Valerie Grove explores Alchemiya’s collection of films about traditional Islamic arts, an appreciation of craftspeople, materials and knowledge from across the Muslim world.
By Valerie Grove
The beauty and importance of a longstanding craft tradition is not just in the existence of the objects created but in what it can tell us about the history of regions and peoples, their knowledge and their unique skills. Traditional Crafts of the Muslim World is a series of documentaries on Alchemiya that looks at a huge range of different craft objects, the materials used to create them and the ancient techniques retained across generations. The four documentaries looked at here celebrate textiles and the knowledge and skill of those who work with silk, wool, cotton and muslin.
In the Khorasan region of north eastern Iran is a village named Doidokh. It is remote and difficult to reach but this documentary takes us there to meet the Turkmen women who make the rare and unique carpets for which they and this place is renowned.
The documentary maker, Mehdi Eliassi, was careful to spend time here and build trust with the women he came to see. This makes the documentary a slow and beautifully filmed unfolding of a place, a craft, a people and their history.
Much is shown rather than told. Balls of bright, silk yarn in half shaded rooms, the meditative rhythm of the loom making the only sound amidst the remote silence. The closely observed hands of the weaver playing the warp of the carpet like a harp, observed also through the vertical veil of warp strings as the carpet being created grows beneath the weaver’s fingers. It is a visual poem.
However, as with much highly skilled craft, especially carpet making in Iran, it is the mediators and brokers who make the money rather than the artisans themselves. This documentary seeks to remind us of that fact and the extent of the exploitation given the time, skill and even blood that goes into each of these carpets.
There is another documentary on Alchemiya that takes us to a remote area where an ancient craft is preserved. This time it is in southern Morocco where we meet the Berber wool weavers who continue a rug-making traditions using the same centuries-old techniques. As in Doidokh, there is a loom in every house here but unlike Doidokh there is a stronger sense that the sale of these rugs is more direct so the people making them have a closer relationship to where they end up.
The basis of their craft is wool, a material seen as almost sacred and treated accordingly. From its raw form through all the stages of washing, refining, dyeing and weaving the material is handled with the utmost care and respect. Wool weaving skills are learned early in this community and we meet Mohammed Ait Ahmed, a man who refers to himself as ‘a son of rugs’. His parents were weavers and he says: ‘ ..little by little I discovered the secrets and learned what it required.’ He then tells us some of those secrets especially about the colours and the natural plant dyes that make them. We then meet Saida Zanafi who says weaving was there ‘since I first opened my eyes’ and she also slowly learned the craft by observing the lives around her.
This documentary is very short but it still manages to communicate the history, the process and the joy these rug makers feel about the art that they create.
Coming in at just under three minutes, Sindhi Ajrak is a top contender for the shortest documentary on Alchemiya but in that time we learn a lot about the process of creating this very recognisable patterned fabric. Ajrak is the ancient art of textile printing using intricately carved, teak wood blocks and it can be traced all the way back to the Indus Valley civilisations that existed between 3,500 – 4,500 years ago. Traditionally the cloth was dyed either crimson or indigo and the symmetrical patterns then printed onto the dyed cotton. An artisanal skill also learned from a young age, it can be seen everywhere from hammocks and bedsheets to clothing and scarves so remains both an ongoing and highly visible Sindhi tradition.
The craft quilts of Rajistan also use an ancient block printing method to create beautiful designs, patterns and motifs that are printed onto cream coloured muslin. These blocks are often very detailed and several may be needed for each quilt with each block containing a different part of the image. The process of creating Razai has many different stages and therefore requires a whole team of people with different skills. From the designer to the block carvers, then the printers, fillers and stitch workers the finished quilt will have involved at least four or five people each highly skilled in their particular field.
In addition, and in common with the carpets of Doidokh, each Razai quilt is double sided, the underlying philosophy being ‘that which is private should be as beautiful as that which is on display.’
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What all of these documentaries share is a recognition that these crafts are a thread through time that keep people rooted. They are also a reminder of how creative wisdom and great skill can and should be preserved and championed in a way that allows its guardians to thrive.