Mina Abouzahra on greed and longing in the world of Moroccan rugs
For ten years, Dutch-Moroccan designer Mina Abouzahra has been working with Berber weavers from remote areas to produce custom rugs. EastEast’s expert in Visual and Ethnographic Research and Photo Editor Nastya Indrikova asked Mina about her work with women’s weaving cooperatives, her attempts to influence the pricing on the rug market, and her new project One Square Meter Berber—a collaboration between Berber craftspeople and European designers.
NASTYA INDRIKOVA:What was the original impulse for you to do the whole project on Berber rugs? How did it all start?
MINA ABOUZAHRA:Not in one day, but very slow and natural. Before I worked as an interior designer, I was a food and recipe writer, concept maker, food stylist, and a caterer. So I travelled a lot in Morocco to do research about regional food and the stories behind it. And then ten years ago, during the last year my training as a furniture maker, I attended an internship for cabinet making in Essaouira. It changed my perspective—before I was seeing food all the time, and all of a sudden the leather and ceramic workers opened up to me. I started to dig in and saw that every region and tribe has its specific craft and also tells a story about the people and the land. It was like Alice in Wonderland—you’re opening one door and it tells you something, you open another door and there’s seven other doors. The rugs are places where people put their longing—it’s a way to communicate about their life and the period they’re in or about their expectations and hope. It felt like there is even more to add to the specialness and respect for each piece of craft, product, and the makers.
It appealed even more to me when I discovered that the artisans behind these rugs were almost exclusively women. The Moroccan craft world, the business world, the trade world, or the design world in Europe—it’s mostly white men. The women got paid for the weaving between ten and twenty cents an hour. At the same time, the bazaar-dealers in Marrakech are millionaires, as a result of the high demand for Moroccan rugs. It was something that felt not right. Especially because I started to produce rugs myself and was inside the industry as well.
A lot of people come to Morocco for a weekend, buy rugs, and start little businesses on Etsy or other platforms. They don’t know where the carpets come from, who makes them, or how much time and energy it costs from each step starting from the raw wool. The dealers make sure you don’t have access to the female weavers—most of them are very far away from cities, in rural areas. They don’t speak French and English, sometimes even Arabic, only Berber. They don’t know how to read and write. Most of the time they are invisible in the industry. I think it’s important that we are trying to bring an awareness of them to the consumers. I hope we can also inspire others to take another approach as to how to sell and price the material, because most of the rugs at the moment are too cheap. What we are doing is just one little drop. But in the end, as one of my friends said, every drop in the ocean is one drop—you need the drops to have an ocean.
MA:My friends, who are designers, asked me all the time if they could go and see what the craftsworld is like in Morocco. The place is very appealing and worldwide known for its colors, atmosphere, lamps, and textiles. Of course it has a very One Thousand and One Nights feeling.
When we initiated the One Square Meter Berber project, we proposed craftswomen make a self portrait as a symbol of showing themselves. A lot of those women get paid per square metre—that’s where the name of the project comes from. The craftswomen were very eager to learn new things from the Dutch Designers and willing to understand the trends. Because they were very strict in their previous learning—the techniques, the colors and the motives came from their mothers and they obtained it from their mothers. So it is basically the same pattern, but you add a little bit of yourself and you play with it. Most of the time they’re working at home, doing housework, raising children, cooking and cleaning. In the little time that they have left, they want to just work on the rug—to do something that they know how to.
NI:Will this be a longtime project? Do you plan to repeat these collaborations again?
MA:The whole project feels like coming home for me. As a child of emigrants I always tried to bridge the two worlds I live in, Netherlands and Morocco. We now have requests from different designers and artists that want to collaborate with us. I’m also working on an exhibition. And I made a journal about the project with Staat. My budget for this paper was very small, but still they agreed to be part of the OSMB and invested in this project more than I expected. And so did a lot of others. When you get the greenlight the whole time you know that you are doing something important.
