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A Modern History of the Azilal Rug

Two small Azilal runner rugs in mid century modern home decorated in artful elegance
Photo: Carley Page Summers

The most fascinating aspect of the Azilal style is the rhythm in the patterns, which place on display the extraordinary diversity of design and imagination of a people. Before there was modern expressionism, there was the symbolic tribal language of women able to chronicle their history in yarn on a loom. As we tend to think that modern art is a western concept, the Azilal rug challenges the truth of that credence. In fact, it is the opposite. The origins of modern art as we know it are found in ancient ancestral renderings on textiles, pottery, and the walls of caves. It is not that the Azilal seems to be a blend of modern and ancient — it is that modern art has been inspired by ancestral tribal expression. The emergence of modern design followed from a reappraisal of the work of tribal artisans, drawing or weaving without a plan.

The abstract design characteristic of the Moroccan Azilal is reminiscent of brushstrokes, but it is actually the dialogue of a weaver speaking of events celebrated in a life well-lived. In the most superb examples of the Azilal, a pattern emerges from an array of chaos that drifts back to ancestral origins, a repetition that creates a rhythm and showcases graceful storytelling, a libretto to tribal mountain life.

 

a black white vintage azilal with impulsive free form checkered pattern

The Azilal in the Rif Mountains, like the Beni Ourain of the Middle Atlas Mountains, has been the preferred rug stye of Le Corbusier, Arne Jacobsen, Alvar Aalto, and Marcel Breuer.  But before the development of the minimalist, modern, or postmodern design styles, these women weavers were translating their emotions, myths, personal stories, and tribal events into the design of the rugs they created. For a people that lacked a written language, the Azilal rug became a scroll. Subtle variations in the thickness of the lines and the asymmetry of the design are by intention. Each Azilal rug tells a story of human life and the grandeur of nature.

 

The valleys of the Ait Bouguemez valley, the Ait bou Oulli, and the Ait bou Ichaouen are course pastoral regions, where rippling water, craggy limestone, or aged, weathered tree bark become magnificent inspiration.

 

The most exquisite examples of the Azilal rug have pattern plays that appear to be completely in free form, like the expressive unorganized chaos or modern art. But this illusion of quick unplanned brushstrokes on a canvas of wool is, in reality, a labor intensive process that takes place over weeks and months. What appears to be dynamic movement made up of quick effortless gestures is actually design in slow motion. This explains why an Azilal rug may feature the sort of repetition that creates a rhythm, allowing the pattern to become increasingly more complex. A rug may begin in freestyle, lacking symmetry and formal structure, and then progressively develop a sense of order. Or alternatively, much of the design weight may be placed on one end of the field, with lines that seem to fade into nothingness at the other end.

 

a mid century modern home features a vintage moroccan azilal inspired by a field of wildflowers

 

...Because the rugs were reserved for the inner parts of the home, unseen by visitors or guests, the women were freed from expectations to play with impulsive imagery.

 

The birthplace of the Azilal rug is a remote mountain region of rocky outcrops and quietly flowing streams. The valleys of the Ait Bouguemez valley, the Ait bou Oulli, and the Ait bou Ichaouen are course pastoral regions, where rippling water, craggy limestone, or aged, weathered tree bark become magnificent inspiration. For the women of the area, who created rugs for their own personal use in the home, nature permeated their worldview and their chosen rug motifs. The way the natural world is represented in the Azilal rug is the stuff of ancient tradition. But because the rugs were reserved for the inner parts of the home, unseen by visitors or guests, the women were freed from expectations to play with impulsive imagery.

 

a mismatched pair of vintage checkered moroccan rugs in this brooklyn townhome

Photo: ELLE Decor

Historically, the Azilal rug was not created to serve as a representation of the pride of a people, like a wedding blanket or a tribal shield. Because of this, the weavers were able to work without the cultural pressures of conforming to a formal style. Some Azilal rugs showcase a bold linear art form and may feature asymmetrical lines criss-crossing in an organic manner, while others resemble calligraphy with  graphic appeal and clean abstract sophistication. Living in the Western world, it might be easy to make that stretch to imagine the women of the Azilal were inspired by Josef Albers and Paul Klee. But those with an interest in art history know better. 

 

The modern art masters were most moved by tribal art that was developed at the whim of the artisan, whose only instruction was the cultural traditions to which she belonged. 

 

Berber rugs are defined by geometric elements that show a very personal, archaic looking expression. Modern artist, Paul Klee, took inspiration in part from people who, in his time, were considered “primitive.” Like Joan Miró or Pablo Picasso, Klee also worked with childlike motifs and the symbolic renderings of various tribal societies: stick figures, scribbles, simplified outlines. In his diary, Klee described the supposedly primitive elements he used in his art as the “last professional insight” which was “the opposite of real primitiveness.” The modern art masters were most moved by tribal art that was developed at the whim of the artisan, whose only instruction was the cultural traditions to which she belonged. 

 

primitive striped pattern in the hallway of the new york penthouse of photographer mario testino
Photo: Vogue Magazine

 

When looking at any significant work of art, remember that a more significant one probably has had to be sacrificed. 

— Paul Klee

The Azilal rug is the Berber woman's unconscious experimentation with the changing mood and light of her immediate environment. It is the mingling of shape, form, and symbol, juxtaposed to create an account of the magnificent and mundane of daily live. Azilal rugs share some design features with other ivory ground weavings of the Middle Atlas region (that of the Beni Mguild and the Beni Ourain), and still they are easily recognized by their shorter pile and light, flexible handle.

 

impulsive expressive symbolism in this vintage moroccan azilal

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