Roumouz is a new weekly series that analyses the underlying themes and spatial differences in popular motifs in modern Middle Eastern art.
If you look at the Orientalist art movement – you know, the one that perpetuated stereotypes of the Arab world – you’ll be able to find documentation of the trade and travel of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century through artistic masterpieces created by the likes of Jean-Lèon Gérôme and John Frederick Lewis. While the artwork looks terrific, it is – under critical analysis – a visual fetishisation of the Middle East. Throughout his career, Edward Said has maintained that Western discourse and behaviour have systematically ‘othered’ the East and art is no different. But my point here isn’t about Oriental art as a whole, but rather a visual portion of it – carpets. Orientalist paintings of the 19th century featured numerous tiles, jars, carpets, and furnishings inspired by Islamic geometric design, which were highly admired.
Middle Eastern culture has always valued carpets. Persian, Turkish, and Egyptian rugs were among the few notable rugs produced. Each carpet or rug was unique in its weaving, colour, and texture and offered insight into each country’s rich heritage. An authentic Persian rug, for instance, has imperfect underside stitching.
Today, carpets have become a part of the DNA of many modern Middle Eastern artists beyond centuries-old paintings and lavish homes with contemporary artists such as Faig Ahmed, Ali Chaaban, Jalal Sepehr, and more.
One of the most well-known regional artists that work with carpets is Azerbaijani visual artist Faig Ahmed. Most of his work is a form of metamorphosis; life-size carpets appear to be touched by imprints of the modern world. Some carpets are melting. Others are as if clicked by the pixelate tool on editing apps. Surrealism is what sets Ahmed apart – the fusion of contemporary image manipulation and traditional carpet weaving practices.
Given his affinity for research, Ahmed views carpets as metaphors and a language system that examines philosophical concepts. As Ahmed sees it, carpet patterns carry cultural and artistic knowledge and are a source code for civilization – whether made thousands of years ago or today. In an interview with The Guardian, he describes carpet knots as pixels and carpets as paramount as smartphones. Their creation is the result of ages of labour and a means of passing heritage insights on to future generations.
A second artist who manipulates shapes and introduces modernity to carpets is Lebanese artist Ali Chaaban.
Chaaban’s work, however, leans more towards nostalgia, pop culture with a specific string of emotions and commentary. He tries to embrace Orientalism and explore his identity as an Arab man in a Westernised Middle Eastern society. His superhero carpet work serves as a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Chabaan as a balance between aspirations birthed via Western heroic figures and the internalised orientalist lens he grew up with. Chabaan’s use of carpets also alludes to the darker side of nostalgia and the millennial inclination to create a new future while clinging to the past. This presents his works as satire more often than not, as he himself uses traditional carpets to demonstrate that point.
But what’s interesting is Chabaan’s commercialisation. The artist could be classified under the subcategory of “hype art” given his collaborations with brands such as Nike, Adidas, and others. By commentating on Orientalism, we, along with Chaaban, embrace a form of it via carpets as identity symbols.
Artists like Jalal Sepehr, in contrast, move and position life-sized carpets around Iran to guide a narrative – from identity to migration (as seen in his Red Zone series).
The self-taught Iranian photographer has become synonymous with his symbolically framed photo novellas that blend traditional and contemporary elements through carpets, vast spaces, and contrasting colours. In most cases, he uses red carpets to refer to Iranian Pazyryk carpets, the oldest carpet in the world.
Like the rest, he uses carpets to discuss the gaps between traditional and modern practices in the region. Sepehr’s work is more metaphorical when it comes to such common themes. The photographer strategically places his subjects either hovering around “tradition” – aka, the carpet – or grabbing pieces of it as they please; almost displaying the idea that people usually “pick and choose” traditions that appeal to them the most.
Persian carpets also take centre stage with the Syrian-Cuban-American artist Jason Seife.
In Seife’s work, every detail is painted by hand, and the pattern is contorted, or at times, new patterns are created. Rather than offering commentary, Seife’s approach is more about connecting with his heritage and the things he and his family loved most. Through his artwork, he views carpets as physical artworks placed in homes and as expressions of cultural heritage; and what he makes of his own fragmented Middle Eastern identity.
But amongst them all, they all implement a level of distortion onto their work. The work is both old and new, local and global, and reflects on tradition and transformation. It can be argued that in many ways, the carpets serve as a representation of our own malformed perception of “The Middle East” resulting from colonialism, globalisation, and the homogeny we operate within.
This all begs the question, why carpets at all? This isn’t an answer each artist can or should answer, but rather a question we should ask ourselves: Why are we, as audience members, attracted to carpets and continue to gravitate towards such works of art?
However, aside from Faig Ahmed, most of the mentioned artists use Persian rugs in their work. Considering the rarity and high price points of Persian rugs, could it be a commentary on class, merely an aesthetic choice, or based on familiarity with Persian rug patterns? The question often comes to mind when I encounter the work of such artists who aren’t Iranians themselves. But I guess that is a quest of its own for another time.