A magic carpet ride

Up-and-coming artist Fatma Shanan puts the carpet front and center

Razan and Edan 2, 2012. (photo credit: AVI AMSALEM)
Razan and Edan 2, 2012.
(photo credit: AVI AMSALEM)
 Fatma Shanan, recipient of the 2016 Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realist Art, is breaking new ground with a four-month exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The prize committee found Shanan to be “one of the most stimulating painters in the field of young Israeli art,” and one glance at the artist’s brave, complex and colorful works will have you in agreement.
Shanan creates realistic large-scale paintings, using mainly oil on canvas. Drawing on her life experience as a Druse woman living in Israel – Shanan was born and raised in Julis, a Druse village in the north – the artist uses the oriental carpet as a central motif to explore concepts of identity, place, space and action.
Exhibition curator Dr. Doron J. Lurie discusses the significance and history of the oriental carpet in “The Carpet as Heterotopia: In Conversation with Fatma Shanan.” The oriental carpet has held a principal role in the art world for centuries. The Dutch painters of the 17th-century golden age often featured carpets in indoor scenes – think Rembrandt’s Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild (1662). In 19th-century European bazaar paintings, which depicted bazaar scenes featuring “exotic” vendors in typical Middle Eastern garb such as turbans and fezzes, the carpet once again held a central role. At that time, carpets from the East were reserved for the very wealthy; “due to their high value they were not placed on the floor (so as not to be stepped on, God forbid), but used as tablecloths.”
In modern paintings, too, such as those of Gustav Klimt and Henri Matisse, the carpet is featured. Fatma Shanan is well aware of this tradition and, to her credit, isn’t intimidated in the slightest.
While Shanan’s carpets, rich in color and intricate in design, hark back to the oriental carpets depicted by the greats, the artist aims to suggest “an alternative to the stereotyped notions linking carpets, women and the East that took hold in Western art.” Moreover, this motif is also influenced by something far more personal: home.
“In my work,” explains Shanan, “the carpet is a living entity, part of my experience of home. I have my parents, my siblings and my carpet.” The carpet is not considered holy in Druse society, but is a common feature in the home. “It marks the shared areas; it lends them a measure of grandeur and expresses affiliation with the community.”
Though Shanan’s carpets represent the familiar and soothing notion of home, they are never depicted in their natural environment, but slung between two white plastic chairs, laid out in a field, or on a rooftop. “I think of the carpet as a heterotopia, a displaced space.” The carpet’s defined space – with four clear edges – creates its own territory, allowing Shanan to explore themes of “dominance and attraction, limits and the boundaries of the body, especially my own female body.”
The artist took her themes of space and boundaries into the public sphere recently while in New York as a guest of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Oriental Carpets. Placing a carpet in Central Park, Shanan observed the reactions of passersby – who walked around it, who stepped onto it. She noted what kind of space the carpet marked, in an effort to “raise doubts and a discourse on ownership and accessibility.”
In her works, characters – the artist herself or others – tend to hover around the edges of the carpets, stepping only onto its borders, though more recent works depict her refracted image woven into the design of the carpet.
This positioning, particularly in Self-Portrait and a Carpet 3 (2017), where Shanan’s feminine form at the top of the painting contrasts with the three woven cypress trees carrying male symbolism, is intended to spark a discourse on gender relations. This is also incited by Shanan’s use of misbaha (prayer beads) as a motif, which are only used by males in Druse culture.
“I painted it as a symbol, as an act of female defiance,” though Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434) was also an influence.
Go for Shanan’s fresh take on a motif that has charmed and tempted artistic works for centuries, stay for her opulent canvases and unapologetic interaction with some of the most pressing themes challenging the world today.
Fatma Shanan’s exhibition is on show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art until October 28.