Like many topics related to the esoteric world of handmade rugs and carpets – and indeed of civilization broadly – different perspectives, different attitudes, different life experiences, different perceptions of the one true reality all influence how one reacts. Art, specifically the notion of carpets and rugs as art is by no means an exception, and it is this idea which routinely finds its way into the marketing and sales of rugs and carpets. ‘Art for the floor.’ and countless other permutations of this tagline exist today just as they indubitably have existed since mankind first discovered the trade of rugs could be profitable. But ‘art’ is no clearly defined term. Contemporary usage leads one to understand many skills, artforms, and crafts as art. Cooking for example, or painting, or sculpture, to name but a few. Art, perhaps in an elitist attempt to winnow away the chaff, is also categorized into distinct sub-groups. Fine art, decorative art, folk art, classical art, again to name but a few.
Reservations on the part of this author exist as to the merits of classifying relatively mass produced commercialized goods as art given the disconnect between creator and maker, designer and weaver, yet these misgivings do not discount one element essential to art: provocation. Art, regardless of how it is defined or how it is made or, or, or must provoke the human mind to think beyond the comfortable realms of the known into the as-of-yet-discovered.
‘Born in the Purple’ was the name of an exhibition of the work of artist Viron Erol Vert mounted from 24 June through 27 August 2017 in Kunstraum Kreuzberg / Bethanien, Berlin, Germany. The name comes from the literal translation of the Greek porphyrogénnētos, which is the Roman and Byzantine concept under which children born to reigning emperors held superior rights to the throne over siblings born before their father ascended the imperial throne. The ‘purple’ aspect derives from purple hued porphryry rock interior cladding of the Porphýra, the Purple or Porphyry Chamber, a free-standing pavilion of the Great Palace of Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey in which heirs to the throne were born.
Whether interpreted either as a curse or a blessing ‘born in the purple’ as a moniker sets one apart from and perhaps above ordinary society regardless of – or on rare occasion due to extraordinary – individual merits. To relate the term to the modern era and indeed rugs and carpets one need look no further than the advantages given the privileged and wealthy, or to those whose dynastic families have traded in rugs for generations. Vert (born 1975) is Turkish though as a member of the Greek Orthodox minority is not royalty, that is to say privileged, per se, yet enjoys at least a hint of tyrian when it comes to rugs and carpets compared to that of those born outside of historic weaving centres. This innate connection to rugs and carpets informs his work in decidedly inspired and provocative ways, as do his own experiences with queer identity and migration as an emigrant to Germany.
Without further ado, the genuine art rugs and carpets of Viron Erol Vert.
From oral histories recounting King Solomon (circa 970 – 930 B.C.E.) to Disney’s now classic 1992 C.E. animated film Aladdin, the manifold symbolic legend of the ‘Flying Carpet’ inspires as much as it informs of the state of civilization and technology. Solomon was said to have been able to breakfast in Damascus yet sup in Media owing to his immense green silk and gold wefted square carpet measuring an astonishing, if not also exaggerated, sixty miles long by sixty miles wide (96,560.64m x 96,560.64m). The fictional carpet would purportedly catch the wind, which Solomon could control, hence carrying him wherever he may desire all the while shaded from the sun under an equally immense canopy of flying birds. While clearly fanciful the scale of Solomon’s carpet at least hints at an understanding of science and sailing. In contrast, the Magic Carpet (better known as just Carpet) of Disney’s creation is a sentient albeit silent Persianesque carpet who whisks the title character to and fro by way of an inferred ‘magic’ of unknown origin; at least the creators of Solomon’s story attempted to incorporate a degree – however minor – of feasibility.
Vert’s ‘Air Abraham’ carpet – a name which conjures ridiculous visions of a Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker production – combines the fable of the flying or magic carpet with that of iconography of the trio of Abrahamic religions as well as that of myriad cultures the world over. The carpet as vehicle, as means of achieving the millennia old dream of human flight, simultaneously looks toward the future and the past embodying oriental and occidental forms and aspirations into manifest beauty; for surely a carpet capable of flight would indeed be pleasing to eye. Moreover the geometric forms hint of the now understood technical nature of human flight, of science yet to be understood or discovered, and also the Islamic concept of geometry providing direct access to the divine – or dare say magical – thus relating to the origins of Solomon’s carpet itself.
