North Africa, or the Maghrib, comprises Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Art of the Maghrib is distinguished by a mystical quality drawing on the region’s symbols and signs that originate in pre-Islamic Berber motifs and a rich Islamic heritage introduced to the region by Arabs in the seventh century. From the Fezzan and Tassili petroglyphs in Libya and Algeria to the Neolithic paintings of Morocco, North African artists have a large reservoir of art that continues to influence their work. One example of such influence is found in the engravings of Tunisian artist Gouider Triki (born 1949) with suggestions of the supernatural found in ancient rock paintings.
Artists also make use of traditional signs and symbols as a metaphor for colonial policies that imposed foreign languages and cultures and the subsequent curtailment of liberties in the postcolonial era. An imaginative discourse of signs often undercuts, disrupts, and subverts the rational dictum of language that has become a forbidden medium for free expression. For example, letters take on new meaning in the work of Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi (born 1947), who draws on poetry in an illegible Arabic script using reverse mirror imagery; having fled persecution in his native Algeria, Koraïchi turns the alphabet into a symbol of protest. Koraïchi and other North African artists explore the formal dimension of signs, symbols, and the Berber alphabet, invoking their aesthetic qualities, using them in structural compositions or expanding on their mystical properties by synthesizing new symbols from old forms.
Traditionally, symbols and signs are found in pottery, textiles, carved or painted wood, leather works, jewelry, amulets, and tattoos. Algeria’s Kabyle women paint with their fingers on pottery and upon the walls of their village homes; many of their shapes and symbols have a marked resemblance to Neolithic pottery found in the region. Believed to carry healing qualities or to embody magical attributes that guard against misfortune and the evil eye, these signs and symbols assume new forms and meanings in contemporary art. By combining signs with magical numbers or stylizing traditional symbols, contemporary artists tap the unconscious to create abstract work that references the past and present. On several visits to North Africa, German artist Paul Klee was inspired by these mystical shapes and incorporated signs, number, and letters into his work; his interpretation of line and color would in turn influence several Maghribi artists.
Islamic art and architecture flourished in the Maghrib, where some of the earliest examples are found in Fez, Qairouan, Meknas, and Algiers. With the exception of Morocco, and to a lesser extent Tunisia and Algeria, by the mid-sixteenth century Islamic art centers were concentrated in non-Arab countries. In the twentieth century, Moroccan artisans continued to preserve traditional crafts with distinctive Andalusian influences. The Moroccan craftsman is referred to respectfully as mu’alim, or master artisan; his skills are valued by modern artists who borrow freely from traditional crafts, reformulating old techniques and incorporating them into their work.
Farid Belkahia (born 1934) represents a movement in Moroccan art that questions modern artistic references. He relies exclusively on local materials, replacing chemical paints with natural dyes, and using surfaces other than canvas such as copper, pottery, wood, handmade paper, and lamb skins. The stretched irregular or shaped surfaces of skin form the background to gargantuan drawings of signs and symbols of an archaic language. In particular, Belkahia uses magical numbers such as five or khmasa, representing the hand of Fatima (the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter), a protective symbol against the evil eye. Other commonly used signs and symbols are lozenges, crescents, stars, diamonds, triangles, dots, and odd numbers or their multiple.
Ahmed Cherkaoui (1934–1967), one of the foremost abstract artists in Morocco, combines the repetitive Islamic style with abstract signs and symbols, and uses bright colors of greens, red, blue, and yellow to contrast with the white background. Similar brilliant colors are used by many self-taught artists of the Maghrib, now considered to have produced the most accomplished naive art in the twentieth century. For example, Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine (1931–1999), whose dreamlike imagery is based on mysticism and magic, used stylized fish and grapes to celebrate a cycle of life in which women live with imaginary animals. The art of North Africa’s self-taught artists is neither strictly traditional nor Western in style; rather, there is a fusion of elements transcending time and place.
The dense repetitive geometric patterns typical of North African ceramics is infused with new significance in the installation Four Generations of Women by French-born Algerian artist Zineb Sedira (born 1963). Representing a generation of North African artists born in France and living in the West, Sedira examines the shifting of identities and questions preconceived notions of East and West by challenging both Western and Islamic perceptions of gender and Islamic art. Within what might initially be construed as mundane repetition of Islamic geometric designs are faces of women entrapped in a pattern that forms a matrilineal chain incorporating human figures within a predominantly nonfigurative Islamic aesthetic.
Berber—Generic name given to the indigenous tribes of North Africa by the Greeks, who referred to all North Africans as “barbarians” or foreigners. The diverse indigenous people of North Africa refer to themselves as Amazigh (pl. Imazighen), meaning “noble ones.” Ethnically Caucasian, they are close to the Semites. Their language, Tamazigh, of the Afro-Asiatic group, uses Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, or Tamazigh letters. The Berber live in ten North African countries, including the Maghrib nations and Egypt. Most Berbers converted to Islam and adopted Arab/Islamic traditions. The majority of Berber live in Morocco and Algeria in the regions of the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert.
Kabyle—Berber tribe originating in the rugged northeastern mountain region of Algeria. They speak the Kabyle Berber dialect.
Humans are visual creatures. Objects we call “beautiful” or “aesthetic” are a crucial part of our humanity. Even the oldest known examples of rock and cave art served aesthetic rather than utilitarian roles. Although aesthetics is often regarded as an ill-defined vague quality, research groups like mine are using sophisticated techniques to quantify it – and its impact on the observer.
