Amazigh Textiles in Morocco
Imagery and Motifs


Introduction
Background
Weaving Technique
Imagery and Motifs
Female Context
References

 


Stripes
The Ait Khabbash tribe, which is the focus of Cynthia Becker’s book, has a rather rigid style compared to the majority of Amazigh textile motifs. Their flat-woven cloths are usually made of horizontal stripes in alternating red, green, yellow, black, and white (Becker 24). Dark colors alternate with dichotomous light tones to bring balance to the composition. Even when not in solid color blocks, the design typically appears on a horizontal axis, not in the naturalistic, freeform layout of embroidery.

An Ait Khabbash woman stands near the textile she wove, 1995
An Ait Khabbash woman stands near the textile she wove, 1995
(Source: Becker Color Plate 1)

Other tribes also use thin horizontal stripes interspersed with geometric patterning (Becker 35). Occasionally, the stripes appear in vertical format, as in this piece (on the left) by the Zenmour Berbers. But this style is more common among the kente cloth from Ghana. The example of kente patterns on the right commemorates African unity and democracy.

Rug or blanket (hanbel), Zenmour (Berber) peoples, 1950s              Fathia Fata Nkrumah - Fathia Deserves Nkrumah
Left: Rug or blanket (hanbel), Zenmour (Berber) peoples, 1950s
(Source: Briggs, et al. http://www.nmafa.si.edu/exhibits/fabric/1994-18.html)

Right: Fathia Fata Nkrumah – Fathia Deserves Nkrumah
(Source: Akan Kente Cloths and Motifs. http://www.marshall.edu/akanart/kentecloth_samples.html)

Triangles
Most Berber textiles incorporate traditionally-Islamic geometric forms, especially the triangle.  This may come in the form of the diamond, zigzag, chevrons, or an overlapping triangular “spider” (Becker 25-31).  A line of embroidered chevrons on the taynast, a woman’s poncho-like shawl, stood for a date palm.  The date palm embodies fertility of the land and the woman (Becker 39).  Palm trees also allude to a sub-Saharan connection through trading (Jereb 50).

Close-up of an early 20th-century flatweave Zenmour saddle cover with metal sequins
Close-up of an early 20th-century flatweave Zenmour saddle cover with metal sequins
(Source: Jereb Color Plate 47)

The Evil Eye
There’s a widespread belief among North Africans in the evil eye, an envious force that covets the belongings of another.  Decorative patterns are woven to protect the wearer (Spring and Hudson 90).  The elliptical shape of the evil eye is particularly utilized in garments.

Man's hooded cape (akhnif), Ait Ouaouzguite (Berber) peoples, 1800s
Man’s hooded cape (akhnif), Ait Ouaouzguite (Berber) peoples, 1800s
(Source: Briggs, et al. http://www.nmafa.si.edu/exhibits/fabric/33-1984.html)

Derivative of this concept is the hand of Fatima, which has the baraka to ward off the evil eye and the djoun (Jereb 45).  The hand is often represented by crosses, triangles, and eyes.  Scissors, knives, and weaving combs also have the protective power to combat the evil eye.  Many of the motifs woven are the same as the geometric designs women tattoo on their faces and hands (Jereb 47).  As permanent tattooing is forbidden by Islam, converted Berber women often use henna instead.  Sometimes a woman may restrict these patterns to her textiles or mimic the tattoos she already has.

Tattoo design from the Middle Atlas, similar to a cabbalistic motif, intended to ward off the evil eye
Tattoo design from the Middle Atlas, similar to a cabbalistic motif, intended to ward off the evil eye
(Source: Jereb 21)

Figural Motifs
Though combinations of stripes and triangles are always present, many other shapes are usually present.  Designs of little birds, or their feet, are also woven into the cloth as a symbol of the fertility of the land (Becker 40-41).  Figural motifs and abstract images of animals are a common element in larger rugs (Briggs, et al.).  Some creatures, such as lizards, snakes, scorpions, and turtles, are specifically associated with fertility and preventing adultery (Jereb 47).  Floral motifs arise from the Arab influence.  Often these images are interspersed with solid-colored bands.

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