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earth + moon 

KILIMS FROM THE OURIKA VALLEY
 
© GEBHART BLAZEK
 
The Ourika Valley in the High Atlas region of southern Morocco , a place of idyllic beauty, has been a popular tourist destination since the period of the French protectorate. So it was surprising to discover that a previously unrecorded group of highly graphic Berber kilims, which had first appeared on the market as late as 2000, were made there. In 2004 the author travelled to the Ourika Valley with fellow Moroccan textile connoisseurs Wilfried Stanzer and Mustapha Hansali to learn more about this group of horizontally banded kilims, which are entirely woven from natural light and dark coloured wool and are further defined by the use of characteristic lensshaped motifs.

 
ourika valley stone houses. kilim. Gebhart Blazek
 
Ourika valley. Berber women. Mustapha Hansali
 
Ourika valley kilim. Mustapha Hansali. Wilfried stanzer
 
Ourika valley. Akhnif. Wilfried Stanzer. Mustapha Hansali
 
Ourika valley. Akhnif. Wilfried Stanzer. Mustapha Hansali
 

On the northern slopes of the High Atlas, west of the Tizi N'Tichka Pass, the Ourika Valley opens out towards Marrakesh in the north. The largely sedentary inhabitants of this region live in long-established villages and traditional houses at a height of about 1,000-2,000 metres above sea level, where they farm irrigated terraces and keep livestock. 

 
Ourika valley. High Atlas mountains panorama

  

ourika valley flowers
 
ourika valley terrace agriculture
 
ourika valley stone houses
 
ourika valley sunset
 
In the general area around Jebel Siroua there is an old tradition of weaving kilims decorated with alternating stripes of undyed white and black-brown wool. Such Berber tribal flatweaves all share the same basic aesthetic concept of alternating stripes, but each specific local provenance has its own particular tradition of embellishing and enhancing the designs with tapestry or other more complex weaves.
In the Jebel Siroua and adjoining regions to the south and southwest, a weft-twining technique called 'shadoui' is widely used to decorate flatwoven material. Certain Ait Ouaouzguite confederation groups were extremely skilled in this technique, which was also used by the Sektana, Zenaga and Feiija Berber tribes , albeit not in such a flamboyant manner as in older Ait Ouaouzguite textiles. Exceptionally old and rare Ait Ouaouzguite weavings include multi-coloured 'shadoui' stripes, but most often these supplementary weft designs were woven with undyed dark and light coloured wool (see Kurt Rainer, Morocco mon Amour , Graz 2005, p.81 ).
Plainwoven fabrics with additional tapestry-weave designs are known in the region inhabited by the Ait Ouaouzguite, Zenaga and Sektana tribes. Among the central groups of the Ait Ouaouzguite this technique, expressed through its subtle polychrome palette, developed into a craft that clearly demonstrated the weavers' skill (see Rainer 2005, pp.82-83).
The use of knotted pile design elements was also common among these groups and, in a modified form, among the Zenaga tribes (see Kurt Rainer, Tasnacht , Graz 1999, p.150). The well-known ‘Glaoua' textiles from the Ait Ouaouzguite region are renowned, especially in rare old examples, for the quite magnificent combination of all the above-mentioned decorative techniques (see Kurt Rainer, Tasnacht , Graz 1999, p.155).
The horizontally banded kilims woven in the Ourika Valley typically have a palette of light and dark earth tones, similar to those from the Jebel Siroua region and the pre-Sahara. However the way in which Ourika weavers use decorative tapestry-weave differs fundamentally from that seen in the textiles of the neighbouring southern groups. The characteristic design of these textiles is a lenticular motif woven using the eccentric weft technique, where the wefts do not lie at right angles to the warps. These ‘lens' motifs measure between about 8-20cm (3-8") in length and 2-4cm (3/4-11/2") in height. The exclusive use of undyed light and dark wool emphasises the design principle of contrasting light with dark: light motifs are always placed on a dark background and dark ones always on a light ground. In addition designs are created through the use of alternating weft colours to produce light and dark vertical lines. Some simple geometric shapes are made the result of weft wrapping.
The use of eccentric wefts is not common in rural Morocco, and the lens-shaped ‘eye' motif woven using the technique appears only as a dominant motif on the backs of the well-known 'akhnif', hooded cloaks (1) , of the Ait Ouaouzguite (see Rainer 2005, pp.72-73; Rainer 1999, p.78). A simpler version of these burnouses is made in the Ourika region where, like the kilims, it is only ever woven with undyed wool (2) . Such cloaks, with their elaborate eccentric weft designs, are made only south of Jebel Siroua and in the Ourika region. While the magnificent 'akhnif' of the Ait Ouaouzguite were used on special occasions, the simpler Ourika burnouses were worn by the men as everyday dress.
 
