High times in the High Atlas

Vintage rugs from the Azilal region, the Ourika valley + the central High Atlas

© GEBHART BLAZEK

   

 

   

 

vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1960        
 

No-one knows exactly how long they have existed. No-one can say where they are from. No-one knows what their predecessors were or what they might have looked like. Many people are amazed that they have remained a secret for so long. We’re talking about rugs from the central regions of the High Atlas in Morocco. Over the past 15 years, these rugs have attracted a great deal of attention both in the decorative market and especially in the market for art-loving collectors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

  

(r2) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1960, 390 x 140 cm (12' 10'' x 4' 7'')

   
 

Prosper Ricard, the “Directeur des Arts Indigènes au Maroc”, founder of the Moroccan National Museums and, most notably, author of the first monograph about Moroccan rugs (*1), never even made a single marginal note about knotted rug production in the central High Atlas region. At first this might seem surprising given the author’s otherwise extremely thorough coverage of Moroccan rug culture. Yet this incompleteness in documenting the central regions of the High Atlas can be explained at least in part due to the fact that it was previously difficult to gain access and the situation was unsafe in many of the tribal regions, circumstances that were similar in southern and eastern Morocco. There too, large regions went unexplored during the French protectorate era.

 

Lake Bin el Ouidane, Azilal Province

(1) Lake Bin el Ouidane, Azilal Province
 
 

AZILAL

It took until 1991, the year in which “Tome V” of the “Nouveau Corpus des Tapis Marocains” (*2) was published by the “Ministère de l’Artisanat et des Affaires Sociales”, before rugs from the Azilal region were first mentioned in a publication.
The region described essentially corresponds to the borders of the present-day province of Azilal, which is a mountainous area that extends north of the main chain of the High Atlas to the southern foothills of the Middle Atlas (image 1). The Ait Bouzid, Ait Sokhmane, Ait Atta Noumalou, Ait Bouguemez and Ait bou Oulli are regarded as the most important tribal groups.

 
livestock in the Ait Bouguemez valley
(2) livestock in the Ait Bouguemez valley
 
The rugs described and depicted are usually made completely of wool with a white ground and geometric designs made from undyed brown or dyed black wool. Colourful elements in the pile as well as the use of synthetic fibres for the warp material are also mentioned as contemporary innovations. The rugs are produced exclusively for personal use. The authors explicitly regret that regional production has not been sufficiently encouraged and stimulated due to a lack of market demand.
Since this study is mainly of a socio-economic nature with only a vague mention of 'old' and 'recently made' rugs, there is no information whatsoever about the historical development of the regional knotting culture. Rugs from other regions of the central High Atlas are also not mentioned here.
 
vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1960   vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1970
(r3) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1960
260 x 135 cm / 8' 6'' x 4' 5''
  (r4) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1970 ↑
275 x 145 cm / 9' x 4' 9'' 

 

 

 

     

vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1990

 

vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1970

(r10) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1990
360 x 135 cm / 11' 8'' x 4' 5''

 

(r5) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1970 ↑
365 x 135 cm / 12' x 4' 5''

     
As part of the 'special session' on Moroccan rugs held during the ICOC in 1999 in Milan, Moroccan linguist Mustapha Hansali at long last gave a talk about the rugs of the Azilal region and attempted, for the first time, to delve into the historical roots of the region’s knotting culture. In his presentation, he differentiated between two different types of rugs: a version with a red ground and usually dense decorative elements derived from urban Rabat rugs, and a group with a white ground and black-brown designs.
Not only were the rugs with a red ground found in the eastern part of the region, among the Ait Sokhmane and the Ait Bouzid, but several much older fragments with an unusually fine structure were also documented, which apparently were from regional copies of urban Rabat rugs and also featured dominant red. These fragments likely date back to the early 20th century and thus appear to be the oldest known testaments to the region’s knotting culture.
To draw a further conclusion, it seems obvious that the red group of rugs developed from regional copies of urban rugs and was continued in the second half of the 20th century partially using typical designs and partially by superimposing motifs that were regional, rural and more playful (rug 1 + image 3). The pieces documented in this group are all from the second half of the 20th century.

