As Arts Council England so eloquently states “When we talk about the value of arts and culture to society, we always start with its intrinsic value: how arts and culture can illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world.”
I think it is essential to distinguish the difference between tradition and culture as they are often confused. Tradition is the forms of the artistic heritage of a particular culture; beliefs or customs instituted by societies and governments, beliefs or customs maintained by religious denominations that share history, and a body of teachings.
On the other hand, culture is defined as a social domain that emphasises the practices, discourses, and material expressions, which, over time, express the continuities and discontinuities of the social meaning of a life held in common. Put merely; traditions are a part of culture. Culture is not a static facet of life, as it is very complex and frequently in motion.
Artists Faig Ahmed and Jason Seife understand this difference with great passion and is articulated in their work. They embrace this ethos to make a difference, enrich our lives, shed light on our day’s issues, and for emotional justice. The recent renaissance of the Oriental Rug (a cultural Icon and highly traditional craft) in contemporary aesthetics have brought to light the work of two renowned internationally recognised artists. Azerbaijani artist Faig Ahmed and Cuban-Syrian artist Jason Seife have recontextualised the Oriental Rug disrupting the ancient craft into something unique, showcasing a depth of cultural value and odes the traditional craft.
The History of the Oriental Rug
One of the oldest rugs in the world is the Pazyryk Rug, which was extracted from Siberia’s mountains in 1948. Carbon dating revealed that the Pazyryk Rug was woven in the fifth century BC. One of the prized possessions of a prince of the Altai Mountains, the ice sheet preserved the carpet within the prince’s tomb. It features depictions of horse riders, elk, and even the innards and vertebrae of the elk. The Pazyryk carpet was woven in the symmetrical double knot technique, the so-called Turkish knot (3600 knots per 1 dm2, more than 1,250,000 knots in the whole carpet), and therefore its pile is relatively dense. These fine details show just how intricate these rugs can be. By the sixth century, Persian carpets of wool or silk were renowned in court circles throughout the Middle East.
Oriental rugs are carpets that are hand-knotted and have originated from numerous Asian countries. Persian Rugs, however, are oriental rugs that were made in Iran, formally known as Persia. Characteristics of a Persian carpet include an unusually thick pile (up to 160 knots per square inch), vibrant colour combinations and unique designs, and a very distinct knot. Persian carpets are traditionally known for their tremendous variety in design, colour, size, and weave. Moreover, they are known for the uniqueness of every rug produced. Rugs are generally named after the village, town or district where they are woven or collected, or by the weaving tribe in the case of nomadic pieces.
During the European Renaissance period, Oriental rugs began to spread around the world. As the emperors, sheikhs, and shahs of the East started contributing to the increased demand, European royalty started to recognise the rugs’ intrinsic beauty. They quickly began to commission pieces for their palaces, which correlates to the introduction of Oriental rugs to the Western Hemisphere.
To learn more on the history and significance of the Oriental Rug, you can watch an Interview with Ali Karimi conducted by Matthew White.
Faig Ahmed, from Baku, Azerbaijan is an internationally revered artist that is known for his sculptural distortions of the visual language of carpets disrupting the ancient craft into something unique. Through his work, he crosses visual boundaries, deconstructs stereotypes, and makes a subtle statement about culture’s universality, which is often confused with tradition. For Ahmed, the carpet is an enlightening bridge that incorporates universal symbolism that can travel cultures and generations.
After graduating from the Azerbaijan State Academy of Fine Art in 2004, he took his discipline to look at the traditional Eastern Rug. By stripping down their artistic qualities, and contextual nature, and reapplying them to contemporary forms, he has created some of the most powerful and unique sculptures to date, some of which were part of the Venice Biennale 2007 representing Azerbaijan.
Ahmed is part of the new wave of contemporary artists exploring crafts in innovative ways to produce conceptual works distort and reimagine traditional craft, by bringing it into a global contemporary art context. Ahmed explores fresh new visual forms that examine tradition and challenge our perception of traditions through iconic cultural objects.
Bakira (Virgin) is one of his most iconic works that encapsulate the stylistic contrast between old and new and visually denotes a breakdown of tradition in a new reality. This work is both beautiful and terrifying. Beginning as an ornate ancient rug, the threads unravel into an explosion of red yarn mimicking injury-causing ferocious bleeding ferociously. The narrative created through the disintegration of the threads references the suffering faced by the rupture of the hymen. Even though this represents a grim narrative, by crossing visual boundaries’, it remains humanly universal.
Faig Ahmed’s ‘Gautama’ (2017) meditates that culture and its long-lasting traditions and structures are inherently fragile and susceptible to change. Gautama presents a hand-woven carpet, visually distorting the carpets familiar features, perverting the past into something new. The sculpture melts and oozes right before the beholder instilling a sense of chaos to the traditionally linear construct of tapestry art.
The artist’s deep interests and avenues of personal inquiry are connected to world religions, mystical practices, ancient scripture, calligraphy and patterns. In 2016, Faig Ahmed released his first solo exhibition entitled ‘Points of Perception’ where he specifically created all of the works to occupy the space at the MARCO Mattatoio in Rome. Across the exhibition, the concept of Sufism resides within each piece, and the broader theme explored. Sufism is a mystical Islamic belief where Muslims seek the truth of divine love and knowledge through a personal experience of God.
The entire exhibition reminds viewers of a mythical quest through the museum space’s occupation and the diversity of symbolic works of art, creating a relationship between consciousness and perception. This exhibition takes the viewer on a contemplative journey where the worlds of mysticism and reality converge.