We’re finding that aesthetic images can induce staggering changes to the body, including radical reductions in the observer’s stress levels. Job stress alone is estimated to cost American businesses many billions of dollars annually, so studying aesthetics holds a huge potential benefit to society.
Researchers are untangling just what makes particular works of art or natural scenes visually appealing and stress-relieving – and one crucial factor is the presence of the repetitive patterns called fractals.
Pleasing patterns, in art and in nature
When it comes to aesthetics, who better to study than famous artists? They are, after all, the visual experts. My research group took this approach with Jackson Pollock, who rose to the peak of modern art in the late 1940s by pouring paint directly from a can onto horizontal canvases laid across his studio floor. Although battles raged among Pollock scholars regarding the meaning of his splattered patterns, many agreed they had an organic, natural feel to them.
My scientific curiosity was stirred when I learned that many of nature’s objects are fractal, featuring patterns that repeat at increasingly fine magnifications. For example, think of a tree. First you see the big branches growing out of the trunk. Then you see smaller versions growing out of each big branch. As you keep zooming in, finer and finer branches appear, all the way down to the smallest twigs. Other examples of nature’s fractals include clouds, rivers, coastlines and mountains.
In 1999, my group used computer pattern analysis techniques to show that Pollock’s paintings are as fractal as patterns found in natural scenery. Since then, more than 10 different groups have performed various forms of fractal analysis on his paintings. Pollock’s ability to express nature’s fractal aesthetics helps explain the enduring popularity of his work.
The impact of nature’s aesthetics is surprisingly powerful. In the 1980s, architects found that patients recovered more quickly from surgery when given hospital rooms with windows looking out on nature. Other studies since then have demonstrated that just looking at pictures of natural scenes can change the way a person’s autonomic nervous system responds to stress.
For me, this raises the same question I’d asked of Pollock: Are fractals responsible? Collaborating with psychologists and neuroscientists, we measured people’s responses to fractals found in nature (using photos of natural scenes), art (Pollock’s paintings) and mathematics (computer generated images) and discovered a universal effect we labeled “fractal fluency.”
Through exposure to nature’s fractal scenery, people’s visual systems have adapted to efficiently process fractals with ease. We found that this adaptation occurs at many stages of the visual system, from the way our eyes move to which regions of the brain get activated. This fluency puts us in a comfort zone and so we enjoy looking at fractals. Crucially, we used EEG to record the brain’s electrical activity and skin conductance techniques to show that this aesthetic experience is accompanied by stress reduction of 60 percent – a surprisingly large effect for a nonmedicinal treatment. This physiological change even accelerates post-surgical recovery rates.
Artists intuit the appeal of fractals
It’s therefore not surprising to learn that, as visual experts, artists have been embedding fractal patterns in their works through the centuries and across many cultures. Fractals can be found, for example, in Roman, Egyptian, Aztec, Incan and Mayan works. My favorite examples of fractal art from more recent times include da Vinci’s Turbulence (1500), Hokusai’s Great Wave (1830), M.C. Escher’s Circle Series (1950s) and, of course, Pollock’s poured paintings.
Although prevalent in art, the fractal repetition of patterns represents an artistic challenge. For instance, many people have attempted to fake Pollock’s fractals and failed. Indeed, our fractal analysis has helped identify fake Pollocks in high-profile cases. Recent studies by others show that fractal analysis can help distinguish real from fake Pollocks with a 93 percent success rate.
How artists create their fractals fuels the nature-versus-nurture debate in art: To what extent is aesthetics determined by automatic unconscious mechanisms inherent in the artist’s biology, as opposed to their intellectual and cultural concerns? In Pollock’s case, his fractal aesthetics resulted from an intriguing mixture of both. His fractal patterns originated from his body motions (specifically an automatic process related to balance known to be fractal). But he spent 10 years consciously refining his pouring technique to increase the visual complexity of these fractal patterns.
Pollock’s motivation for continually increasing the complexity of his fractal patterns became apparent recently when I studied the fractal properties of Rorschach inkblots. These abstract blots are famous because people see imaginary forms (figures and animals) in them. I explained this process in terms of the fractal fluency effect, which enhances people’s pattern recognition processes. The low complexity fractal inkblots made this process trigger-happy, fooling observers into seeing images that aren’t there.
Pollock disliked the idea that viewers of his paintings were distracted by such imaginary figures, which he called “extra cargo.” He intuitively increased the complexity of his works to prevent this phenomenon.
Pollock’s abstract expressionist colleague, Willem De Kooning, also painted fractals. When he was diagnosed with dementia, some art scholars called for his retirement amid concerns that that it would reduce the nurture component of his work. Yet, although they predicted a deterioration in his paintings, his later worksconveyed a peacefulness missing from his earlier pieces. Recently, the fractal complexity of his paintings was shown to drop steadily as he slipped into dementia. The study focused on seven artists with different neurological conditions and highlighted the potential of using art works as a new tool for studying these diseases. To me, the most inspiring message is that, when fighting these diseases, artists can still create beautiful artworks.
My main research focuses on developing retinal implants to restore vision to victims of retinal diseases. At first glance, this goal seems a long way from Pollock’s art. Yet, it was his work that gave me the first clue to fractal fluency and the role nature’s fractals can play in keeping people’s stress levels in check. To make sure my bio-inspired implants induce the same stress reduction when looking at nature’s fractals as normal eyes do, they closely mimic the retina’s design.
When I started my Pollock research, I never imagined it would inform artificial eye designs. This, though, is the power of interdisciplinary endeavors – thinking “out of the box” leads to unexpected but potentially revolutionary ideas.