visual arts review | thru june 23

Morocco is a place of romantic fascination. Located on the northwestern coast of the African continent and bordered by the Sahara desert, it is, culturally, a world away, and yet just six hours over the ocean by plane. I have never been to Morocco, but after viewing the exhibit The Fabric of Moroccan Life at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I am ready to buy my ticket.

Meknes, "woman"s scarf,"part of the exhibit

"The Fabric of Moroccan Life" at the IMA

The IMA, already known for its rich collection of textiles and decorative arts, is said to house one of the most comprehensive collections of textiles from this region. The exhibit, featuring more than 150 rare Moroccan embroideries, costumes, rugs, home furnishings, tents and tent trappings, as well as jewelry from the museum"s collection, is said to be the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Moroccan art ever presented in the United States. (Following its IMA premiere, The Fabric of Moroccan Life will travel to the Smithsonian"s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., where it will be exhibited from June 15-Aug. 30, 2003.)

What makes Moroccan textiles and other functional arts from this place so extraordinary? The country itself is flanked by both Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, and is geographically diverse with the rugged Atlas mountains, lush plains and arid deserts. In addition to this rich natural beauty, Morocco, by nature of its easy accessibility, has been enriched by numerous cultures as a crossroads of ancient trading routes. Rich is the lore behind such a place - from the intoxicating sights and sounds of the trading bazaars to the remote villages dotted by sprawling tents.

It is no wonder, then, that the traditional arts here, particularly embroidery, weaving and jewelry-making, have a depth of beauty fused with the richness of age-old designs and symbolic meaning. Prior to the influx of Arab peoples and the Muslim religion, the thematic designs of the rural artisans - traditionally women - featured imagery such as crosses, diamonds, triangles, saw-toothed lines, semi-circles and rosettes. Certain of these designs, according to historians, are believed to ensure fertility and to possess mystical or protective powers.

Urban weavings evolved a more intricate embroidery, some influenced by European decorative traditions. The first piece to greet viewers upon entering the gallery, said to be the most important piece in the IMA"s entire textile collection, is a wall-spanning velvet and gold embroidered wall hanging from Fez. Such hangings, owned by the wealthiest Moroccan families, were used on special occasions. It is awesome to behold.

Meandering through the exhibition, which is divided into rural and urban textiles, it is easy, too, to be awestruck by the immense tent on display, a work of art in its own right. Beneath it sits a loom, rug in progress, along with embroidered pillows positioned on the ground.

The floral weavings embroidered in the country"s urban centers are intoxicatingly colorful with their patterned floral designs, many of these stylized. Is it truly a feat of brilliant conservation to maintain these delicate textiles, some of them more than 200 years old. From belts to head-wraps to hooded capes, along with beautifully patterned, hand-dyed rugs and saddle bags, it is easy to get swept away, imagining oneself on the wind-blown tarmac in Casablanca, or atop a camel with a stash of exotic spices.

This collection, which includes anonymously crafted works of wide-ranging functionality, includes some of the world"s finest examples of traditional Moroccan textiles. As technology replaces the traditional handcrafted forms, and synthetic materials and dyes replace natural ones, these culturally rich works will become more and more rare.

The Fabric of Moroccan Life continues through this weekend at the IMA in the Allen Whitehill Clowes Special Exhibition Gallery. For information and hours, call the museum at 923-1331 or visit


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