Innermost spaces

Renate Anna Menzel in conversation with Angelika Stepken on the occasion of the exhibition: The bakhnoug, a book, wove, curated by Paul Vandenbroeck 2016

The weaving culture of the Berber women in southern Tunisia apparently died out in the second half of the twentieth century. There is no photographic documentation of this life practice, the few remaining textiles have been included in almost no Western museum collection and since independence, Tunisian historiography has tended to focus on museumisation strategies that emphasise urban culture. How did these textiles attract your attention a good twenty years ago and what form did your research into objects and their context take?

The weaving culture is not limited to Southern Tunisia; the women naturally weaved throughout the country, even if these remarkable woven clothes – like those we are exhibiting here – are only known as being from Central and Southern Tunisia, and neighbouring Libya. I always asked myself why this was. In the north of the country, women’s pottery is very well known and comes from the same cultural background. In neighbouring Algeria, the north – the Kabylei – is known for a very difficult, highly developed old weaving tradition. So why are there no cloths from the mountainous region of Northern Tunisia? I have not yet found an answer to this question.
I would not say that the tradition is completely extinct, but since the mid-twentieth century it has been largely extinct. Since this time, girls have gone to school and the lengthy initiation into complex work such as weaving no longer has a place. Although women in rural areas still wear uncut clothing that is wrapped around the body and held by fibula, the fabric used is no longer woven wool, but usually cheap, industrially produced material. Wool, the beneficial material that was the foundation of life in the region, has become rare. I do not know how many wool sheep remain today. The rural areas are starving, desertification is increasing due to climate change and cheap imported goods from China are flooding the markets.
Today, the women only weave simple things, such as blankets or items for the tourist market – all according to standards specified by the Office d’Artisanat or the trade. Traditional weaving was not aware of a market – it was not intended for sale. It came from the sphere of ritual, the beneficial and alimental, of care and love.
Today it is all about standardised quality – and that has nothing to do with culture and life. There are currently efforts to improve saleability by consulting – Western – artists and designers to meet a taste demanded by the West better or by having the women weave from pictures, from Paul Klee for example.
I am aware that it is a question of the family income that women must achieve today, but still this patronising approach to taste is testimony to a colonial imbalance of power: everything is under the premise of the dominant Western culture.
Of course, ethnology also emerged from a colonial claim to power and was largely in its service, but its documentation represents our knowledge of this life – a life that was only passed on from generation to generation orally. No ethnologist has penetrated this female sphere in Tunisia and Libya. There is little or no photographic evidence of women in their traditional costumes, yet studio shots of half-naked savages were very popular. The country’s institutions and archives know almost nothing about it. It was a rural folk culture and in the process of the country’s transformation into the system of global economic activity the Western-oriented elites did not consider this existence to be of value. The traditions that opposed this orientation were smashed – man was to be modern. Given the beauty and sublimity of the things that came from this life and the impoverishment spreading through the rural areas today, with all the overwhelming consumer waste covering the lands, I see only brokenness and loss – like everywhere else in the world.
I owe my relationship to North Africa to a friend, who in the late 1970s took me on a journey to the land of his desire: Morocco. I have regularly returned since – mainly because I found a close relationship to people there and because I was and am involved in their lifeworld: a very simple life, which for me was, with its life rhythm and capacity for improvisation, so impressively alive. I came to Tunisia thanks to another friend – and it was a very different encounter. Initially, it all seemed much more Western, much more modern, much colder.
The images of the Maghreb countries are very different: the Tourism industry is extremely interested in the dazzling, mysterious Kingdom of Morocco, while Tunisia, especially after the Arab Spring, stands for a path described as transformation, for the transition and narrow docking into the Western-capitalist world order.
Tunisia became really exciting for me when I stood at a dealer’s in front of the first woven objects, because their amazing presence offered an entirely different view of the country – and it was this that sparked my burning interest. My first thought was: How is it that the world is not even aware of these things, that it has never seen this beauty? Over the years I have asked many questions about the overall situation and development on our planet through these woven objects. In Tunisia I also found a familial connection and this long-standing contact with the people in the villages is the main basis for my knowledge of things. Contact to the people with all their problems and uprootings was the most powerful catalyst for my interest. It is almost impossible to grasp this impoverishment if one knows this once proud, sublime folk culture and sees where modern life has led the people.
I followed every trace meticulously. Access, particularly in the institutional sector, was more than difficult without legitimation through education or an institution. The area was too large for anything like field research and there was never any time or resources. However, lining up a large number of objects and comparing provenance information ultimately provided me with an overview of these textiles. The collection was put together from various sources: from these local contacts, insiders from the local trade and early collections in the West.
I somehow consider it my task to make these beautiful objects – and all the inscriptions they contain – visible and tangible to the world. We need this point of view.

The bakhnougs that we are exhibiting in the Villa Romana come from your collection and Paul Vandenbroeck’s collection in Antwerp. They are cloths woven from wool and cotton, dyed in indigo and henna, and worn by women as shawls – like a cloak. You once wrote that this innermost space of a woman clearly resisted the gaze from outside. Paul said in his interview at our exhibition that European Modernity was also clearly repelled by the intense, almost chaotic complexity of the extremely reduced ornamentation of this weaving. Can you decipher the symbolism of the bakhnougs, which come from a magical, closed world view?

