The Swati Embroidery Revival

by Mariano Akerman

Ancestral patterns and motifs

Traditional embroideries from Swat, Pakistan, 19th century. The textiles from Swat Valley present elaborate geometric patterns, with abstract motifs in vivid pink-red hues and black backgrounds. The ancestral embroideries are made of silk threads on cotton. | Bordados tradicionales de Swat, Pakistán, siglo XIX. Los textiles del Valle de Swat Valley presentan elaborados diseños geométricos, con motivos abstractos en rosas y rojos sobre fondos negros. Son en general confeccionados con hilos de seda sobre paños algodón.

Swati rubies and flowers motifs

Assorted precious stones design - note the assymetrical composition

The amazing Swati cookies style

A rich-in-symbolism design known as the Pattern of Hope

Issam Ahmed reports from Saidu Sharif, Pakistan

Mussarat Ahmedzeb, whose father-in-law once ruled Swat Valley, returned home at the height of Pakistan Taliban rule to open an embroidery program. Today, more than 500 women go there to earn money and escape the dangers of daily life.

[...] In the spring of 2007, Mrs. Ahmedzeb left Islamabad to return home and set up three embroidery and handicrafts centers where destitute women could gather and work in peace.

Saidu Sharif, Pakistan. Women working at The Swat War Widows Institute, created by Mussarat Ahmedzeb

"I had to create something ... a place where we can talk, we can chat so we can forget our worries. So we started with embroideries [...]," explains the softly spoken woman with gray-green eyes and a tired expression. [...] Using her personal savings, she bought electric sewing machines, looms and material, and put out word to the women of Swat’s towns and villages to come and visit her.

Now in its third year, with more than 500 women in employment, her three centers train women, free of charge, and export the colorful and distinctively Swati embroidery in the form of dresses, cushion covers, napkins, and more to buyers in Pakistan’s metropolitan cities of Lahore and Islamabad, the capital. An art exhibit [accompanied by a lecture] in Islamabad by Argentinean Mariano Akerman this week showcased some of the best designs.

The centers [...] are filled with chatter and laughter. Swati women, unlike men, have few opportunities to congregate. [...] "We have so many needs to take care of so it’s better for us to work for ourselves and earn for ourselves," says Sheema Bibi, a young single woman who began coming to the center, attached to Mrs. Ahmedzeb’s ancestral home, last year. "Our brothers and fathers sometimes object, but everyone needs the money to get by." [...] The women typically earn $50 to $150 a month, depending how much they produce. Some, like teenager Sidra Bakthiad, is using her pay to save up for her college education.

[...] Ahmedzeb, who owns homes both in Saidu Sharif and Islamabad, says she decided to return to Swat in 2007 partly because her children had finished their schooling, and partly to fulfill her obligations to her people.

[... Her] father-in-law, Mian Gul Abdul Haq Jahanzeb, was the well-respected Wali (princely ruler) of Swat, until the territory was ceded to Pakistan in 1969. He was known for having built hundreds of schools and many hospitals.

Ahmedzeb never had any formal training, having left school at age 15 to be married. But she became a keen gardener, cook, and embroidery enthusiast, and realized that last skill would be the most economically viable if passed on to poor women.

Residents here speak highly of [Mussarat's] acts of generosity, such as opening her ancestral home to fleeing refugees during a 2009 [...] and financially supporting some 18 children of refugees.

"The women of the family are upholding their family name and are good social activists," says Ziauddin Yusufzai, head of the Private Schools Association of Swat, adding Ahmedzeb has a reputation of being a "very fine woman." [...] Those who worked with her during the Swat refugee crisis commend her dedication, too. Retired Justice Nasira Iqbal, one of Pakistan’s first female High Court judges, participated in a citizens' action group that helped channel funds to Swat from Lahore. "She was credible, she was reliable, she ensured the funds got to where they were intended. She went into dangerous areas [...] where we could not go," Ms. Iqbal says. "She was very brave. Everyone from the elite class had already left the area, but she stayed behind" (Christian Science Monitor, 2 April 2010).


The Grotesque in Francis Bacon's Paintings, 1999-2009

by Mariano Akerman, art-historian and researcher

Francis Bacon, Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1968. Oil on canvas, 198 x 147.5 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. "Perhaps one day I will manage to capture an instant of life in all its violence and all its beauty," Bacon, quoted by Paloma Alarcó, as she discussed this picture in 2001.