(1) ait ouaouzguite mantle, akhnif ca. 1850

(1) Ait Ouaouzguite Berber man's ceremonial mantle (akhnif), Jebel Siroua region, Morocco, 19th century, ca. 265 x 155 cm (8' 8'' x 5' 1''), private collection, UK

 

  

(2) ourika valley mantle, akhnif ca. 1900
 

(2) berber young man's mantle (akhnif), Ourika valley, north-central High Atlas, Morocco, ca. 1900, ca. 235 x 125 cm (7' 8'' x 4' 4''), private collection, UK

 

 

In the Ourika region, the lens- or eye-shaped motif that dominates the back of the 'akhnif' is known as 'ayyour' (moon). Both in the local Berber language, Tashelheit, and in Berber mythology, the moon has masculine associations. This is signifcant because 'akhnif' were worn exclusively by men, and because in most Moroccan Berber groups both men's festive and everyday dress tends to be plain.
The corresponding motifs in Ourika kilims are also known as 'ayyour', but their form and representation differ in several ways from the burnous motifs. Traditional costume design has tended to follow a strict, formal set of rules, since it is a visual expression of social affiliation both within the group and in relation to the world outside. Tradition has played a decisive role in the creation of the striking solitary motifs seen on on the burnouses. In contrast, the kilims, which were intended purely for domestic use, offered the weaver more creative scope, which is manifested in a great number of modifications to the 'ayyour' motif.
In a small number of these kilims the design relationship with the burnous motif is obvious (3) . Here the three large main motifs within the repeat bring to mind the enigmatic power of the - eye' motifs in the 'akhnif' in terms of size, proportion and emphasis. In most flatweaves from the Ourika region the 'ayyour' motif is much smaller, and is repeated many times over. In most younger pieces the proportions of the bands and the motifs become rather less generous, thereby greatly diminishing the impact and rhythm of the design. Indeed when the repeat becomes formulaic it imparts an unappealing monotony to these kilims, and if the contrast between the light and dark is particularly stark, this makes the weaving look comparatively harsh, lacking the subtlety of other examples. It is interesting to note that it often takes no more than a minor variation within this relatively simple scheme to create an exciting graphic effect (4) . In this kilim the gradual enlargement of the motif - a gentle crescendo - helps create feeling of considerable drama that belies its size.

 

     
 (3) ourika kilim  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(3) Berber flatwoven cover (lahmal or sachou), Ourika valley, north central High Atlas, Morocco, ca. 240 x 165 cm (8' x 5' 6'')

     (4) ourika kilim                

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(4) Berber flatwoven cover (lahmal or sachou), Ourika valley, north central High Atlas, Morocco, ca. 270 x 130 cm (9' x 4' 4'')

       
One of the most appealing design variations, one which appears to have been highly popular among the weavers, is the arrangement of individual motifs in parallel vertical rows (5, 6) . These two kilims again illustrate the remarkable diversity of composition that the weavers are able to create within relatively narrow parameters.
     
