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Magic Squares: Muslim Africa in contemporary culture

22 July 2011 No Comments

Alia Toor

Magic Squares: The patterned imagination of Muslim Africa in contemporary culture. From the collection of Islamic African artifacts with work by contemporary artists Hamid Kachmar, Jamelie Hassan, Alia Toor and Tim Whiten at The Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto.




By Anya Wassenberg

Magic Squares is an imaginative exhibition that begins with the “magic square” concept and then looks at its application and added meaning in African Muslim cultures and beyond, including the responses of four contemporary artists to the magic square concept as the intersection of design, belief and art.

Popular games like Sudoku and Kenken are based on the magic square, which originated in China about two thousand years ago.  It is believed that it migrated to Africa via Muslim traders on the old Silk Road back through the Middle East and then Western and Northern Africa, as those regions converted to Islam in the 10th century. Here, the abstract mathematical concept combined with the long established weaving arts native to an area with an abundance of materials like cotton, silk and wool, and resulted in a mesmerizing expression of design.

Africans added a talismanic meaning. Magic squares, called “hatumere” were talismanic prayer papers which were sewn into clothing. Sometimes the piece of clothing itself would be adorned with symbols or phrases. The art of calligraphy and its use in decoration is a distinctive feature of Islamic design, often combined with geometric patterning on architecture, ceramics and textiles. One of the pieces on display is a cloth that was woven to commemorate the mosque at Touba, Senegal, central to the Mouride Sufi brotherhood. The pattern features rows that alternate an image of the mosque with script that says “There is no other God but Allah”, all of it over a checkerboard patterned background.

West African garment, 20th century

The exhibition contains many examples of blankets or wrappers, garments that cover the body literally from birth into old age and then act as a shroud when it’s finally laid to rest. In wraps from the Ewe people of Ghana, the Djula of Cote d’Ivoire, the Yoruba and Hausa of Nigeria and more, the geometric grid or checkerboard pattern comes to life in colour and cloth.

The majority of them are strip-woven, a technique common to much of the African continent. The looms are handheld and produce narrow bands of cloth which are then sewn together to create the larger pieces that form garments and blankets. The process allows the magic square patterning and alternating checkerboard effect to come naturally as the bands of cloth are assembled. Some involve strictly linear or geometric designs, while others include rounded elements and flourishes along with lettering.

The techniques used to create the patterns are amazingly intricate. In the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, the cloths are called adire. Here, the patterns are produced by stitching, stenciling, or treating plain cloth with a paint resistant substance. The cloth is then dyed with indigo. One example featured lettering that had been hand stitched through two layers before dying, the result a shimmering and teasingly inscrutable pattern of letters in deep blues. Garment fabrics often involve a basic stripe consisting of geometric checkerboarding as a background to embroidery at a neckline or sleeve.

The use of a grid to contain the patterning is symbolic of a culture that valued the rule of order and reason over chaos, a theme that’s taken up by Hamid Kachmar, one of the contemporary artists in the show, in his piece Tiswingimin. Hamid is himself from South Morocco, and not surprisingly, his is the piece that most resembles the work of the African artisans, consisting of 20 squares in two rows decorated with henna and saffron in a variety of very intricate patterns. It has a hypnotizing effect, glowing in reds and ochres even as the energy of the patterning is contained within its geometry. The title means “meditations” in Amazigh.

The hunter’s coat from Mali, c. 1960 to 1970

North Africa has long been noted for producing skilled leatherwork, and the magic square pattern appears in Tuareg leather piecesfrom Algeria that use embellishments like incising, embossing, braiding, tussling and dying. Other embellishments, like knotting, can also have spiritual meaning, as in the hunter’s coat from Mali on display. It’s made of cotton and decorated with amulets, mirrors and knotted cords, each element having a specific function and talismanic meaning.

With a larger focus on Islam in Africa, and along with simply viewing the objects on display, the exhibition includes opportunities for a more diverse sensory experience, with stations where you can touch embroidered materials, listen to music inspired by Islam, (including Toumani Diabaté, Nawal and Oumou Sangare, among others,) read supplementary materials and even smell Bint el Sudan perfume, popular at Sudanese weddings.

This touches on only a small fraction of the show which covers a whole floor of the Museum, including the artistic responses of Jamelie Hassan, Alia Toor and Tim Whiten.

The Magic Squares exhibit is on display until November 20, 2011 www.textilemuseum.ca

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