- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

Get ready to dance your way through the “Fabric of Moroccan Life” exhibit at the National Museum of African Art. This is that rare show that successfully integrates different artistic media — here, fiber arts, music and photography. The piped-in rhythms of what sounds like Middle Eastern belly dancing music propel you to the sensuous, touchy-feely fabrics that, unfortunately, can’t be touched.

Yet, the exhibit is about touch, if only vicarious touch.

The painter Paul Gauguin once wrote, “You painters ask for a technique of color — study carpets, and there you will find everything that is knowledge.” He must have been thinking that the textiles’ rich three-dimensional design, surface and color were a step forward when contrasted with mere two-dimensional painting.

The sensory attractions of Moroccan fibers abound here in textiles as varied as elegantly embroidered velvet-and-metallic-thread wall hangings and silk-and-metallic-thread stitched leather boots. There are also a mountain woman’s enormous shaggy wool shawl and a Plains-of-Marakesh rug with Star of David motifs commissioned by a Jewish family. In the last gallery, you see brilliantly hued sienna wedding head scarves painted with liquid from henna plants valued for their color and “blessing power.”

It’s as if the diverse ethnic groups of the Kingdom of Morocco — Arabs, Berbers and Jews — all threw their textile traditions into the same pot to create a bubbling, tasty stew. The variety is astonishing considering that Morocco is just slightly larger than California. Alan Knezevich, Museum of African Art assistant director of exhibits, resourcefully managed to retain cohesion in the midst of the show’s diversity by re-creating Morocco’s rich golds and earth reds on the walls and doorways.

Morocco perches on the northwest tip of Africa (in Arabic it’s called “al-Maghrib,” meaning “setting” or “west”). Morocco borders Algeria to the east, the Mediterranean to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Western Sahara to the south. The chief mountain ranges, called the Middle, High and Anti Atlas, run north to south and are the highest in Africa.

There’s always been an atmosphere of intrigue associated with the country, especially since Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman imbued its capital, Casablanca, with an aura of romance, internationalism, corruption and espionage in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 movie classic.

Fortunately, the exhibit clears up some of the romanticized misconceptions about the country. It illustrates, with many handsome examples, that young city women made fine embroideries and rugs with designs passed down to them by their mothers and grandmothers.

Although European and American collectors mostly neglected Moroccan rugs and textiles for years in favor of Turkish and Persian ones, one U.S. museum defied the trend by collecting these geometric, modern-looking works of art.

It was the Indianapolis Museum of Art, now owner of one of the most important collections of Moroccan textiles in the United States. Most were astutely purchased in the early 1900s by Indiana native Adm. Albert P. Niblack when he was stationed in Gibraltar with the Navy. (He had what’s called “a good eye” and collected them for his sister, Eliza Niblack, who loved textiles. At their deaths, the family left the museum some 2,500 Moroccan, European and Indonesian textiles.) The Indianapolis museum loaned 67 rare and unusual fabrics from this cache, as well as related costumes, jewelry and vintage 1930s photos.

Exhibit curator Niloo Imami-Paydar divided the show into two sections, one dedicated to embroideries from the sophisticated, international cities, the other to utilitarian objects made by the mountain Berber peoples.

Wealthy young urban women collected many pieces for exhibition or dress as they learned embroidery early. All wanted the biggest and best selection. It was an early instance of “keeping up with the Joneses.” Each city had its own style. In order not to get hopelessly “lost,” you’d better bring along a map or the color-illustrated catalog (a steal for $45 at the museum store).

One of the cities was Azemmour, a commercial port just down the coast from Casablanca and haven for the Andalusians, Jews and Muslims banished from Spain in 1610.

A brilliant ruby red Azemmour “Hanging” (late 1700s) is the first and oldest fabric to greet you. The hieratic design of peacocks, a Mediterranean motif, and menorahs, a Hebrew symbol, shows its internationalism.

Female Jewish embroiderers did the needlework here. As this was evidently a special piece, they stitched from the back to make the design stand out. Its patterning shows the typical Moroccan love of abstraction and repetition, rather than narrative figuration.

Another “Hanging,” a ceremonial one from the city of Fez made about 50 years later of silk velvet embroidered with metallic threads, uses Islamic architectural silhouettes. It’s a rare piece that seldom leaves Indianapolis.

Five women’s silk belts hung floor-to-ceiling hold both abstract and symbolic designs. One is an eight-pointed star that stands for protection. Other belts sport repeat floral patterns. An intricately embroidered saddle cover was evidently a test of a woman’s wifely skills.

With the rural textiles, you’ll want to gear up for “mountain climbing” through the Atlas highlands. Berbers, Morocco’s indigenous people, weave wool for both women’s shawls and men’s hooded robes in strict geometric patternings. The long Berber garments may be holdovers from long-ago Roman times. In the cities, urban clothiers make them from sheer, many-layered materials.

Savoring the colorful, geometrically patterned fabrics of this extraordinary show, you may find it difficult to understand why Moroccan textiles were largely ignored until just the last 10 or 15 years.

Ms. Imami-Paydar explains that Moroccan techniques and aesthetics differed radically from the more refined, strictly patterned Turkish and Persian rugs that have always been more popular. Yet, in their more individualistic, often free-form, geometric designs that look so modern, Moroccan fabrics could electrify the contemporary textiles market.

This informative and handsome exhibit should definitely prod collectors in this new and exciting direction.

WHAT: “The Fabric of Moroccan Life”

WHERE: National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Sept. 21

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/357-2700