The Berber Carpet:
Is it a craft or an artwork?
Produced exclusively by women, for the Western market, Berber carpet is transported by men to major tourist cities and in particular Marrakech.
Between the rural and Berber world where they are produced and the Moroccan tourist cities or the western metropolises where they are sold, the value of the Moroccan Berber carpet changes according to whether the transaction takes place between the producers and the merchants or between the merchants and the buyers.
But the value of these Berber carpets, as it is built by the merchants, is based on an ambiguity of the definition of art, involving the ‘invisibilisation’ of the weavers.
Western invention of a Moroccan carpet tradition
Western carpet traders have developed a mythology of Moroccan rug production: these would come from a traditional, closed, stable, pre-mercantile and pre-colonial world, where beliefs and rituals would have remained unchanged.
By particularly valuing so-called old rugs, which are presented as unique, from leisure time and the domestic sphere (that is to say non-economic), arrived on the market against the will of their owners as a result of financial difficulties, they create a hierarchy that allows them to distinguish so-called ‘art’ carpets from contemporary carpets. These would be ‘craft’ or ‘tourist’ rugs and would be associated with lower quality from large scale reproduction. However, the production of carpets in Morocco has, for almost a century, been adapted to the western market.
The role played by the colonial administration in the production of Moroccan ‘indigenous arts’ can’t be analyzed solely as a heritage action. Indeed, for Lyautey, Resident General of Morocco (1912-1925), the development of these arts was part of a larger project of economic development of the country in which tourism was to occupy a key place.
Having noted that in Algeria, colonization had erased the local material culture likely to attract travelers, he tried to restore Moroccan architectural monuments and encouraged the production of good quality tourist objects for Western audiences while developing tourism infrastructure. It was also to find products to export as a source of foreign currency for the Moroccan protectorate.
The Berber carpet played a central role in this project, having been the first area of study and industrial development undertaken by the Native Arts Service, and certainly the most successful.
A Corpus of four-volume Moroccan Berber carpets was published (1923-1934): the selected carpets were to serve as an inventory of regional production to be exhibited in Moroccan ethnographic museums, along with models of carpets to be reproduced in the workshops, colonial schools and private businesses.
A government stamp, a kind of controlled appellation of origin, was only awarded to carpets that met the requirements of aesthetic and regional conformity (that is to say, which reproduce models drawn from corpus) and technical qualities ( number of knots, all natural raw materials …).
The contemporary criteria for evaluating Moroccan art rugs still rests on this colonial aesthetic. The selection by the colonial administration staff has had a lasting effect on the taste of both Westerners and Moroccans.
Some types of carpets such as Chichaoua Produced between Essaouira and Safi, were produced on a large scale in colonial cities, to the detriment of others considered less remarkable or just not appreciated Western public and therefore forgotten (eg Hanbal de Salé: A long textile alternating woven and knotted bands).
The prestigious knotted carpets of Rabat, considered today, in the same way as the caftan and the djellaba, was introduced during the colonization …, like traditional national objects, are nevertheless from colonization. For the generations who lived under the reign of Hassan II, the image of the monarch greeting the crowd of his convertible car on avenues covered with carpets is commonplace. However, when the settlers arrived in 1912, the production of carpets in the cities had declined because of competition from Oriental rugs and European industrial carpets.
By revitalizing the production of carpets in Rabat, the colonial administration created a new market for the Moroccan aristocracy. Today, whether consumers or producers, Moroccans share a preference for these urban knotted carpets to the detriment of the rural Berber carpet, knotted or woven, which has become the favorite of Western customers.
If their aesthetic differs from one region to another, their thickness makes them more functional than non-knotted carpets that do not have as good insulation of the cold nor a great resistance to cold weather and footprints.
The criteria of originality and aesthetics are of less importance than that of functionality, and a carpet loses its value over time. Lastly, weavers consider that Westerners have very bland and old-fashioned tastes in terms of color, since they prefer worn, old-fashioned and worn-out carpets. To meet Western demand for pastel rugs that are closer to the common idea of natural dyes, Berber carpets are ‘aged’ with bleach and sun baths preceded by the superficial burning of fibers.
Definition Challenge: Art or Handcraft?
The Western conventional definition of the artist as a genius working alone, and expressing his intimate subjectivity, regardless of the influence of society and free from market pressures, is in contradiction with the reality of the production of carpets in Morocco.
The concept of original and unique work does not correspond to the practice of these societies where learning is based on imitation by the repetition of gestures and patterns. The carpets are copied from one house to another within the same village and between villages by the women’s network.
In such circumstances, it is difficult to speak of an invention or to assign a new pattern to an individual, each design being part of a collective heritage to which all the weavers contribute and from which they can draw.
As Tarde has shown, inventions and innovations are not from a single individual, or from a ‘great man’, but from the accumulation of small ideas, infinitesimal inventions brought by a whole community into a common work.
With time, imitation becomes personal and therefore transformative appropriation. More than entirely original inventions, there is reappropriation, readjustment, juxtaposition or rediscovery (Tarde 1890/1993). This definition of tradition and trades of tradition is applicable to art, which can be considered as a craft work including a personal touch of originality.
Rather than their originality, the Berber Carpet weavers claim their technical and aesthetic competence, evidenced by their commercial success.
In this sense, the anthropological definition proposed by Gell is more appropriate: the value of objects of art and artists comes from the power they have to make us see the world in an enchanted or magical way.
This magic is the very concrete product of the technical and creative skills of the weavers of Berber villages. Like any artist, they use their art to ensure the acquiescence of individuals in the network of intentionalities where they are immersed.
This interpretation of a power of action through art is shared by the weavers, who, through their technical skills and their weaving rites, hope to get buyers to pay their products at a good price.
The literature on Moroccan Berber carpets tends to consider the temporal and geographical isolation of producing societies and that of weavers in the domestic sphere as a guarantee of the value of carpets.
In fact, the relationship between the market and the domestic sphere is interactive, since the weavers never produce exactly what is expected of them, while influencing the taste of the buyers. In addition to the aesthetic ideas conveyed by men, weavers are actively seeking new sources of inspiration in their near and distant world (exchange with female members of their family network in other villages or regions, patterns seen on television).
Through a process of transformative reproduction that renews their heritage, they reclaim the information transmitted by men (themselves interpretations in the form of oral or pictorial descriptions) according to their own technical skills and creative abilities.
It is precisely this very break in the flow of information between weavers and their Western customers who, by giving them a large margin of freedom, contributes to their creativity. Thus, if the design of Berber carpets also belongs to commercial spheres, the role of the domestic sphere is nonetheless the most important in the construction of the value of Berber carpets, which would not exist without the gestures and the weavers know-how.
Berber Carpet weavers: Change and Challenge
The Berber weavers represent the archetype of the female artist who, because of her sex, is excluded from the public and commercial sphere, rarely recognized as an artist and less paid than a man.
Because of their ethnicity (Berber and Moroccan) and social affiliation (lack of formal education and incomes), the Berber carpet weavers are presented as craftswomen transmitting unconsciously and without questioning or understanding the tradition and the patterns.
Producing to support theirs, they have economic concerns shared by recognized Western artists who, to survive artistically, must promote their work by increasing market value or other sources of income.
For the weavers, getting out of the shadow is sowing disorder in the categories ‘art’ and ‘craft’. The recent ‘outside look’ which makes them appear may mark a step towards their taking in hand of the promotion and the mediation of their art, and the management of the revenues which result from it.