleys and few people. Foothills are white with snow. Tents are carefully worked with Y-shaped entrances. Trees and perhaps campfires, diamonds and squares, are scattered through the middle, representing the valley. At the other end, strange wigwam forms are sprinkled through the diamond or tree shapes. The orange, white and black figures are set against a deep sunset magenta.
The rug was woven on the banks of the Tennsift River. The wonderful rich colors come from plants that grow on its banks. Here and there a faded strip shows that not all plant dyes are stable.
A woman of the Glaoua tribe in the Ait Quaozguite region wove a rug of camels shaped like mountains. Lions are not extinct in North Africa. But ones with great heads like roses still roar across another rug. The weavers run with the times: an Quaozguite rug by a city woman uses taxi cabs on a yellow background as the center of her rug. Patricia Fiske, Textile Museum associate curator, bought a rug for her husband (an official at the Air and Space Museum) that uses stylized airplanes as a motif.
If you are accustomed to the rigid patterns and careful symmetry of some types of Oriental rugs, the new exhibit at the Textile Museum will knock your eyes out. Many Moroccan rugs are as free -- perhaps freer -- than modern painting, which they closely resemble. Exuberance in design and color give these rugs a spirit that makes you feel happy just to look at them.
Whereas some familiar Oriental rugs have patterns that vary only to the eye of an expert, some of the Moroccan rugs seem to have exploded rather than been woven., It's grand to think of those women, modestly working at home away from prying strange eyes, making up their fantasies as they weave. What rich imaginations they hide behind their shawls.
"From the Far West: Carpets and Textiles of Morocco," will be on view at the Textile Museum (2323 S St. NW) through March 28. The 80-odd pieces constitute the first major exhibition of Moroccan textile arts ever held in the United States. Patricia Fiske, with W. Russell Pickering and Ralph S. Yohe, edited the informative book (50 color, 50 black-and-white illustrations with essays by five scholars in both English and French) which accompanies the exhibition.
rugs, bedcovers, shawls (for weddings and every day), saddlebags and pillows are included. Some 25 carpets were lent by the national museums in Rabat, Meknes, Fes and Marrakech. The others come from the Textile Museum collections and private owners. The event was sponsored by the Moroccan government.
The show should go a long way toward making up for years of ignorance on the part of Americans about this amazingly creative culture. It comes at a time when most Oriental rug prices have blasted into the stratosphere.
Because Moroccan rugs are comparatively unknown, their prices are still modest, making them good buys for people who like the rich colors and free designs. The rugs seem to me to be especially suitable for contemporary furnishings that don't need formal balance. Many are so obviously works of art that they should be hung. Prices are sure to go up after the Textile Museum show and book.
The very freedom that makes these rugs seem so fresh, new and different has made them hard for people to judge. In recent years, the Textile Museum, the only one of its kind in the United States has been interested in less sophisticated rugs, which hitherto has been neglected, if not scorned This broadening of scholarship is much to be commended.
Moroccan rugs are dificult to buy in this country, which of course, contributes to the general ignorance of them.
Bill Ruprecht at Sotheby Parke Bernet's New York auction house said, "Moroccan rugs are big and they take up a lot of room. We were getting less than $1,000 for them, so we stopped selling them about a year and a half ago."
In Washington, Donald Webster, head of C. G. Sloan's, said, "They're nomadic rugs, not sophisticated. We had some new ones to sell for a while but we didn't have a good experience with them." William Weschler of Weschler's, said, "They're scarce as hen's teeth, I don't recall handling any." A spokesman for Bloomingdale's said they were not reordering the rugs. a
Harold Keshishian, a local dealer who is also a trustee of the Textile Museum, said one of his stores has a few old rugs, "and they sell for a third to a fourth less than a comparable sophisticated Oriental."
The Museum of African Art boutique does have 50-year-old Moroccan rugs, about 12 or so, varying in size from small prayer gus up to large room-sized ones. The prices are modest -- beginning at $50 for a 2-by-2-foot prayer rug and going up to $1,600 for an excellent 8-by-12 foot. The rugs may need some repair and cleaning. The Textile Museum shop has just a few. A 2 1/2-by-4-foot rug is $1.75. Pillows made from the saddlebags are $45 to $85 according to Lilo Markvitch, shop manager.