NI:Why did you decide to do it as a paper? Why exactly this medium and not a website?
MA:We wanted to have something that you can touch. Paper is something newsworthy. We do it in Arabic and in English, because we want to give it to Moroccan in Holland. Often, the first generation don’t encourage young people to work in crafts and art—they came to Europe for economic reasons and they want us to get a better job than they did—to be a doctor or an architect. In Morocco if you work in crafts, that is the indicator that you don’t have money to get a proper education. This paper is for both sides—the older parents from the first generation and their children from the second generation that also need to change this perception in their mind concerning craft and art. The paper is in the exact size of one square meter—I wanted to do something a bit hip and trendy, to get it out of just the social corner and agenda.
NI:You have partners in women’s cooperatives. I saw that you work with three regions: Taznakht, Ain Leuh, and Marmoucha. How did you decide on these locales?
MA:It was just random—we wanted to have the regions far away from each other. The reason we started it is so you can see the differences in the motifs, technique, color use, and knots. I would like to live between Marrakech and the Netherlands, so I can be closer to the cooperatives and travel easier. Because it’s too intense to go back and forth in the mountains—I always get sick. There are many more places where they make rugs and I’d love to visit more cooperatives.
NI:How many women are in these cooperatives?
MA:It’s fluctuating from ten to twenty. Some of them are in and out because someone is getting married. Most of the time they share everything with each other and they’re together in charge of their own income.
MA:For me it’s just common knowledge, because I collect information. I want to keep it light, not heavy. And I want people to see that we are not just rug sellers, but really into it and we are experts and have knowledge to share. The Guide explains that it’s not just a rug, but also bread for the weavers. A woman lost her husband when she was pregnant with her son and she knew only how to make rugs. Her knowledge helped her not to give up and she put her boy through college with her craft. Sometimes the craft is a lifesaver.
NI:You have several directions for your work now. You do interior design, you do specific research on objects by request, and you work with craftswomen in Morocco. But you also have a selection of vintage rugs. What exactly is vintage in regard to Moroccan rugs?
MA:Vintage rugs were made between fifteen and eighty years ago for domestic use, not for the industry. There are guys who are going to the rural areas in a van and with a loudspeaker are broadcasting: “Hi, we are looking for rugs, who wants to sell?” You can sell your old rug and still it’s not the money that it’s actually worth. The traders will sell them for way more. The vintage rug is the one type that female cooperatives or the previous owner don’t profit from.
NI:There is the same situation with the vintage rugs in the Republic of Dagestan. The Soviet carpet industry is gone. The tradition of weaving at home is almost gone as well. But there are still enormous amounts of carpets in the Republic and high demand for the rugs in big cities like Moscow. The dealers come to villages and change the old kilims and sumachskilims and sumachsTypes of hand-woven lint-free carpets. for the new synthetic carpets that were made in Turkey—the bigger, the better. People don’t see their rugs as something valuable and resellers use that to their advantage.
MA:Exactly. So it’s worldwide! People just want to have modern things and they don’t value their own treasures. It’s funny that it’s such a mirror, really familiar. Some are longing for modernism and progress and meanwhile don’t see what they have in their hands.
NI:You also have some other objects in the shop—masks and wedding blankets. What place do they occupy in your collection?
MA:I once bought them because I love the story behind them. When a girl gets married or she is planning to get married, the tribe or the community makes the wedding blankets for her. While they’re making it they have ceremonies to bring luck to her married life and explain to her how things are—how to behave (her sex life is disscussed, I think). The day of her wedding ceremony, she wears this blanket on her shoulders. And also the shiny things are to get rid of the evil eye, but it’s not working well on the Dutch market—they don’t like shiny things.
Designer and furniture maker specializing in Moroccan crafts. She studied at the Wood and Furniture College in Amsterdam. During her last year of study, she worked in Morocco. In 2013, once back in Amsterdam, Mina founded her design studio. Since then she travels regularly to Morocco.