 

red ground rugs from Ait Bouzid, Azilal region, documented 1999
(3) red ground rugs from Ait Bouzid, Azilal region, documented 1998/99
 
 
 
red ground rug from Ait Bouzid, 1980/90
 

(r1) red ground pile rug from the eastern Azilal region, probably Ait Bouzid, ca. 1980/90
300 x 140 cm / 9' 11'' x 4' 7''

 
A similarly long history cannot be confirmed for the group with the white ground, which is primarily found in the area around the Ait Bouguemez valley (image 3) and Ait bou Oulli and is now considered prototypical for the region. Hansali mentioned that during his research in the late 1990s he was repeatedly confronted with the story that when the legendary Pasha Glaoui ruled the region during the French protectorate era, rug production was largely suppressed for reasons that remain unclear. It was only after peace was finally established in the regions of the central High Atlas in 1934 that production slowly got underway. These statements correspond to statements made in the late 1990s by women over 70 years old, who said that while they could weave, they could not knot. On the other hand, the younger generation (those who were under 60 at the time) was mostly familiar with knotting from its own practice.
In both his ICOC presentation as well as his article for the catalogue published in 2003 to accompany the exhibition “The Fabric of Moroccan Life” at the Indianapolis Museum of Arts (*3), Hansali alleges that knotting culture in the Azilal region probably already existed before this period of suppression, but he does not substantiate this assumption in detail.
 
agricultural work in the Ait Bouguemez valley, Azilal province
(4) agricultural work in the Ait Bouguemez valley
 
The region’s rugs are almost exclusively knotted using symmetrical knots over two warp threads, with Berber knots only used very sporadically. Both the pile yarns and the typical five to ten wefts feature loose Z  spinning, which gives the rugs their characteristically soft, blanket-like character and accentuates the wool’s shine in the flat pile with a height of roughly 20 mm (0.8 in.). The loose structure supports the picturesque quality of the surface but also significantly reduces the service life, which is why very few rugs from before 1970 have survived.
The white rugs usually measure 120 to 160 cm (47 to 63 in.) in width and vary between 200 and 400 cm (79 and 157 in.) in length. The red rugs were made in various sizes, and it is striking that some rugs in this group are as much as 180 cm (71 in.) wide.

Today the group of rugs with a natural white ground is most widespread in the region. In the older examples from the 1960s and 1970s, the warp, weft and pile consist of white wool with designs usually made from undyed brown and black wool (image 2). The "Nouveau Corpus des Tapis Marocains" mentions some use of industrial yarns as the warp material in rugs from the 1980s. Hansali describes the start of industrial yarns and fabric remnants being found in the warp, weft and pile as happening from around 1980 in more accessible regions, with general use also starting in more remote areas from around 1990.
Before 1990 the colours were almost exclusively limited to black/brown and white; details that used dyed wool or synthetic yarns and fabric remnants were a rare exception. The designs from this era are mainly characterised by clear, geometric motifs, though they were individually adapted and modified much more often than in the white ground rugs from the Middle Atlas.
 
 
vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1970  

vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1980/90

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 (r6) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1980/90 ↑
180 x 155 cm / 5' 11'' x 5' 1''

 

 

 

 

↑ (r7) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1970
365 x 165 cm / 12' x 5' 5''
   

 

 

vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1980

  vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1970/80 
↑ (r8) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1980
220 x 110 cm / 7' 3'' x 3' 7''
  (r11) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1970/80 ↑
280 x 135 cm / 9' 2'' x 4' 5''
     
From around 1980, a new style started developing around larger cities, which then spread to remote regions from around 1990: in addition to hand-spun regional wool, alternative materials such as industrially processed wool, synthetic yarns, fabric remnants and other recycled materials were used increasingly often and were usually purchased at the weekly markets (souks) (image 5). Like in many other regions of Morocco, the production of 'boucherouite' rugs (*4) <read more>, which are made primarily from fabric remnants and various recycled materials, became increasingly popular in the central High Atlas during this time (image 6). At the same time, colourful elements, such as purchased yarns and fabric remnants, were increasingly used to embellish wool rugs with a white ground. In the local culture, these types of rugs are considered more inferior because of the materials used and are mainly found in private parts of the home reserved for the family itself (image 7). Rugs with a more representative style, on the other hand, are preferred for rooms that are accessible to the public and are often purchased from other regions (image 8).

