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The Magic of Berber Rugs

It is suggested that the abstract motifs often displayed in Berbers rugs from Morocco evolved out the shamanic cosmology as old as the Neolithic Age.

Berber weaving arts survived till today almost unadulterated; they show little regard for commercial trends that swept the oriental bazaars and western courts of the past half millennium.

The Mogul Emperors, Persian dynasties, the Ottomans and later the Western courts sourced their opulent rugs with gold and silver thread in the bazaars along the Silk Road, the commercial routs criss-crossing Minor and Central Asia.

The Kingdom of Morocco, the easternmost part of north Africa played no part in those endeavours.

Berbers inhabiting the Atlas were overlooked and perhaps spared; they lived in a relative freedom protected by harsh terrain and seclusion.

Since the earliest of times, women of the various Amazigh tribes, better known as the Berbers, forged a very intimate relationship with the loom. They continue this tradition till today.

Their seemingly random and abstract works show a range of ancient symbols evoking hope, fending off calamities, expressing innermost desires. In other words, the patterns and minimalistic forms scattered irregularly in the fields of most Berber rugs are meaningful.  Their language is mystical and symbolic.

However, owing perhaps to their primitive quality, it took a long time for the Berber rugs to make any significant impact on the Western consumer market.

Berber rugs were first exhibited in 1926 at the ‘Pavillon de l’Ésprit Nouveau’ in Paris as part of the French protectorate’s authorities effort to showcase Moroccan crafts in France.

Soon after, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier who decided to showcase a handful of Berber rugs on the floors of his 1928 Paris project Maisson La Roche.

Commissioned by a wealthy and affluent art collector, the structure consisted of a villa and an adjacent avant-garde gallery.

The unusual-looking rugs soon caught the attention of the French elite, many of whom were artists.

The earliest works by Modernists and Dadaists painters may have been in fact influenced by the abstract forms and the unorthodox play of colours in Berbers rugs which slowly began to appear on the European market.

The impact of Berber textiles on the 20th century western art has never been critically acknowledged. It is only recently that the very utilitarian objects such as floor coverings drew the attention of serious art scholars; and even within this recent scholarship, Berber rugs are mostly neglected.

In fact, had it not been for the turn of the century explosion of consumer interest in the enigmatic zig-zag patterns on plain-field Beni Ouarain rugs from Morocco, the tradition of rug making among the Berbers would be still limited to small domestic production in decline.

While treasuring a Persian rug in one’s household is the family’s symbol of economic status, it is not the case with rugs from north of Africa.  

Beni Ouarain rugs continue to be purchased almost exclusively based on their aesthetic appeal and perhaps because of that, they are being outsold by non-genuine Far and South  East imitations of much lesser quality devoid of imagination and tribal whimsicality.

This peculiar situation forces Berbers to produce rugs on a larger scale using inferior materials.

The centuries old tradition rooted in the most ancient symbolism that is mirrored in western contemporary art is thus under the tread of trivialization; and the once language of mystery and spirituality may soon become but a mindless gibberish.

Piotr Wesolowski

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One thought on “The Magic of Berber Rugs

  1. I very much like the way this article being easy and clear to read and understand how the berber rugs evolved in the 20th century. Very informative.

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