Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Magic of Signs and Patterns in North African Art

Thematic Essays

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North Africa, or the Maghrib, comprises Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Art of the Maghrib is distinguished by a mystical quality drawing on the region's symbols and signs that originate in pre-Islamic Berber motifs and a rich Islamic heritage introduced to the region by Arabs in the seventh century. From the Fezzan and Tassili petroglyphs in Libya and Algeria to the Neolithic paintings of Morocco, North African artists have a large reservoir of art that continues to influence their work. One example of such influence is found in the engravings of Tunisian artist Gouider Triki (born 1949) with suggestions of the supernatural found in ancient rock paintings.

Artists also make use of traditional signs and symbols as a metaphor for colonial policies that imposed foreign languages and cultures and the subsequent curtailment of liberties in the postcolonial era. An imaginative discourse of signs often undercuts, disrupts, and subverts the rational dictum of language that has become a forbidden medium for free expression. For example, letters take on new meaning in the work of Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi (born 1947), who draws on poetry in an illegible Arabic script using reverse mirror imagery; having fled persecution in his native Algeria, Koraïchi turns the alphabet into a symbol of protest. Koraïchi and other North African artists explore the formal dimension of signs, symbols, and the Berber alphabet, invoking their aesthetic qualities, using them in structural compositions or expanding on their mystical properties by synthesizing new symbols from old forms.

Traditionally, symbols and signs are found in pottery, textiles, carved or painted wood, leather works, jewelry, amulets, and tattoos. Algeria's Kabyle women paint with their fingers on pottery and upon the walls of their village homes; many of their shapes and symbols have a marked resemblance to Neolithic pottery found in the region. Believed to carry healing qualities or to embody magical attributes that guard against misfortune and the evil eye, these signs and symbols assume new forms and meanings in contemporary art. By combining signs with magical numbers or stylizing traditional symbols, contemporary artists tap the unconscious to create abstract work that references the past and present. On several visits to North Africa, German artist Paul Klee was inspired by these mystical shapes and incorporated signs, number, and letters into his work; his interpretation of line and color would in turn influence several Maghribi artists.

Islamic art and architecture flourished in the Maghrib, where some of the earliest examples are found in Fez, Qairouan, Meknas, and Algiers. With the exception of Morocco, and to a lesser extent Tunisia and Algeria, by the mid-sixteenth century Islamic art centers were concentrated in non-Arab countries. In the twentieth century, Moroccan artisans continued to preserve traditional crafts with distinctive Andalusian influences. The Moroccan craftsman is referred to respectfully as mu'alim, or master artisan; his skills are valued by modern artists who borrow freely from traditional crafts, reformulating old techniques and incorporating them into their work.

Farid Belkahia (born 1934) represents a movement in Moroccan art that questions modern artistic references. He relies exclusively on local materials, replacing chemical paints with natural dyes, and using surfaces other than canvas such as copper, pottery, wood, handmade paper, and lamb skins. The stretched irregular or shaped surfaces of skin form the background to gargantuan drawings of signs and symbols of an archaic language. In particular, Belkahia uses magical numbers such as five or khmasa, representing the hand of Fatima (the Prophet Muhammad's daughter), a protective symbol against the evil eye. Other commonly used signs and symbols are lozenges, crescents, stars, diamonds, triangles, dots, and odd numbers or their multiple.

Ahmed Cherkaoui (1934–1967), one of the foremost abstract artists in Morocco, combines the repetitive Islamic style with abstract signs and symbols, and uses bright colors of greens, red, blue, and yellow to contrast with the white background. Similar brilliant colors are used by many self-taught artists of the Maghrib, now considered to have produced the most accomplished naive art in the twentieth century. For example, Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine (1931–1999), whose dreamlike imagery is based on mysticism and magic, used stylized fish and grapes to celebrate a cycle of life in which women live with imaginary animals. The art of North Africa's self-taught artists is neither strictly traditional nor Western in style; rather, there is a fusion of elements transcending time and place.

The dense repetitive geometric patterns typical of North African ceramics is infused with new significance in the installation Four Generations of Women by French-born Algerian artist Zineb Sedira (born 1963). Representing a generation of North African artists born in France and living in the West, Sedira examines the shifting of identities and questions preconceived notions of East and West by challenging both Western and Islamic perceptions of gender and Islamic art. Within what might initially be construed as mundane repetition of Islamic geometric designs are faces of women entrapped in a pattern that forms a matrilineal chain incorporating human figures within a predominantly nonfigurative Islamic aesthetic.

Berber—Generic name given to the indigenous tribes of North Africa by the Greeks, who referred to all North Africans as "barbarians" or foreigners. The diverse indigenous people of North Africa refer to themselves as Amazigh (pl. Imazighen), meaning "noble ones." Ethnically Caucasian, they are close to the Semites. Their language, Tamazigh, of the Afro-Asiatic group, uses Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, or Tamazigh letters. The Berber live in ten North African countries, including the Maghrib nations and Egypt. Most Berbers converted to Islam and adopted Arab/Islamic traditions. The majority of Berber live in Morocco and Algeria in the regions of the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert.

