In the souks of Fez and Marrakesh, you rarely walk alone. Shopkeepers in these Moroccan cities become your companion-guides, none more attentive than the rug merchants. Shake one off, another is there. Leave that one behind, and the first one awaits you again farther on: Please. Come. Sit. Have tea. Let me show you this, and this. Carpets are unrolled, flung down, six, a dozen, one atop another. And some, if you can unclench long enough to relax and look, are beauties.
Morocco has become particularly known for wool rugs made by semi-nomadic Berbers. Herders and farmers, these tribal peoples historically stayed clear of urban centers, and their weaving reflects their independence. It is little influenced by the classical symmetries of Middle Eastern models, running instead to unruly, improvisatory styles, none more idiosyncratic than the one highlighted in “Rags to Richesse: Rugs From Morocco,” a live-wire summer show at the Cavin-Morris Gallery in Chelsea.
The style in question is called boucherouite, (pronounced boo-shay-REET) a word derived from a Moroccan-Arabic phrase for torn and reused clothing. The carpets it describes, made by women for domestic use, are basically variations on the humble rag rug, without the humility. With their zany patterns and jolting colours, these household items look dolled up and ready to party; they seem more suitable for framing than for trampling underfoot.
The style developed fairly recently, a result of socio-economic changes. Since the middle of the 20th century nomadic life in Morocco has been seriously on the wane, and production of wool from sheepherding has been much reduced. During the same period, though, Berber culture has come to the attention of the global market, and Berber carpets have been ever more in demand.
Faced with a call for increased output and a scarcity of natural materials, Berber weavers have had to rethink aspects of their craft. This has meant, among other things, supplementing wool with recycled fabrics and cheap synthetic fibers like nylon and Lurex, and various plastics.
With the synthetic fibers came new colours and chromatic intensities. Where old-fashioned vegetable dyes tend to look savoury and subtle, machine dyes are emphatic and bright. The first things you notice about the Cavin-Morris show is how visually assertive it is. Yes, there are ranges of earth tones, but it’s the fire-engine reds, the Day-Glo oranges, the post-punk pinks that pop out.
Asymmetrical patterning is the norm in boucherouite work, free-form shapes the rule. One of the show’s more subdued carpets is composed of thin, broken, painterly lines of purple and green that bring to mind traces of beached algae left behind by a tide. In another rug a fairly staid stack of royal-blue and brick-brown stripes is interrupted by a set of nested turquoise and chrome-yellow diamonds that seem to have arrived from nowhere. And things get wilder from there.
Surfaces fill up with fat lozenge and chevron shapes that melt and ooze, Dalí-clock style. Top-to-bottom zigzag bars form gawky, out-of-synch chorus lines. Dense passages of pointillist speckling suggest plates of couscous or Jackson Pollock paintings.
Boucherouite rugs make the tough art of weaving look like fun. The aesthetic seems to be: If you think it, do it. The only logic is the jazz logic of directed chance, exploded convention. Utterly unalike elements come to together because — well, just because. A rug that is two-thirds the soft, empty blue-gray of an evening sky is suddenly chocolate-brown with amoeboid blobs at one end. It’s as if two weavers with totally different sensibilities had been working opposite each other on the same piece.
The most extravagant display of eccentricity, though, is in the varieties of surface textures. Some carpets are tightly knotted and matte, with a moderate amount of pile. A few are not woven at all. In some cases sheets of plastic cut from grain-transport bags or packing materials are used as a ground for a stitched rug, essentially a form of embroidery.
And woven or stitched, many of the carpets sprout loops of yarn and ribbonlike fibre strips in a shag-rug effect that makes them resemble small plots of weedy, untrimmed grass. They look as if they were growing, spreading, changing shape.
Beautiful isn’t exactly the word for these things; I’m not sure what is. Some of them are garish and weird, though their exuberance is irresistible. Far more resistable is some of the promotional pitch spun around them, a kind of a high-ground version of the souk hard-sell, derived from a slim catalogue produced by the Austrian dealer Gebhart Blazek, who first put boucherouite on the map, and with whom Cavin and Morris collaborated on the show. Much is made of the fact that women are the creators of these carpets, though this is hardly an exceptional circumstance.
Most Berber rugs have been produced by women, and are made, at least initially, for family use. At the same time, little or no mention is made of a specific tradition that these women and their weavings are part of. In the best boucherouite work, refuse has been transmuted into richness and that makes these rugs more than just a splash of colour on a New York apartment wall.