Atlas Warp: Talismanic Rugs of Moroccan Nomads


Berber carpets do not fit the stereotype of African art. Like much African art, however, these rectangular compositions woven by Moroccan women are religious works designed to repel negative spiritual powers. Also, like African sculpture, they influenced such masters of modernism as Matisse and Klee, and played a key role in interiors designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, and Charles and Ray Eames. To Modernism’s pared-down interiors and abstract art, the restrained markings and subtle color shifts on luxurious, deep-pile woolen Berber carpets imparted human warmth and the trace of the human hand.

For their nomadic makers, however, the carpets provided physical and metaphysical protection. Carpets served as blankets, shielding Berber families against the elements, while their talismanic designs deflected evil and promoted fertility. These mystical intentions perhaps explain the surprising asymmetries of Berber designs, as if the lines were themselves nomadic, open to chance meanders and deviations, like the paths and folds of Atlas landscapes. Monochrome carpets, on the other hand, yield the subtle pleasures of a Mark Rothko painting, also meditative and, for many, transcendental. Such freedom of design, far removed from the repetitive patterns of urban carpets, strikes a chord with Berber identity. The tribes of the Middle Atlas speak Tamazight, literally “the language of the free,” and their tribe names can be equally evocative-one translates as “people from between somewhere and nowhere”. Their designs seem to similarly hover between being and dissolving.

Due to a recent revival of interest in Berber carpets, fakes and reproductions now abound. Axis Gallery, in association with Gebhart Blazek of Austria, a leading specialist, will show museum-quality pieces from the Beni Ouarain, Beni Mguild, Rehamna, and others. In fact, few museums featuring African art include Berber carpets. A progressive exception is the new musée quai Branly in Paris, whose North African display includes Moroccan carpets collected in the early 1900s.

Installation views of Atlas Warp at Axis Gallery.