The haptic and visual beauty of ‘Air Abraham’ however could just as easily be interpreted in different, less haughty and artistic communities as just another appealing decorative carpet. This dichotomy of perspective which foregoes intent lies at the core of interpreting carpets and rugs as art for when a carpet is presented in classical form, the human mind as it does, tends or attempts to categorize the newfound into a preexisting understanding of the world around. Vert’s oeuvre of carpets succeeds at transcending the expected by presenting carpets in ways which challenge preconceptions, interjecting familiarity into situations less mainstream, kinky, provocative, forbidden, or otherwise.
‘There is a erotic part in the work you mention of course and I worked for many years in the Berlin club scene, in one of the largest and best known clubs that is very much linked to gay culture as well, so this influenced me too of course in my artistic expression. I’m happy you find the erotic element appealing.’ said Vert in response to an email inquiry regarding ‘Pearls’ Passage’ who then continued, ‘But it is also a critique on how we deal with identity and culture today.’ Vert made ‘Pearl’s Passage’ as part of a larger show titled ‘ğ – the soft g – Queer Forms Migrate’ exploring the migrant perspective on culture, queer sexuality, and family. For example: How do migrants reconcile the inherited culture given to them by their family at birth with that of their new chosen culture? And how does sexuality – in its various expressed, repressed, ostracized, embraced, hidden, visceral, animalistic, sensual, intimate forms – fit into these cultures?
‘Here [with ‘Pearl’s Passage’] I also wanted to show how I feel that queer sexuality is lived out in both contexts from my perspective.’ says Vert ‘In the Western world – the occident – sexuality is more clearly divided and put into certain forms of sexuality, like fetishes, like leather, rubber, fisting, left [top or dominant], right [bottom or submissive], et cetera. In the oriental world I always felt that the form is not clearly spoken out. So there are no clear forms [of sexuality] but therefore the colouring, patterning and texture of broader society is richer. At the end this work is a hybrid of both, and maybe it is me?’
The contrast and juxtaposition between East and West, Orient and Occident, embrace and aversion, could hardly be more provocative and speaks directly to the notion of restraint betraying repression through a richer palette of decorative expression. Eyes thusly opened wide cannot then help but explore cultures and civilizations the world over in search of confirmation. Do the social liberties of say the United States manifest themselves decoratively through the banality of beige, or grey, or the like? Do more repressive societies create more appealing decorative arts? From the perspective of many in the West, including those same United States, the Islamic Republic of Iran is considered a repressive country, yet look at the beauty of the rugs and carpets so touted and praised therefrom. On first pass, Vert’s commentary via art seems to hold an intrinsic truth.
The supple leather and cold hard steel of the handmade leather sling represent restraint and repression, willingly committed to or otherwise. The vibrant and rich palette and soft hand of the west-central Anatolian prayer rug from a village called Mucur represents all the beauty of this world that can be expressed without breaking covenants of the verboten; restraint/chains, expression/rug, and family by way of the rug being a family heirloom are all present in ‘Pearls’ Passage’. ‘So also inside this work, I believe it expresses several identities, like we as humans can too.’ states Vert.
Imagined critics of The Ruggist (of which there are at least a few) might suggest discussing ‘Pearls’ Passage’ to be uncouth, subversive, or disrespectful to the fine art and craft of carpetry. Religious zealots spanning the spectrum of Abrahamic religions may cite this as lacking deference to authority, social norms, and perhaps even good taste itself. Maybe one such imaged person would even seek to condemn this author to Hell for such impropriety; fortunately Vert has another piece of carpet art for just that occasion.