The monumental centrepiece that encapsulates the exhibition hall is Ahmed’s installation called ‘The Wave’. He has recreated the point at which a tidal wave breaks using many Mosque Prayer rugs arranged overwhelmingly. Each carpet is identical and decorated to depict a Pishtaq form recognisable from Islamic architecture. A Pishtaq is a formal gateway to the Iwan, the main prayer hall of a mosque. The form captured in a moment of suspense defies the laws of physics and our understanding of reality. In this work, Faig explored the expansion of consciousness as it relates to perception. Faig Ahmed is continuously trying to combine mind and body. The Wave is an excellent example of his ability to reimagine forms that raise questions, solicit wonder and awe. Whether we are grounded in reality or mysticism affects our way of seeing, and awareness of the world around us.
Jason Seife is a wonderfully talented Miami based artist whose work meticulously references old Persian carpets. Growing up, carpets were a considerable part of his environment, a primary source of inspiration and has developed into his signature style. Seife reconstructs traditional carpets’ decorative elements onto canvases and concrete, utilising modern-day materials such as ink and acrylic. He cleverly presents the carpet in a new and exciting way. I would say he has revitalised and refreshed the aesthetic of carpets by repurposing their decorative elements.
Weavers traditionally used specific colours, patterns and elements to symbolise particular nomadic tribes or geographical areas. Seife adapts the practice to create more emotionally charged pieces. For him, each colour, pattern and element li to the state of mind and emotion he experienced upon creating the work.
He takes much inspiration from his blend of Cuban and Syrian heritage. In an interview with Art Market Magazine, Seife states that “the artworks may seem very arabesque in terms of patterns and design, I also take much inspiration from my Cuban side. I use colours and palettes that are typically found more in Caribbean art than middle eastern.”
By merging detailed renders with thick layers of ink and acrylic, he captures the distinctive texture of the carpet but reimagined. His body of work is a presentation of high-tier craft and the process in which a painting comes to life. Following the belief that there is more than meets the eye, Seife always exposes this hidden essence.
He naturally plays with symmetrical elements and geometric shapes as a graphic design graduate, bringing modernity into the classical styles. Seife’s process is trichotomous as it consists of a hand-drawn foundation, then a 3D digital rendering to create a reference image, to ultimately paint the finished product.
He begins by sketching intricate outline designs resembling the byzantine and arabesque floral patterns used by carpet makers in the Middle East. Then, using computer software it allows Seife to introduce negative space in the reference image. Seife then zooms in on individual sections of this digital work and begins to meticulously hand paint these areas without the aid of any technology.
His distinct process emphasises both the handmade roots of carpet making and the innovations of contemporary art. It allows Seife to induce a more profound visual experience in the viewer, stressing the power of craftsmanship and the physical expression of the artist’s actions.
After concluding a spiritual, artistic and personal journey through Iran, Syria and Turkey, Unit London hosts his first solo exhibition since 2018. As Unit London so eloquently states, “This exhibition is an understanding of the collective nature of humanity: in Seife’s mind we are all trees in the same forest.” This essence of universality in humanity is highly reflective of the Covid-19 Pandemic. It is a virus that affects us all, regardless of race, gender, religion, etc. Jason takes this appreciation and understanding of cultural and social equality and wonderfully combines it with aesthetics.
Faig Ahmed and Jason Seife are prime examples of artists transforming the contemporary scene, creating works that present an ode at tradition as a form of stability all whilst evocating its fragility in our world. This distinct contrast makes their work magical, relatable and needed in today society. We live in a world of constant change, where entire cultures are intertwining, and adapting, becoming more impressive by the day. Both artists manage to introduce aspects of cultural tradition to a new generation of audiences, simultaneously entertaining and educating.
Both artists bring revive the oriental rug by bringing it a new context, providing a statement of the evolution of culture, and emulating the original patterns. However, the focus of digital technology and modern materials in creating their works presents a much deeper ethos, one that should be preached as an inspiration for all up and coming artists of our generation.
By migrating oriental rug-making to a new medium, Seife has impacted the contemporary lifestyle, by transforming a functional rug into a pure and timeless decoration, becoming a more prevalent feature in the modern home. Both Ahmed and Seife have used digital rendering tools to map out their patterns which have helped them enormously. Combining this technology and emphasising the handmade tells upcoming artists that traditional craft can and should be manipulated, experimented with and innovative.
Faig Ahmed has a Solo exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada called Dissolving Order. In the height of the Covid-19 Pandemic, and as the world says goodbye to one of the most destructive years in recent history, the exhibition presents an uplifting and optimistic look at how ancient structures can be disrupted but can ultimately invite new, innovative and positive possibilities into the world.
Jason Seife has a Solo exhibition at Unit London called “A Small Spark vs a Great Forest” It is not only a testament to ancient tradition, craftsmanship and detail, but a unifying trope that presents the arabesque and byzantine style as timeless and contemporary. Within the collection of works and compressed within them is a desire to absolve people from the anxiety with an identity crisis. His art also presents a sense of togetherness as the Pandemic spreads like wildfire and indiscriminate fashion. By decorating the exhibition space, Seife and Unit London create a sense of continuity between the works on display and emphasises both the idea of ubiquitous humanity and the testament to the ancient craft. The exhibition is an ode to the past ideals of both the artistic process and its effect on anybody in the world.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in