 (5) ourika kilim      
 
 (6) ourika kilim
(5) Berber flatwoven cover (lahmal or sachou), Ourika valley, north central High Atlas, Morocco, ca. 330 x 145 cm (11' x 4' 10'')   (6) Berber flatwoven cover (lahmal or sachou), Ourika valley, north central High Atlas, Morocco, ca. 360 x 145 cm (12' x 4' 10'')
 
Kilims with restrained designs containing only a few motifs are rare (3, 7) , which may be due to the way in which the textiles are used. Simple striped kilims were intended as transport sacks, but the decorative pieces tended to be used as covers, where presumably a more elaborate and crowded design would have been more highly valued. Since sparsely decorated designs conform to neither of these typologies, they seem to have been used infrequently. Equally unusual are kilims with a more sophisticated palette, including graduated grey, brown and black tones in addition to simple light and dark wool (6, 7, 8 9).
 
     
(7) ourika kilim              
      
(8) ourika kilim

(7) Berber flatwoven cover (lahmal or sachou), Ourika valley, north central High Atlas, Morocco, ca. 280 x 130 cm (9' 4'' x 4' 4'')

 

(8) Berber flatwoven cover (lahmal or sachou), Ourika valley, north central High Atlas, Morocco, ca. 385 x 180 cm (12' 10'' x 6') 

 
Women made these kilims, which are known as lahmal or sachou in the regional dialect, for use within their homes. As mentioned above, the design is an indication of use: transport sacks are characterized by horizontal stripes combined with a few individual motifs created by weft-wrapping, while the more carefully decorated pieces with eccentric weft designs are used as domestic covers. Unhelpfully, the term 'lahmal' or 'sachou' is applied both to covers and to sacks, and is thus no indication of function. The average width of these flatweaves is between 130 and 150 cm (4' 3" - 4' 11"), although a number of pieces measure as much as 180 cm (5' 11") in width. Length can range from approximately 250 cm (8' 2") to more than 350 cm (11' 6"); shorter examples are extremely unusual and tend to be fragments.
From our research trip to the Ourika area in 2004 it was clear that the tradition of weaving simple striped transport sacks has not died out completely, but that the more elaborately woven pieces containing 'ayyour' motifs have, with a handful of exceptions, not been produced since around the 1970s. And due to the fact that these flatweaves are in everyday use, few pieces have survived longer than about fifty years. The most realistic estimation of their age is that the oldest textiles in this group may date from the first half of the 20th century, but it is difficult to offer a more accurate dating due to the exclusive use of undyed natural wool. Suffice it to say that, based on experience gained through the examination of many examples of this type of weaving, all the pieces illustrated here pre-date 1950.
Close examination makes it possible to understand the degree of care that has been taken in producing each kilim and this, in turn, may give some clue as to the likely date of production. This care manifests itself either in particularly fine weaving and/or in a particularly sophisticated or variegated colour scheme. Also by considering their ‘patina', exceptionally fine pieces, as well as those incorporating a variety of grey, brown and black nuances, appear to be comparatively old. Kilims that are clearly of more recent origin tend to have hard black-and-white contrasts and a monotonous design.

Despite a design vocabulary limited to a single pattern, this group of flatweaves encompasses a surprising variety of styles, with a high degree of individuality within each piece. Particularly fascinating are the textiles in which the enigmatic graphic power of 'ayyour' motifs is skilfully complemented by the evocative shades of earth tones in the background. A few such pieces achieve an additional dramatic effect when the emphasis is placed on one particular aspect, whether an unusually regular ground colour, the juxtaposition of open and full space (9), or the exaggeration and multiplication of the ayyour motif (8) . 

 
 (9) ourika kilim

(9) Berber flatwoven cover (lahmal or sachou), Ourika valley, north central High Atlas, Morocco, ca. 300 x 135 cm (10' x 4' 6'')

 
Both the outstanding aesthetic appeal of individual pieces and of the group per se make it all the more remarkable that these flatweaves were not discovered by the market until as late as 2000. In the brief period since, demand for good quality pieces, coupled with the limited geographic provenance, has almost entirely exhausted the supply of good and original pieces.

 

My special thanks to Wilfried Stanzer, Lucien Viola and Mustapha Hansali for their help and friendly co-operation in the preparation of this article.

 

The original of this article has been published in HALI , issue 139, London , March / April 2005.
 
 
 

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