The anthropologist Wade Davis calls the cultural planet we live on the 'Ethnosphere'. He also tells us how every day we are losing the original languages of the peoples that make up this Ethnosphere. This is a harsh and tragic fact.
But something else is going on as well, something that is documented more errati-cally and is greatly misunderstood. Some-thing that, in its own way, is as positive as the losses of these languages are negative. We need to begin to understand that new languages, in new forms, are being invented by indigenous peoples at the same time as others are being lost. We can bemoan the losses but it should not keep us from cele-brating the Ethnosphere's constant and on-going re-invention of itself.
Indigenous art is a language. In many cases it can manifest itself as part of an oral culture. Like story telling and music, art can be a visual manifestation of oral culture but until recently, with the further broadening of the concept of Anthropology of Art as a legitimate academic discipline, this aspect of visual culture has been shunted aside and ignored. Yet even within this discipline there are paradoxes of ignorance, still artifacts of thinking about art in terms of high and low, a bias that still considers that what is new is less authentic than what is old. A living artist has less value than a dead one.
The Boucherouite of the Amazigh peoples of Morocco seemed to have stepped beyond the reins of tradition and eschewed the past through the intensity of their colors and the newness of their textures. This simply isn't true. Those, who think that this is the case, have mistaken the materials for the mes-sage. In fact the opposite is true, in a sense these rugs represent an expansion of tradi-tion, a lesson in how culture adapts and survives. Myth can become solipsistic, myth can be hidden, obscured, disguised, but myth is in the hardwiring of the soul and the soul does not disappear. When we consider myth, we must consider that we are at the crossroads of the tangible and the intangible, the empirical and the no-less-real non-empiri-cal. After all, just because we can't prove that something has no meaning, this does not mean that it does not exist. The mun-dane is always draped in, and with, Mystery.
We must contend with the historical reality of what Moroccan history has been in the twentieth century. Much of the life of the Amazigh today is a response to French colonialism. Morocco has not been frozen in an Orientalist vision of Western standards of authenticity. The Amazigh (Berber) people have to a large extent remained independent of the Arab culture, they have maintained their own language. In this case the moun-tain did not go to Mohammed. The heart of this resistance and retention has not been in the area of traditions so much as in identi-ties, and Amazigh women still are the foun-dation of that cultural identity. For any num-ber of reasons women have been the center of the language, the imagery, the rhythms of the life despite uprootings, despite urbaniza-tion, despite colonialism. We can give tangi-ble reasons why these rugs look the way they do. It's simple really. One of the imme-diate results of the social changes affecting the nomads was scarcity of wool, and this became a regular reality in the 80's. Wool had a spiritual significance, it charged the loom with magic and power. The actuality of this scarcity was that sometimes older rugs were unraveled and recycled. Recycling was already part of the process and culture of rugmaking. When wool became even more expensive and scarce women unraveled clothes that most often were made of syn-thetic fibers, which hold color in a different way than does wool. The intensity of these colors have become desirable powers of their own.
The designs used in the rugs replicate forms used in jewelry and tattoos, even when tattooing had begun to disappear due to the increasing urbanization of the population. These motifs have a fluid history. The triangle is a basic shape, and is known throughout the world as alluding to fertility. But over generations the names for these motifs have changed, and the versatility of the triangle's geometry has allowed it to become houses, pubises, tents, mirrors or eyes. Doubled it becomes a diamond shape, connected they become zigzags that are variously called sickles, scissors, saws. Over-lapping triangles have been called spiders. But these names are not constant anymore. Politics changes the language of culture when it can't change the content.
Of particular interest to me as well are what some scholars point out in the rugs as markers of landscapes, both tribal and personal. This is in keeping with textiles around the world. Before the French colonial-ism movement was unrestricted, after it became contained increasingly till the norm was confined. The meaning of the triangles is synchronistic with changing lifestyles and tradition. Carpets are made for home use and are seen as a means of indicating a woman's skill, versatility and her value. Textiles carry valences of fertility. Metaphor and hidden meanings are intrinsic parts of storytelling. Wool was so important when it was accessible that it became a metaphor for spiritual force itself. It is symbolic of the benevolent functioning of nature, wool happens because God gives rain, wool is the end result of God's fecundating Nature. This is why recycling has always been more significant than merely fulfilling an economic function.
The power inherent in wool gives the act of weaving a ritualistic aspect. Once the warp threads are attached the textile is born and gains a soul. It moves through the phases of life during the weaving process. The home with a loom in it is the woman's arena of power. When the piece is cut from the loom it is blessed with water as if it is a funeral rite. Woman's conservative place within this cycle of life helps her maintain and conserve the culture within herself.
It is one thing to look at an Amazigh rug and say it looks like a landscape and another to understand what that landscape really means. We are familiar with the Aboriginal Songlines and their ways of describing space. We know the way that the endless peregrinations of the Yaqui and Mayo peo-ples in Sonora Mexico during Easter celebra-tions weave a conceptual border around ancestral grounds that imply and point out the physical merging of place and culture even if it is now under a Freeway. We have seen the knotted quipas from Peru that enig-matically encrypt time and space into an organized language.
The tribal peoples of Southern China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Burma have a similar encryptation of place in their textiles. What does this do, this keeping of symbol, this marking out of territory, this vital map-ping and charting of a people that fights encroachment on a daily basis? It argues against the theory that women occupy an inferior cultural role. Women are the record-keepers of the culture, weaving historical scrolls and maps into textiles, rendering space into geometric patterns. Additionally this also maps migrations. And today, this is important in a time when nomadic groups have stopped their peripatetic movements and settled within a larger and more imper-sonal landscape.
In just this aspect one can see that not only does a woman make history but she also can turn that history into a symbolic language, thereby abstracting it. Then it is not hard to see how this would translate into the rugs. The rugs are the language of a people regrouping, They are indicators of flux, chaos and order. The visual systems come together, break down, and come to-gether again. But the culture is still there though perhaps with new accents. Opposing colors that are meaningful to the group are still laid side by side in traditional ways. The personal meanings of the rugs, the links with fertility etc still have a numinous presence since they packed with the spiritual abstrac-tions of sperm, birth, rites of passage and death.
Even the loosest ones reverberate with earth songs. There can be little continuous rhythm in the real visual world. The cacopho-ny blends into a cohesive whole consisting of disparate sounds just like a John Zorn horn line. If accident is part of process then it is no accident, it is improvisation in the language of the artist, a seizing of opportuni-ty here and now using a known mode of communication.
There are very few indigenous people in the world that do not recycle the world in some form. Apart from those named above, another example that comes to mind is the yard shows of the African-American diaspora in which cast-off objects from everyday life are arranged in personal spaces throughout the American South in a way that seems random and inscrutable to outsiders but is immediately accepted and understood within that culture. These yard shows contain, in symbolic form, family history, homage to ancestors, references to the world of the dead, ethical living, color codes, symbolic shapes, personal teachings and manifesta-tions of personal creativity and prowess. It is interesting that it is mostly women who keep and sweep these yards.
I feel this is the golden moment for connoisseurship of these rugs. As life chang-es, the meaning of Time in these women's lives will pick up a different cadence and as the need for financial survival increases, less time can be spent on personal pursuits. These rugs were made for the internal heart of their culture, and that heart is beating and in the flux of change. In the future something will shift and displace the focus that they presently give these artworks. Something no less integral. Something always does. It will not be inferior, but it will be different.
Randall Morris b. 1951 writer, curator and co-owner of Cavin-Morris Gallery
Currently working on two projects: Indigenous Drawing and Redemption Songs: The Self-Taught Artists of Jamaica
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