Optical illusions make artist Faig Ahmed's carpets magic

The Azerbaijani artist fuses tradition and innovation as he turns carpets into sculptural works of art. Think of his as the Salvador Dali of rug design

02 September 2018 - 00:00 By Tracy Lynn Chemaly

When UNESCO named Azerbaijan's carpet-weaving tradition a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage, it highlighted the ancient craft's vulnerability to globalisation and social transformation.
Thirty-six-year-old Azerbaijani artist Faig Ahmed sits on the cusp of such susceptibility, venerating his country's iconic floor-and-wall decoration, while simultaneously deconstructing it.
Manipulating age-old rugs, as well as designing new ones, turning them into woollen and silken optical-illusion wall sculptures that appear to drip, melt, pixilate, expand or be ripped apart, Ahmed's contemporary interpretation of this traditional art form is at once appealing and disconcerting.
"Processes of change are inevitable in carpets," the artist insists, referring to these homeware objects as a metaphor for transformation in social values. "Art documents the changing boundaries in societies, and carpets are a material documentation of this rapid transition in millennia-old traditions."
As a child, Ahmed would visualise stories within the intricately woven patterns of his bedroom rug, cutting out "characters" from the carpet and reshaping these tales. It is perhaps because his parents never scolded him for such destruction that we are now privy to a new art form, where a distorted carpet reimagines its original intent.
Ahmed's modern-day gallery rugs continue to be hand-woven in Azerbaijan by artisans possessing skills passed down through generations. These weavers, the gate-keepers of cultural tradition, initially thought the artist was crazy. "They wouldn't accept my idea and thought I was being disrespectful of our customs," says the artist.
By illustrating that what is now considered a classic carpet design was, in fact, a radical innovation centuries ago, he converted the traditionalists, enlisting them in his 21st-century oeuvre.
It's a delicate balance Ahmed pursues, being sensitive to the changes he actions, respecting Azerbaijan's identity and his own roots, and remaining faithful to ancient methods of production.
To him, a traditional carpet is like a book; able to be read if one understands the words. He sees his artistic process as giving the carpet new life, or ensuring its ultimate death as he deforms its former tale and breathes new meaning into it.
Ahmed believes his designs hold a pattern of infinite duality. First sketched on a computer and then transferred dot by dot to special engineering paper for the weavers to copy in their naturally dyed fibres, his drawings result in "endless variations of reality. "It's impossible to talk of a message in the works," he says. "The recipient of the message is the most important message."
With two solo shows coming up this year - one at the Textile Museum of The George Washington University Museum in Washington D.C., and one at New York's Sapar Contemporary Gallery - Ahmed's popularity continues to grow, bridging Middle Eastern and Western design sensibilities, while bringing worldwide attention to a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage.

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