Fiske said, "There's really no market here in them. Most people who have the rugs bought them in Morocco."
Admittedly, the rugs, for people accustomed to the familiar Oriental designs could be upsetting. A carpet from the Oulad Bou Shaa tribe, for instance, has its major motif woven just off center. Fiske said Sollie barnes, the museum's longtime installer, could hardly stand to hang it. But the rug is beautiful, and its very lack of symmetry adds to its charm. Another Oulad Bou Sbaa carpet shows the same divergent spirit, with three stick figures who seem to have just wandered into the rug's pattern without asking. Some of the pile carpets are intended to be used with the pile side down.
Fiske, walking through the exhibit the other day, said Berbers are the indigenous nomads of the country. The Berbers seem to be originally from the Mediterranean. Today, 600 tribes live in Morocco -- farmers, nomads, merchants. Many still speak Berber instead of Arabic.
The Arabs invaded the area in the 8th century. But Morocco, farther west than Europe or even Ireland, allied itself with Moslem Spain instead of the eastern Arabs. Much splendid architecture still remains from that alliance, strengthened by Morocco's acceptance of 15th-century refugees when Moslem dominance of Spain ended.
The rugs express this dichotomy. The distinctions may seem complicated to a layman. But at its simplest, the rugs are divided into three types: a flatweave, at thick pile or a combination of the two. The early Arab pile rugs have a symmetrical designs that don't repeat. The Berbers weave in
The rural Arabs weave pictures of real objects. The Berbers weave more abstract patterns. In recent years, the Arab weaving has become looser, and coarser. Natural dyes have been replaced by chemicals. And Rabat design motifs have strongly influenced the rural Arab weavers. Added to these trends are the Chiadma pile rugs, which has evolved into uncharacteristic individual expression. Far from being a dying art, the craft still flourishes. Some 800,000 people, at least half women -- 13 percent of the population -- are artisans.
The rugs are almost always woven of wool. Ahmed Sefrioui, writing in the catalogue, says: "In some tribes, a soman makes a pact with the lambs. The day of her marriage she puts her foot on the neck of the sacrifical lamb and says, 'I am leaning on you; only when you leave your soul will you leave me.'
"White wool has a particularly positive attribute. Its color, together with powerful charms it is thought to possess, conveys great prestige. Wool is protection against obscure powers, bad influences, demons and their telluric forces. A simple tuft of wool in a girl's hair represents an effective talisman. A wool thread around the leg of a mule, horse or cow will provide these beasts of burden with unlimited blessings and will protect them from any risks of illness or evil spells cast by envious souls."
Sefrioui goes on to list the requirements to receive a government stamp: The rug has to be knotted, made by hand (beginning with spinning and dying), and consist entirely of wool, or goat or camel hair; it must be dyed with solid dyes, and conform to regional or tribal standards.
Still, says Sefrioui, there are "rugs of forceful and original workmanship in the country souks [markets] as well as in the city."
Pickering, writing in the book, explains the fascination of the rugs well:
He writes that with Moroccan rugs, "It is best to forget everything one know about carpets. The examples of pile rugs and flatweaves from the Berber tribes of the Atlas Mountains and the Berber-Arab tribes of the plains may appear more simplistic than the village and tribal products of Central Asia and the Middle East. Fundamentally the product of an Islamic culture, they are nevertheless distinctive in their color, design and weave, and have characteristics which set them apart from all other Islamic weavings. aCarpets made in the commercial centers in and around Fes and Rabat may remind us of their Turkish cousins, but again, they too are unmistakably Moroccan in color and composition.
. . . Think of it as an adventure into a land of desert warriors and distant caravans, majestic mountain peaks and ranges, fertile plains and vast stretches of the sahara, exotic walled cities and Berber fortess towns, of a strong but friendly people and, best of all, of a world filled with the fresh and living colors of their rugs and art."