 

industrially processed wools + synthetic yarns sold at the souk in Ouaouizarthe, June 2013
(5) industrially processed wools in neon colors + synthetic yarns sold at the souk in Ouaouizarthe
 
 
washing rugs + laundry in a river in the Ait Bouguemez valley
(6) washing rugs + laundry in a river in the Ait Bouguemez valley
 
 
courtyard of a farmer's house next to lake Bin el Ouidane
(7) courtyard of a farmer's house next to lake Bin el Ouidane
 
 
interior in a house in the Ait Bouguemez valley
(8) guest room in a house in the Ait Bouguemez valley
 
The fact that these kinds of rugs served no representative purpose often leads them to be of a lesser quality. At the same time, this also gives the weavers the opportunity to work without the pressure of expectations and to develop a free, playful style.
With their impulsive imagery, which is almost gestural in some pieces, and heavily textured surface, many of the rugs are reminiscent of contemporary paintings.
But the dynamics of the imagery can also be misleading: what might seem to be a quick gesture or a dynamic movement is created in an endlessly slow process. Production takes at least several weeks of pure knotting for smaller pieces and up to several months for larger pieces, which makes it clear that a process of almost perpetual slow motion is actually behind every seemingly effortless stroke.
 

vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1980/90 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 ↑ (r12) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1980/90
165 x 110 cm / 5' 5'' x 3' 7''

   vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1980/90
   

 (r13) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1980/90 ↑
330 x 130 cm / 10' 10'' x 4' 3''

     
     
vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1990    vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1990/2000
↑ (r15) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1990
265 x 125 cm / 8' 8'' x 4' 1'' 
   (r14) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1990/2000 ↑
255 x 125 cm / 8' 6'' x 4' 1''
     
     
     
vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1990/2000   

 

 

 

vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1990 

↑ (r18) pile rug from the Azilal region,
1990/2000, 225 x 125 cm / 7' 5'' x 4' 1''
    (r17) pile rug from the Azilal region, ca. 1990 ↑
190 x 120 cm / 6' 3'' x 3' 11''
     
     
 
THE REGION AROUND TELOUET

To this day, there is still very little reliable information about the textile culture in the western part of the province of Azilal in the area of Fetouaka and the neighbouring region around Telouet. Since the late 1990s, rugs with a 'Telouet' label of origin have regularly appeared in Moroccan trade. Although their wool quality and technical features make it seem possible that they could have come from the central High Atlas, to date no precise research has been done in this region, such that designations of this kind remain questionable for the time being.
 
 
vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 2000

↑ (r18) pile rug, probably from the western Azilal region,
ca. 2000, 220 x 100 cm / 7' 3'' x 3' 3''

 

 

OURIKA VALLEY

Even more so than in the Azilal region, rug knotting in the Ourika valley, which is located south of Marrakech along the northern slopes of the High Atlas, seems to trace back to developments from the last four decades. All of the pieces that Mustapha Hansali and Wilfried Stanzer were able to document on location in April 2004 were made after 1970, while production of the region’s striking kelims has a much older tradition (*5) (image 9).
<read more>

 

documentation work in the Ourika valley

(9) documentation work in the Ourika valley, 2004
 
Here too, the rugs, which are around 130 to 150 cm (51 to 59 in.) wide and 200 to 300 cm (79 to 118 in.) long, are mainly used as floor coverings in a family’s private domain. They have a similarly soft, blanket-like character and are knotted using the symmetrical knot. At the same time, the pile yarn is thicker than in the Azilal region, which gives the rugs a firmer feel and grainier surface structure despite a similar pile height of around 20 mm (0.8 in.).
Typical for this region is the heavy use of undyed (medium) brown or greyish brown wool, which is often nearly equivalent to the quality of the white wool used.
The design’s orientation to a vaguely defined orthogonal grid can be considered a typical characteristic of local production. This most likely dates back to the graphic basic structure of the region’s kelims, which are woven in alternating light and dark strips from undyed wool and whose decorative motifs are often arranged in vertical rows.
Similar to the regions of the central High Atlas located further to the east, synthetic yarns and fabric remnants are also popular and are frequently used to add colour accents in Ourika valley rugs. Unlike the Azilal region, here it is extremely rare to find pieces made solely from undyed wool.
 

