24th April – 6th April 2017.
Felicia Simion’s photography installation Carpethian raises concerns about the preservation of tradition in modern society by revealing current ways in which traditional carpets are being utilized in her homeland Romania. The exhibition fosters a personal focus on the carpets owned by Simion’s relatives who live in the rural villages of Oltenia. In engaging with a community not yet swallowed by the full-fledged contemporaneity found in urban environments glimpses of bygone relics and past customs can be found and nurtured amongst a remote village setting. However nothing seems completely out of reach for modernity’s tinkering hand and it is the forms in which these customs have inevitably changed that continues Simion’s ongoing investigation into the evolution of tradition. Since the earliest carpets were hand woven in Armenia and Persia they have been attributed with many roles, whether practical or symbolical. From serving as thermal insulation for nomadic tribes’ tents, being adopted as a place of worship and prayer, to becoming a status symbol of wealth and prestige, or purely serving as beautiful decorative objects. With its diverse use and purpose the carpet has always been a part of the daily cultural life of communities in many nations. These days the carpet has been reduced to decoration and is a common staple in home décor stores. Made en masse in factories by machines, the personal human touch is void in the production of modern rugs and the craftsmanship and knowledge of their creation becoming a thing of the past. To own a hand-woven carpet has become a fetishised commodity in modern Western civilizations and problematic in that the owners are unaware of the objects rich history and place in culture. Specific to Romania, Oltenian carpets commonly bore a floral design and were gifted as a dowry for marriages. These carpets bore symbolic significance and would represent the social status of a family, with some carpets specifically customised for certain families that would incorporate patterns and motifs that could represent their amount of wealth, field of work, and history within the design. It was a privilege to own such an object and due to the carpets prestige people would display them in specific areas of the house, often on walls to exhibit their abundance, or immortalise their image with the carpets by standing for their portrait in front of them. Taken in the rural villages of Plenița, Ciocănești and Novaci, Simion documents the history of her own relatives’ carpets by appropriating the aforementioned style of photography popular in Romania one century ago. Staging her subjects in front of the carpets they’ve kept in their homes, she creates a visual juxtaposition between their casual modern attire and the old fashioned style of their rugs. Adversely she inverts this contrast in her self-portrait in which she is presented wearing a traditional Oltenian costume yet pictured in front of a carpet bought by her parents only years ago in a modern furniture store. The carpets featured in her families’ portraits were mainly bought to indulge the beginning of something new, from moving into a new apartment, to marking the demise of communism, or a purchase for a persons wedding, perhaps a hangover from the days of marriage dowries. Reasons for possessing such carpets have shifted into the realm of commodity and the rugs of her family have gradually veered from a traditional Romanian style to that of less precious Turkish and Oriental reproductions.
While Simion’s portraits provide an insight into the contemporary homes of rural Romania and their nostalgia with its rich and colourful past, her enquiry poses a much broader question about the place of tradition in the 21 st century. In discontinuing the handmade production and purchase of domestic Romanian carpets what could be at stake of being lost for the cultures history? In an age where their value is displayed on the opposing binaries of ‘the souvenir shop’ and ‘the heritage museum’ both catering heavily to tourism, how will traditions like these carpets be remembered by Romanian locals as they continue to warp and shift their meaning into a state of commodification. When confronted with Simion’s photographs, bound up in memory with their beauty and personal integrity, I’m left pondering mostly whether this commodification is a cultures move towards progress or alternately a mistake in abandoning its past.