Kabyle—Berber tribe originating in the rugged northeastern mountain region of Algeria. They speak the Kabyle Berber dialect.

Salwa Mikdadi
Independent Curator
Main, 1980
Farid Belkahia (Moroccan, born 1934)
Henna on Skin; 152 x 124.5 cm
Collection of the artist, 1980

In 1954, Farid Belkahia left Morocco to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then went on to the Theater Institute in Prague and the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan. He was appointed the director of the École des Beaux-Arts in Casablanca in 1962, a post he held through 1974, during a crucial period in postindependent Morocco. In 1964, he co-founded the Casablanca Group with other artists who believed that the public should interact with modern art. Accordingly, the group exhibited in the squares of Marrakesh and other popular venues. Belkahia, whose work is based on the idea that memory shapes modernity, developed a new visual vocabulary grounded in indigenous culture, using traditional materials such as copper, leather, and animal skin, and natural dyes such as henna, sumac, and saffron rather than oils and acrylics. The leather is stretched into abstract pieces of varying sizes and shapes. The signs and symbols are inspired by Berber tattoos and the Tifinagh-Tuareg and Berber alphabets. Arabic numbers, letters, circles, arrows, and triangular forms are reoccurring symbols in his work.

Femme portant des coupes, 1966
Baya Mahieddine (Algerian, 1931–1999)
Gouache on paper; 43 x 59 in. (110 x 150 cm)
Collection Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris

Baya, as this self-taught artist is known, was orphaned at a young age and taken in by a French couple living in Algeria, who encouraged her to pursue her natural talents (although she remained illiterate). She began painting and sculpting in clay as early as 1943, and her adoptive parents brought her work to the attention of French artists and curators. In 1947, at the age of sixteen, she had her first exhibit in Paris at the Galerie Maeght, which represented Picasso and Braque. The exhibit earned the respect of many artists working in Paris at the time. French Surrealist André Breton attributed Baya's success to her ability to work within a complex culture of diverse influences. Picasso invited her to his country home and watched as she worked with clay. Baya's work is a mélange of surreal, childlike imagery, of richly colored two-dimensional forms whose spatial composition transgresses all rules of order. In her paintings, dreamlike edenic gardens house wild plants, fabulous creatures, dancing women, and exotic birds. Her work is rich in symbols and ornamentation ranging from mystical to pagan to Islamic in origin, a reflection of her Arab-Berber identity.

Talisman no. 3, 1966
Ahmed Cherkaoui (Moroccan, 1934–1967)
Oil on canvas, 38.2 x 51.2 in. (97 x 130 cm)
Collection Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris

Cherkaoui was born to a Berber mother in the Moroccan town of Boujad near the Atlas Mountains. He moved to Paris to study at the École des Métiers d'Art. He then attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and later the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Cherkaoui is considered a pioneer of modern art in Morocco. He was among the earliest group of artists to reject Orientalist and naive painting, and was the first to develop a unique style of abstraction, which was both Occidental and Oriental in that it combined Western techniques and indigenous imagery. The artist's interest in creating a style of painting that reflected his country's heritage led him to study the symbols and patterns of Moroccan crafts and tattoos, particularly those of the Atlas Mountain region. With a scholarship from UNESCO, Cherkaoui returned to Paris to research Arabic calligraphy and symbolism in Berber art.

Écritures peintres, 1983
Mahjoub Ben Bella (French, born Algeria, 1946)
Oil on canvas; 102 1/3 x 118 in. (260 x 300 cm)
© Mahjoub Ben Bella, 1983
Collection Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris

At nineteen years old, Mahjoub Ben Bella left Algeria to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Tourcoing, France, then attended the École des Arts Décoratifs and École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He established himself internationally as a diverse and expansive artist who paints not only canvas but also ceramic pieces, fabrics, tiles, walls, everyday objects such as plates, and Métro stations. Ben Bella also uses color to invent a new language of signs. Working from his unconscious, he creates spontaneous images based on instinct and memory. The process and the resulting artwork therefore emerge from a trancelike state. His work evokes both Arabic calligraphy and European abstraction, the signs and symbols materializing out of composition and rhythm. Throughout, the movement of letters and calligraphy of symbols, traditional or invented, signify an exploration of the senses, of color, and of form.

Untitled, 1974
Gouider Triki (Tunisian, born 1949)
MEDIA?; 19 2/3 x 25 1/2 in. (50 x 65 cm)
The Khalid Shoman Private Collection
© The Khalid Shoman Foundation

Gouider Triki is a painter and engraver whose work creates a new language of abstraction based on magical and mystical symbols as well as signs from Islamic decorative traditions and crafts. After receiving a degree at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1970s, he became part of a movement of artists who had studied outside of North Africa but returned to investigate international conceptions based on individual experience. For Triki, this involved an artistic journey via Surrealism and spiritual investigation. Grounded in his life as a farmer and herd keeper, Triki explores representations of cultural idioms and architecture in wood engravings. His paintings and lithographs situate symbols from nature, animals, and human figures in a dreamlike, imaginary landscape. At first glance, the pieces appear agitated and chaotic, but through repetition and simple designs, the signs and symbols find their space and create new topographies.