Bacon's paintings are mysterious and suggestive. They are ambiguous and constitute symbols of multi-leveled significance, which is conveyed through the artist's manipulation of the grotesque. As configurations of the ambiguous, Bacon's instinctive paintings engender both curiosity and perplexity, or even attraction and repulsion at the same time. Indeed, a well-balanced yet disquieting interplay between fear and desire, vulnerability and cruelty, suffering and apathy is characteristic of Bacon's instinctive paintings.
Tension and intensity, the combination of incompatible elements, and suggestions of the monstrous and the inhuman abound in the artist's imagery. Bacon uses the grotesque as a means of self-expression, which enables him to ambiguously communicate not only his fascination with power and violence, but also his haunted condition. The grotesque becomes therefore a truly convenient instrument of purgation and transcendence.
Aside from their extravagance, Bacon's instinctive paintings are far from being ornaments (i.e., mere accessories such as fanciful grotteschi or capricious arrangements in auricular style). Above all, they are inalienable personal reports that encapsulate a private truth—the artist's contradictory feelings and sensations, which are neither decorative nor entirely evasive.
Essentially paradoxical, Bacon's grotesque art is at once profound and superficial. And if the grotesque often involves the ridiculous, then the instinctive paintings are inclusive up to the point of mixing up the nonsensical with the serious. For Bacon's is an art of simultaneous witticism and unreasonableness.
Through his instinctive imagery, Bacon willingly walks along the border of an emotional precipice, suggesting his obsession with sex and death, his apathy in matters of vulnerability and suffering, and his irresistible fascination with power and aggressiveness.
With its immediacy and vagueness, Bacon's grotesque artwork at once reveals and conceals the painter's ultimate intentions, and in such a blurred way that the very notion of identity becomes problematic in the paintings.
By depicting the ambiguously combined and the equivocally suggestive Bacon disorients the viewer, who cannot establish precise meaning in his ever-changing images. Various readings are thus possible and they seem all equally valid. Considering that instinct implies the abolishment of morals, at the time of contemplating Bacon's imagery we are to arrive at our own moral conclusions (certainly irrelevant to the artist and his calculated lack of concern). At this point everything melts under our feet, because in Bacon's grotesque realm the only safe given is insecurity.
Today we know that the artist's instinctive paintings are not the sole product of accident or chance, as the painter might have liked us to believe. Significantly, the instinctive pictures constitute carefully planned compositions relating to Bacon's private life. Anti-illustrational or not, such instinctive images function as visual traps. As a whole, the painter's imagery persistently suggests a monstrous, double-edged reality.
In this context, we realize Bacon's manipulation of the grotesque and his decisive intervention in turning it into a useful vehicle for self-expression. Bacon's instinctive art proves to be profound, but is also problematic—a New Grand Manner of Painting merging the defiantly powerful, the disquietingly extraordinary, the suggestively monstrous, the sarcastically allusive, the theatrically manipulative, and the extremely personal.
As a species of confusion par excellence, the grotesque suspends belief and invites a search for meaning. Pushing us to consider alternative possibilities, the grotesque paralyses language and challenges categories. Grotesque art is basically thought-enlarging art.*
All this is particularly true in the case of Bacon, whose grotesque art conjures up multiple ideas and associations, to grant us an active role as both spectators and interpreters. This is possibly the ultimate meaning of the artist's pictorial freedom, at which he has arrived through a remarkable manipulation of the grotesque.
The entirely personal element that inhabits Bacon's instinctive paintings has an immense capacity to open the valves of feeling. It is this expressive, ever-changing element of Bacon's suggestive art which I find extraordinarily rich: pictorial instinct is a provocative, grotesque element which coherently unites Bacon's truth and our freedom.

Mariano Akerman, The Grotesque in Francis Bacon's Instinctive Paintings, July 1999; revised version February 2009, to mark the centenary of the artist's birth.

Francis Bacon, Self-Portrait, 1972. Oil on canvas, 35.5 x 30.5 cm. Gilbert de Bottom Collection, Switzerland.
* The ideas of this paragraph have their source in Geoffery Galt Harpham, On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982

© 2009 Mariano Akerman. All rights reserved. Material not to be reproduced or republished without the previous written authorization of its author.

Motif from the central panel of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (Francis Bacon, 1944) and its visual source of inspiration from Maladies de la bouche (Ludwig Grünwald, 1903). Original research. Comparison by Mariano Akerman. 2008. All rights reserved.


De doble filo. On the grotesque in the visual arts, by Mariano Akerman

Motif from the central panel of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (Francis Bacon, 1944) and its visual source of inspiration from Maladies de la bouche (Ludwig Grünwald, 1903). Original research. Comparison by Mariano Akerman. 2008. All rights reserved.

DOUBLE-EDGED 1. Having two edges that can be used; having two cutting edges. 2 Having a dual purpose; having two meanings; effective or capable of being interpreted in two ways. Double-edged sword - literally, a sword which cuts on either side; metaphorically, an argument which makes both for and against the person employing it, or which has a double meaning. Featuring: French Medieval hybrid; Giuseppe Arcimboldo; Italian Renaissance grotteschi or sogni dei pittori; Francis Bacon; Quentin Metsys; Keller; Quino; Roman Domus Aurea; Paul-Andreas Weber.

DE DOBLE FILO 1. Arma blanca que tiene filo por ambos bordes de la hoja. 2. Cosa o acción que puede obrar en contra de lo que pretende. Incluidos: Híbrido medieval francés; Archimboldo; Grutesco renacentista italiano; Francis Bacon; Quentin Metsys; Keller; Quino; Domus Aurea; Paul-Adreas Weber.

De doble filo was also a (now lost) digital film on the grotesque in the visual arts, by Mariano Akerman, April 2008. It included works by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Francis Bacon, Hans Bellmer, Cornelis Bos, Hyeronimus Bosch, Nicoletto da Modena, Jacques Callot, Honoré Daumier, John Deakin, Fermín Eguía, Max Ernst, Cornelis Floris, James Gillray, Francisco de Goya, Joris Hoefnagel, Christoph Jamnitzer, Keller, Santos Machen, René Magritte, Quentin Metsys, Joan Miró, Nine, Méret Oppenheim, José Guadalupe Posada, Raphael Sanzio, Quino, Scopas, Giovanni da Udine, Adam van Vianen, Vasari, Antoine Watteau, Paul Andreas Weber, and other artists.

Jean-Michel Folon, Regarding Day and Night (A propósito del día y la noche), watercolor on paper, 1988-89.