vintage rug from the Ourika valley, ca. 1990/2000

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  ↑ (r21) pile rug from the Ourika valley,
  1990/2000, 170 x 120 cm / 5' 7'' x 3' 11''

  vintage rug from the Ourika valley, ca. 1990/2000 
    (r20) pile rug from the Ourika valley ↑
ca. 1990/2000, 270 x 140 cm / 8' 10'' x 4' 7''
 
In the Middle Atlas, East Morocco, the Haouz plains and the Jebel Siroua region – the traditional places of origin for Moroccan rugs – the knotting culture is deeply engrained in the respective region’s history. The styles are heavily based on traditional models, which shape and have been shaped by the cultural identity.
With very few exceptions in remote areas, such as among the Ait bou Ichaouen in eastern Morocco, economic, social and cultural changes in the 20th century have subjected traditional rug production to profound change. In many regions today, only a very small number of rugs are made using traditional techniques and for traditional purposes. In some individual regions, on the other hand, modern rug production is widely commercialised as a result of market demand and has adapted to economic requirements.

In the first case, not only does the active sense of being connected to one’s own traditions disappear, but so too do the playful evolution and dynamically creative way of dealing with the passed-down designs that characterise the quality of older pieces. In commercial products, on the other hand, market demand determines what is produced. In the best cases, this input has an invigorating effect, but in most cases economic constraints lead to formal trivialisation and stereotypical, superficial reproductions of the designs in demand on the market.
At least in the case of rugs from these regions, their heyday can be found in the past.

For rugs from the central High Atlas on the other hand, the same is true as for “boucherouite” rugs made from recycled materials, which have come to be used almost everywhere in Morocco over the past 20-30 years. Since they are similarly made almost exclusively for personal use, weavers have a platform to express their personal ideas in a direct and intuitive way, free from formal constraints and traditionally determined expectations.
In this sense, we are now looking at a period of almost contemporary cultural development, which has been revealing its most beautiful aspects very recently and whose golden period is likely taking place right now or will perhaps take place in the very near future. In any case, we can eagerly and curiously look forward to what else will be discovered in the years to come. 
 
vintage Azilal rug / Teppich, ca. 1990/2000 

 ↑ (r24) rug in mixed technique, probably from the Azilal region,
 ca. 1990/2000, 70 x 135 cm / 2' 4'' x 4' 5''

 
 
The original of this article has been published in Carpet Collector, issue 4/2013, Hamburg, November 2013. The present version is adapted in several details.
 
Original PDF in German + English   ORIGINAL ARTICLE as a PDF in German + English
 

Notes:

*1  Prosper Ricard: 'Corpus des Tapis Marocains', tome 1-4, Paris 1923-1934
Prosper Ricard / Marcel Vicaire: 'Corpus des Tapis Marocains', tome 5 / fascicule1, Rabat 1950

*2  Royaume du Maroc, Ministère de l'Artisanat et des Affaires Sociales: 'Le Nouveau Corpus des Tapis Marocains', Tome V, Les Tapis et Hanbels des Regions de Marrakech – Taza _ Azilal, Casablanca 1991, S. 141 - 188

*3  Indianapolis Museum of Art / Niloo Imami Paydar, Ivo Grammet (Hrsgb), verschiedene Autoren: 'The Fabric of Moroccan Life', Indianapolis 2003, Mustapha Hansali: 'Azilal Rugs', S. 224 – 227

*4  Gebhart Blazek / Axel Steinmann: 'boucherouite', Graz 2009
Gebhart Blazek (Hrsgb.), verschiedene Autoren: 'Post Punk Pink', Graz 2010

*5  Gebhart Blazek: 'Earth + Moon' in HALI, issue 139, London 2005


further bilbliography:

Kurt Rainer: Marokko mon amour / Morocco mon amour, Graz 2005

 
My special thanks to Mustapha Hansali for all his help, knowledge and friendly co-operation in the research and preparation of this article.

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