No, I cannot and I am not of the opinion that one should always strive to decipher things. A symbolism with magical connotations would not allow it. I really like a quote from Albert Einstein: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.”
And that is what art should be: something that has a disseminating effect, something that opens doors, even if not everything is entirely comprehensible. In my opinion it is about touch, about being touched. Knowledge of the world view of this existence is of course a background that explains a lot of that in which it is culturally integrated, but touch works differently – it cannot be explained so easily.
For me, the cloths exude an incredible calm, something very contemplative, something intensely sacred. This has nothing to do with religion other than the fact that they were significant things created with a lot of care, patience and love, and accompanied by rituals. The time within them alone represents a great quality. So much thought has gone into such a woven object with every insertion of spun thread.
My image of innermost space comes from a seeing a group of textiles from a mountainous region in the south, Jebel Demmer. The cloths of the women from the village of Chenini featured woven patterns in a narrow framework around an empty, open field. One would think that Mark Rothko and other representatives of colour field painting had come across the cloths made by the women of Chenini. There are certainly significant similarities in the atmospheric expression.
What I see in each of the cloths, however, is something like a woman’s innermost space, in each cloth one is met by the weaver’s very own physical-spiritual nature. This is particularly clear in the cloths whose symbolism consists of non-symbols. This spontaneous style breaks with any folkloristic tradition; these are aspects that earlier collectors overlooked: they considered it too chaotic and meaningless. Today this interests us all the more so.

The sign language of these cloths is graphic, geometric, almost tectonic: ornaments are only woven into the central axis (spine) and the edges. No two cloths are exactly alike. What power of expression was accorded to the individual weaver? What is expressed in this weaving? How is one to understand the relationship between the body and abstraction?

The fact that never two cloths are the same becomes more clear the more one steers one’s gaze towards the common origin, towards the traditional costume, the compact of a village, of a tribe. It was this very interest that drove me: lining up one next to the other, creating a series of cloths from a group and having an overview of the unbelievably strong individuality of the women in this traditional life. This comes not only from the use of signs; it begins with the size and shape of the cloth, its form. It discloses the woman’s physical size.
There are few textiles in the cultures of the world that reveal the sensitive quality of texture as the minimalist –shaped clothing woven of the Tunisian-Libyan women’s. The crossing of warp and weft, the metaphor of connection, are sensory experiences. A Tunisian proverb says “every thread has a soul” and through the spun threads one really can divine something like the essence of the woman behind the cloth. There are cloths that unfold their power and aesthetic just in their very ruggedness.
Wearing is also inscribed in the texture; traces of wearing can tell a great deal: the texture of the wool can have a wonderful pliability or an almost unworn stiffness. One can read in the woven cloths how prized, for example, the grandmother’s cloth was within the family – careful storage is testament to this. The smell of the woman is still in many of the cloths: they still emit the women’s botanical perfumes today.
For me, these wool cloths exude a strong dignity. They come from a simple, subsistence lifestyle that was embedded in the cycle of nature.
The abstract symbols go back to protohistory: they can be seen in archaeological finds, rock carvings and any Berber artefacts, including carvings and other works by men. These abstract symbols can also be seen in tattoos and are perpetuated in cloths, in clothes, in the second skin. A close relationship to the body is also evident in the symbolic architecture of the cloths: there is a strong emphasis on the crest along the spine, the centre of the nervous system, the axis of life, which requires strengthening and protection.

You have brought with you to Florence the publications of Makilam, an ethnologist who lives in Germany but has – because of family roots – closer access to the practices of Berber women. She describes in greater detail the magical rituals that pottery and dyeing followed. Inspired by your engagement with the remote village culture of the Berber women and their traditions, you yourself have also directed your attention to rural traditions in Europe. What exactly interests you?

In dealing with the objects it becomes clear exactly what our highly industrialised development and its promises of a better life has not fulfilled, but rather destroyed. Man has lost his relationship to that which is alive. The belief in the potent subjugation of nature has brought us to the edge of destruction. The eradication of rural existence is taking place everywhere in the world, including Europe. More people now live in urban than in rural areas; today, in the giant megacities, one can already experience how it feels to be unable to breathe freely.
What does the term tradition mean in our life? Why are the terms tradition and folk culture so tainted in our generation? Precisely in a time of fear of the “foreign”, one should be able to understand the traditions of others through one’s own traditions and to see that diversity within a whole is required.
I never see the exotic other; instead I always see what we lost long ago. In our case, one just has to dig much deeper. However, artefacts whose symbolism is completely identical lie in the deep everywhere in the world.

You research, collect and preserve the material artefacts of the Berber women, but you also run a gallery of carpets and textiles from North African tribal groups, tribal jewellery and ethnographic objects in Vienna. How do you work in this balance between post-colonial appraisal and placing objects from a lost culture and your interest in justice?

It is a balancing act – yes and no. Running the gallery and the sales from it is my only livelihood – it is how I have financed the entire project without approaching any institution. And it has never been easy. I have never furnished the objects with the attributes of zeitgeist marketing; I have attempted to mediate them in their spirit. There is also a lot to explain in a city that has not reopened its ethnographic museum for many years. There are not many clients that are both able to understand this and able to muster the means to afford it. I have had a public presence with these objects and this gallery for more than 20 years and have conducted many, many conversations. Sometimes I feel like a preacher. I manage to achieve a lot by mediating the objects and a reflection on justice is one of them.