‘Mars’, ‘The Moon’, and ‘Venus’ represent several carpets derivative of Vert’s ‘Air Abraham’ and while they were produced in the context of carpet art, they move the work decidedly in the direction of the decorative forming a collection if you will of attractive, if not also similar carpets. Again this play between capital ‘A’ Art and decorative art reinforces Vert’s social commentary expanding it into the commercial realm. As Vert himself is not the weaver of these carpets can one truly say they are ‘Art’? The answer to this is likely ‘Yes’ for if Duchamp can turn readymade into Art solely via context, and Chihuly can make glass sculpture even though he cannot work a gloryhole properly (entendre and irreverence intended), so too can a carpet designed by one and woven by another be Art. Conversely it must also be stated that the answer is ‘No’ simply because in the subjective world of Art there are a litany of opinions provoked by said work.
In ‘Die Diele’ which translates as ‘The Foyer’, Vert explores the concept of identify and more through the composite installation of several works including a set of five handknotted woollen rugs which spell out the Turkish word kimlik, or identity. ‘The Foyer’ is best described by Silke Wittig who wrote the description as it appears in Vert’s official portfolio. To quote: ‘Vert addresses the current social situation in Istanbul and the effects of political repression in everyday life. He brings up the increasing protest culture against the power of the state, which prevails in many cities of Turkey with police power, tear gas and water guns, as well as the recurring suppression of national and religious minorities, which has affected his family. The inhabitants of Turkish cities have developed their own methods in order to protect themselves at demonstrations and in everyday life from police power with self-made gas masks from ordinary objects such as plastic bottles and bras as well as spray bottles with a mix from lemon juice and baking powder. Vert underlines the function of these objects as new cultural items due to dominant repression and examines to what extent social and political circumstances affect the development of cultural items as well as cultural identity in the past. He had the objects built in different regions of Turkey from traditional materials and with regionally specific craft methods, thereby linking elements of cultural properties of the past with current phenomena. The objects are presented on simple wall racks. The installation is completed with a work made up of five different traditionally knotted carpets which assimilate to the word kimlik meaning ‘identity’.’ The composition is modelled after a typical Istanbul foyer and represents the transition of private space into public space.
This sampling of Vert’s oeuvre reveals an understanding of carpets as art as well as the need for artistic and craft expression to be Art, decorative art, and more. Caution must be heeded when espousing all carpets as Art for therein lies an attempt to control the narrative restricting understanding to the learned, the elite, or perhaps even those ‘born in the purple.’ Likewise not all carpets are purely decorative art for that lessens the impact, the context, the expression of genuine commentary on society. Furthermore, the former – in the context of contemporaneous carpetry – lacks the focused perspective of hindsight which can be exploited to potentially tout – that is market – carpets of dubious merit as somehow superior to those made simply to be used on the floor without provenance or a flashy name attached thereto. In examining Art the value is always subject to the whims of desirability, yet the costs to make a carpet today are easily known. The disconnect between value or price paid by the consumer and that of the cost of production is not necessarily nefarious, yet genuine ‘artificial scarcity value’ must come with a credible artistic, provocative message.
Vert remains fully aware of the difference between Art and decorative art as he states during the correspondence for this article. As his works touch directly on the subject of repression in his native Turkey there lies a real intrinsic danger – also growing in the occident – of criticism of the structures of power. ‘Others see critique of the socio-political situations in Turkey [in my work], and the use of Religion to influence the inhabitants of the country deeply.’ said Vert. This artistic commentary precipitated his emigrant status. ‘Sadly we also sold the house on the Prince Island. Do you know the Islands? They used to be amazing. We decided to leave the country to be honest. It is sad but it is dangerous for artists especially if you don’t do decorative art.’ Vert now resides in Berlin.
Ladies and gentlemen, Viron Erol Vert is someone who understands carpets as Art, decorative art, and more. For more reading on Viron Erol Vert, please consider reading the brochures from his past shows which are available for download via the links below.
For those of us fortunate enough to have been ‘Born in the Purple’ of a relatively free society – occidental, oriental, or otherwise – let us not be the fools of history. ✊🏼
Special thanks to my colleague Hadi Maktabi of Hadi Maktabi Rare Carpets & Antiques in Beirut, Lebanon for providing a provisional identification via photography of the Mucur rug. Maktabi was consulted due to his unquestionable expertise, friendship, and to be frank his ‘born in the purple’ rug dealer status which well suits the nature of this article. 🙏🏼