The carpet as the id, the carpet as a home

Fatma Shanan weaves questions of identity and memory into her paintings of Oriental rugs.

Tel Aviv art museum 521 (photo credit: Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
Tel Aviv art museum 521
(photo credit: Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
When one thinks about one’s childhood home, the house that contains one’s earliest memories, in whose rooms one passed one’s formative years, different images come to mind. For some, a kitchen filled with steaming pots carries the aroma and experiences of their initial domestic life. For others, a grand piano that once resounded with long-forgotten tunes is the object that represents the soundtrack of family life. Still others associate their first years with a beloved pet or with a ball they kicked around the backyard with their siblings.
But for artist Fatma Shanan, whose exhibition “Works 2010- 2017” is on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the object that has dominated her perception of her family, her childhood and her identity is the Oriental carpet.
Indeed, the painter, who hails from the Druse village of Julis, seems to have spread the carpet as far as it could stretch, creating dozens of renditions of the typical Oriental rug and placing them in different settings. The numerous paintings she has crafted illustrate Shanan’s evolution as a painter, but they also tell a personal story, the intimate tale of a young woman tracing her roots back to their starting point.
In the exhibition, curated by Doron Lurie, Shanan takes an unabashed look at herself and the different elements that weave together the story of her life. The act of telling, the artist seems to imply, doesn’t coincide with a political dialogue. Her conversation with herself and her past is acutely personal, even if some might tout the warm reception she’s receiving from the mainstream Israeli art scene as a victory for the local Druse community.
The painter’s self-portraits are some of her strongest and most bewitching pieces, and they are almost impossible to look away from. Two of them, placed side by side, Self-Portrait and a Carpet 1 and Self-Portrait and a Carpet 2, show an Oriental rug in earth tones spread out vertically. But hiding among the biblical-looking illustrations of figures and animals are outlines of the artist herself. She looks as though she could be stepping into the carpet or, alternately, merging with it until she becomes one with the fabric and fades into its folds.
One portrait has warmer shades, with its paler twin looking like the negative of a photograph. Through the paintings, the artist seems to be raising questions about the importance and weight our surroundings have on the shaping of our personalities, at times to the point that they could swallow us whole. She seems to be debating whether one’s home is a safe zone, a shelter, or rather a suffocating place from which one should try to break free.
Another oeuvre, Self-Portrait and a Carpet 3, suggests that the answer to this question is at least as complex and multifaceted as the carpets the artist is so drawn to. In this demurely honest painting, Shanan depicts herself kneeling down with her head bowed, her face touching a carpet and hidden from view. Perhaps intentionally, she is positioned at an angle that Muslim worshipers use during prayer. Is the carpet, symbolic of her background, a source of solace? Is she seeking comfort in it or giving in to the power of her origins? In other moving works, the artist uses the carpet as a means to bridge inner turmoil and the outside world. Portraying young girls standing on carpets in unlikely settings such as an open field or a backyard in works like Lara and Mia, Shanan tests the thin boundaries between girlhood and womanhood, the safety of home versus the arbitrariness of the outside, youth and adulthood. The young women seem to be extensions of the artist herself as she revisits her old stomping grounds from the perspective of time.
In other paintings, carpets are rolled out on village rooftops, with an aerial view of children playing.
She juxtaposes the richness and beauty of the carpets with the dirt and claustrophobic density of the village homes, looking at them from high above. These paintings are especially intimate, so much so that it seems that the artist had no choice but to paint them from afar so as to keep the memories at arm’s length, a safe distance away.
Some of the works are playful and liberating, even humorous.
One such painting, called Stepping on Watermelon Seeds, shows a pair of barefoot legs stomping on a field of watermelon seeds. Its portrayal of the unmitigated joy that lies in the act of letting go is so straightforward and uncomplicated that it tempts the viewer to step right in. But Shanan’s unflinching gaze also rests on a carpet she places in the backyard of a decrepit old village home surrounded by the electrical wiring of an air conditioner.
Here and throughout many of her creations, the artist displays a casual understanding of the almost impossible balance of esthetics. The elegance and affluence emanating from the carpets are strong, but they’re there to offset the dank and sad surroundings.
Sigmund Freud divided the psyche into three personality components: the id, the ego and the super-ego. The first is in charge of the uncoordinated desires and instincts of the personality. In that sense, Shanan’s carpets are her id.
They weave together the contrasting and conflicting joy and pain, sorrow and triumph that are part of growing up and looking back on what has made a person into who he or she is.
A video installation at the entrance to the exhibition catches the artist and the children on the rooftop in the act of unfolding the carpets. Carpet on a Flat Rooftop takes the viewer to the limit of the physical act of rolling out the rug.
Watching it on repeat, one can almost smell the dust and sweat wrung out of the fabric. Again and again, the carpet fills up the screen until it loses all meaning, and all one can wish is to join the artist as she covers every free surface of her world, carpet after carpet.
The exhibition is on display until October 28 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.