How artist Jason Seife is injecting new life into the ancient art of carpet design

The artist, who has worked on album covers for the likes of Pharrell and Kanye, hopes to draw attention to the mastery of the disappearing craft

Born in Miami to a Cuban mother and a Syrian father, and raised partly by his Iranian aunt, Jason Seife grew up shuttling between different languages and cultures. “I didn’t know what was Arabic and what was Persian and what was Cuban,” he recalls. “I just knew that this grandmother spoke this way and this other one spoke that way and we ate this here and we ate that there.”

One thing that all his family homes had in common was carpets. Traditional handwoven Oriental rugs were so much part of the backdrop of his childhood that when he had to choose a focus for his high school advanced art project, he decided to draw them. More than a decade on, A Small Spark vs a Great Forest, Seife’s solo exhibition at Unit Gallery in London, demonstrates a unique contemporary reinvention of the art and aesthetics of traditional carpets.

"I fell in love with art at a very young age, when I was in elementary school," says Seife. But it was only after a stint as a touring musician and a spell working as a graphic designer, creating merchandise and cover art for hip-hop artists, including Nicki Minaj, Mac Miller, Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, that he began to pursue his childhood dream of being an artist.

Still drawn to the carpets that had captured his imagination in high school, he began to paint them in 2013. Having read as much as he could about the art and methodology of traditional carpet weaving, he travelled to Morocco, Turkey, Iran and Syria to meet the people who make them.

“Travelling and being able to see it more directly from the source was very important to understand why things are made a certain way, for me to then be able to go and bend and break the rules,” he says. “I always knew that I wanted to do my own take on this. I’m not going to be a carpet designer – there’s nothing I can bring to the table that these amazing master designers haven’t done. So what can I do to make this exciting for my generation and generations to come?”

A Small Spark vs a Great Forest is the answer to that question. The exhibition was due to open to the public last week, but remains closed because of the UK's coronavirus lockdown. It's now available to view online until Saturday, February 6.

The show contains a mixture of paintings on canvas and on cement, all inspired by traditional carpet designs. Balancing figurative styles and abstraction in works on canvas and concrete that resemble carpets that have partially rotted away, Seife demonstrates an ability to transmute the traditional into the contemporary, challenging perceptions of an art form that is often overlooked or dismissed as the realm of artisans.

On a very basic, almost childlike, level, just the act of it becoming painted makes people understand that it is handmade and then that makes people see it differently

“The art form is often referred to in the region as handicrafts and I hate that word because it makes it seem so much like a novelty gift shop thing and it’s not, it’s extremely intricate and it’s probably more fine art than the finest art that you would see somewhere else,” he says. “So on a very basic, almost childlike, level, just the act of it becoming painted makes people understand that it is handmade and then that makes people see it differently.”

Seife laments that the ancient art of hand weaving carpets is dying as machine-made alternatives proliferate. In Isfahan, Iran, he says, he met a blind woman who weaves carpets from memory. But these skills, passed down through generations, are in danger of disappearing. "What happens 20 or 30 years from now when these people are no longer around?" he says. "You're only going to see this in museums?"

Seife takes a thoroughly contemporary approach to his own paintings, combining traditional techniques with modern technology. He begins by sketching a quarter outline of his design, just as weavers create carpet maps, then transforms the sketch into a digital rendering that is mirrored four ways. The digital images become references for his paintings, which are executed entirely by hand, a process that can take up to three months.

His work riffs on traditional motifs and patterns, combining and reinventing them to create original designs. Several of his large-scale works on concrete incorporate Byzantine and Islamic architectural motifs from churches, mosques and museums in Syria and Iran. The tying together of diverse cultural, religious and geographic influences, Seife says, echoes his journey to understanding his own hybrid identity.

Three main strands run through his exhibition. Paintings such as Up from a Dream and Stare at the Sun pair the artist's painstaking, intricate patterns with the rough texture and solid weight of concrete. Seife uses wooden stamps to create irregular indents in the concrete, which he leaves unpainted, conveying the impression that areas of the painting have eroded or been eaten away.

“The concrete works were fully inspired by seeing the natural deterioration of certain mosques, especially in poorer cities in places like Shiraz where they don’t necessarily renovate,” says Seife. “I loved the ones that were more untouched. It was so intriguing to me to see how this kind of natural abstraction would occur.”

A series of works on canvas echo his fascination with erosion. The enormous Closer to You, which is more than three metres wide, overlays a deep inky blue backdrop with fragmented floral patterns like an intricate symmetrical archipelago. The idea to create works that convey a sense of deterioration or erosion was inspired by antique carpets in a museum in Istanbul.

"They had these really beautiful, extremely old carpets that had withered away over time," the artist recalls. "They have them hung up on a red or a black backdrop and you see this natural abstraction that made this super-ancient carpet look almost contemporary. It was almost like looking at a Gerhard Richter and I thought that was so cool, so those directly inspired these works … There's this negative space and it's almost two paintings in one, where it almost looks like a Rorschach image."

A third set of paintings take a more explicit approach to exploring the possibilities for symbiosis between digital art and traditional painting. Entitled Gradient I-V, the oil paintings are based on computer-generated images that resemble intricate reliefs, inspired by mouldings in Damascus. Seife worked with a 3D designer to make digital renderings that he then copied by hand, paying close attention to shading and light, and creating flat paintings that look startlingly textured and sculptural.

“The idea is as things move more and more to tech-based and machine-made, how can we use machines or computers to take our work to somewhere it couldn’t go before, as opposed to just making it faster?” he says. “To create a rendering of a sculpture at this precision, with the lighting and everything being so perfect – I wouldn’t be able to just do that from my head. I would need a computer to render that. So I use that as something that can push me further.

"It's also part of something else I try to explore, which is, how do you take this art form what's been seen for centuries and make it completely new again?"

Jason Seife’s A Small Spark vs a Great Forest can be viewed online at until Saturday, February 6