As a child, Faig Ahmed once decided to entertain himself by rearranging the motifs he found in the carpet on the floor of his grandmother’s home. Not content to keep his playroom ideas in the realm of his imagination, Ahmed cut out selected symbols from the carpet and moved them into new positions. At the time his creativity was, understandably, not entirely appreciated by family members. But an interest in the potential of traditional carpets to carry new stories has stayed with him and today his reworking of Azerbaijani carpets enjoys a far more positive – and increasingly international – reception.
Ahmed graduated from the Sculpture Faculty at Azerbaijan State Academy of Fine Art a decade ago, and began to work across a range of media including painting, video, and installation art. He continues to work across a variety of media today, perhaps in part to relish the artistic freedom unavailable during his art education, which he describes as a curriculum heavily influenced by Russian Realism. The pre-Internet years immediately after his studies made access to information about international contemporary art difficult to find. The current situation in Azerbaijan is very different. Internet access is widespread and a younger generation now identifies with a cosmopolitan image of their oil-rich country.
Within this growing sense of cosmopolitanism, Ahmed sees tradition as a rich starting point for his artistic practice. “In contemporary art, it is hard to find a topic that has not been touched. Azerbaijani village crafts offer something new.” Carpet weaving in the Caucasus region (essentially a land bridge between Europe and Asia which includes present day Azerbaijan) is an ancient tradition. The country shares borders with Iran, Armenia, Georgia, and Russia, and an eastern coastline along the Caspian Sea, where Ahmed’s home is located in the capital city of Baku. If arts journalism can be read as an indicator of cultural health, Baku even enjoys a glossy arts and culture magazine that bears its name, published by Condé Nast International in Russian and English-language versions.
“Carpets are a strong visual symbol of the region,” he explains, “and even modern Azerbaijani houses have carpets.” The country’s location at geographic, cultural, and religious crossroads means that homogeneity has never been close to hand. The ongoing use of carpets in the region, even within contemporary interior design, is welcomed by Ahmed as a way of countering the one-size-fits-all globalization of taste now encroaching on the region.
The traditional Azerbaijani carpets that have inspired Ahmed’s recent work were designated a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage in 2010 by UNESCO. Unlike buildings or archeological ruins, UNESCO’s definition of intangible heritage focuses on types of knowledge that are key to cultural diversity and creative expression, “vulnerable to the forces of globalization, social transformation and intolerance.” Instead of celebrating a particular artifact deserving of preservation, UNESCO’s intangible heritage designation focuses on knowledge—in this case the act of weaving—but in other instances music, dance, or even sporting traditions. While the designation is important, such initiatives often unintentionally create a quandary for the development of craft. Rich cultural traditions—be they building, dancing, or making—deserve recognition. But they also need to adapt and evolve if their meaning is to remain pertinent to the present. Striking a balance between what should change and what, ideally, should remain, is no mean feat.
In Ahmed’s case, his artistic practice allows him to work in collaboration with local weavers based in the village of Bulbule not far from his studio in Baku. The women use the same hand weaving techniques to create cut pile wool carpets that have been used in the area for hundreds of years. The oldest surviving rugs from the Caucasus region are thought to date to the early 17th century. But historian Julia Bailey observes of the region that, “It is quite probable that tribal and nomadic peoples in these areas wove small-scale rugs—and then completely used them up—long before nineteenth-century trade introduced the descendants of these rugs to the West.” In the past, women were expected to weave a carpet before their marriage as part of their dowry. Today, such traditions and the craft knowledge they maintained are no longer common. But local weavers continue to make by hand and Ahmed explains that working with them to realize his designs means he is constantly learning. “They teach me the meaning of symbols, but they are always trying to bring me back to tradition!”
Ahmed’s work is not for everyone. He explains that older generations are “familiar with seeing carpets as a symbol of coziness” and less comfortable with the optical distortions his work presents. Ironically, his designs often introduce what can look to be damage or flaws in the carpet and the software tools of 3D Max, AutoCAD and Photoshop he uses in the planning of carpets are palpable in some of the final woven works. Flood of Yellow Weight (2007) looks as though paint has spilled over the original carpet surface, while Invert (2014) suggests the psychedelic stain of a Photoshop accident. Optical bulges are another common appearance and seem to allude to the possibility of alarming instabilities beneath the carpets. And oil, the very stuff of Azerbaijan’s wealth provides a further recurring theme. Oiling (2012) and Impossible Viscosity (2012) seem to drip away before our eyes. More recently, Gara (2014) looks as though the carpet surface drips with oil.
Ahmed was one of ten artists shortlisted for the third Jameel Prize in 2013, selected by a panel of judges chaired by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum Director Martin Roth. The award recognizes artists and designers “directly inspired by sources rooted in Islamic tradition.” Islamic prayer rugs play a sacred role in culture and are designed with an asymmetrical pattern, which the devotee places towards Mecca while praying. In contrast, Ahmed works with the patterns of secular carpets used throughout a country that lives with the influences of Christianity and Islam, Europe and Asia, side by side.
In his novella The Figure in the Carpet (1896), author Henry James uses the carpet as a place where hidden meaning may reside. James’ characters are tormented by the challenge of discovering “something like a complex figure in a Persian carpet,” assumed to be the real meaning of the writing. In contrast, Ahmed is cautious to encourage an excess of interpretation about his own work, instead describing his carpets as “experiments.”
His work deserves comparison to contemporaries equally interested in interpretations of traditional artistic forms. For example, the London-based Korean artist Meekyoung Shin makes replicas of museum-quality ceramics but casts them in soap. Or Hefin Jones, whose humorous Welsh Space Campaign includes prototypes of space suits made from traditional woven textiles. Much like Ahmed’s work, Shin and Jones provide us with conspicuous reminders of our assumptions about the value and meaning of the original. All offer us reinterpretations that are pertinent to present debates about craft and the value of labor, materials, and skill.
“We think that a carpet has to be on the wall or the floor,” Ahmed reflects, “but I am just trying to show it differently. I make it 3D or change the border. I don’t think I make artworks; these are my experiments. Actually, I don’t want to destroy the tradition. I am using the materials and the colors, but I am showing that we can view difference even within our tradition.”
Ahmed’s appropriation and redesign of traditional Azerbaijani carpets makes use of a ubiquitous traditional craft. His versions of what a carpet might be challenge not only what we know as material culture from the past, but also question what we welcome in the present. But it is important to acknowledge that—unlike his childhood foray into design with scissors—many of the optical games played by his carpets are visual rather than structural interventions. The spills, bulges and distortions are woven into the carpet. Until recently, the visible ‘damage’ was superficial, the structure beneath intact. Only in recent installations such as Gravity and Antigravity (2014) or the carpet Impossible Viscosity (2012) is the textile structure altered. Far more often the distortions Ahmed creates are optical games. As a result, the weavers Ahmed works with have not fundamentally changed their craft. What has changed are the symbols these carpets carry and with it, crucially, their meaning.
Surface Design Journal spring 2015: 38-43.