by Elisabeth Korinth

The art of the ‘Ajami craft is based on complex processes in which colours and other materials are applied layer by layer to the wooden panels. The artists play with matt and shiny surfaces, raised motifs and shades to bring the work of art to life, while keeping a steady hand. In order to professionalize the ‘Ajami craft, a budding artist must learn the craft with its individual steps from A to Z. The making of an ‘Ajami decoration can be divided into different work processes, although the technique and materials used have changed over time. Restorator Dr. Anke Scharrahs was able to document a large part of the traditional working processes on the basis of her decades of researching historical decorated wooden panels from Syria. The Interactive Heritage Map of Syria project complemented this knowledge by documenting the knowledge of Syrian craftsmen and craftswomen working with this craft today.

Click through the picture gallery to get to know the individual working processes of ‘Ajami from A to Z:

Crafting ‘Ajami decorations

Rooms decorated with ‘Ajami originally consisted of a series of framed wooden panels that covered the walls and ceiling, and integrated doors, windows and cabinets into their design. Usually poplar, cedar, cypress or walnut wood was used as paneling. Some wood types varied in a given individual room. In Damascus, for example, ceiling panels and frames were often made of poplar, while doors and shutters were made of a harder wood, such as walnut. In Aleppo, cedar and walnut was most often used. Gaps between the individual panels were often filled with organic material. (Photo: © Anke Scharrahs)

Preparation of wood

Wood panels were typically held together with adhesives from vegetable fibers, animal glue or simply nails. Sometimes panels were covered with cloth in order to conceal the joins or cover nails. For example, in the al-‘Azm palace in Hama, paper was used as a base to hide nails and transitions. Before applying the ornaments, the wooden panels were typically primed and elaborately processed with different tools and materials, and primed. The wood surface was usually individually prepared depending on the different requirements of the subsequent decorations and paintings. Commonly, a mixture of unburnt gypsum and animal glue was used as a primer (gesso). Sometimes, primers were created with indigo, minium (red lead) or orpiment, which resulted in light blue, orange or yellow shades. In some cases, as in the Aleppo Room in Berlin, tin foil was directly applied to a few panels using a sticky resin layer. In Bayt al-Hawraniya in Damascus the ‘Ajami decoration was applied to some wood panels before the tin decoration. Today, however, the wooden panels are often replaced by MDF (fibreboard), as the material is cheaper and easier to use. (Photo: © Mohammad Haj Qab, CC-BY-NC-ND)

Pre-Drawing: Patterns for the ‘Ajami decoration

Before the decoration and painting of the wooden panels, stencils were used to create a template. A paper sheet with punched-out holes that was was laid over the primed wooden layer. Then, a small textile bag filled with charcoal powder was patted over the stencil, transferring the outlines of the ‘Ajami to the primed layer. Individual ornaments outside of the regular pattern were drawn free-hand. (Photo: © Ziad Baydoun from Baydoun Creation, CC-BY-NC-ND)

The relief application

Following the ornaments´sketch, the ‘Ajami decoration was then applied as a raised motif. Here, the correct composition of the relief decoration paste (Nabāti) played a crucial role. Only the right amount of water, glue and plaster – a viscous mixture of unbaked gypsum and animal glue – would lead to the desired relief. Incorrect composition would otherwise cause the paste to sink, leaving a porous layer. Today, artisans mostly use a mixture of acrylic binders, chalk, gypsum and zinc white. (Photo: © Ziad Baydoun from Baydoun Creation, CC-BY-NC-ND)

The Making of the Nabātī

The composition of the relief paste (Najēne ‘Ajami or Nabāti in Arabic) is often an especially strictly guarded secret. The master himself usually mixes the paste. Many myths and rumors surround the making of the relief paste. Add a little sugar…add a little tea. Some believe the secret lies in mixing the colours with bare hands, arguing that the human skin contains enzymes that accelerate chemical reactions in the paint, which makes a vital contribution to its quality – a hypothesis that has never been confirmed by scientific research, but nonetheless adds an an aura of mystery to the craft. (Photo: © Ziad Baydoun from Baydoun Creation, CC-BY-NC-ND)

Application of metal foil

After the relief layers have dried, metal foil (normally gold leaf or tin foil) was applied to certain areas or on the entire surface with the help of binders. From the 18th century onwards, copper alloy leaf became increasingly popular to use. The choice of binder was also dependent on the type of material that was applied to the underlying paste. For example, the underlying raised motifs were moistened before applying the gold leaves. Today, the foil is often replaced with bronze paint. (Photo: © Anke Scharrahs)

Colouring of ornaments

Next, various areas of the metal layer were polished and painted with a tinted glaze, starting with the larger surfaces and then continuing to the smaller ornaments. The glaze used to be made of colored natural resin. This not only improved the appearance, but in some cases protected particular surfaces, like brass, from corrosion. Non-glazed areas can be clearly recognized by a change in the color of the metal. Today, modern colours are used to paint the surface. (Photo: © Anke Scharrahs)

Painting between the relief

Areas not highlighted as part of the relief were richly painted. The most popular motifs were recurring floral and geometric shapes as well as flower bouquets and fruit bowls. The pigments used included lead white, orpiment, vermillion, lapis lazuli, verdigris and carbon black, as well as organic dyes like kermes, indigo, cochineal, and aloe. However, how the binders and colours were made is undocumented. An important part of the knowledge of the 17th and 18th century painting has thus been lost, except of the colour components that could be identified through scientific analysis. (© Dresden State Art Collections, Dresden Museum for Ethnology, photo: Anke Scharrahs)

Final touch

The rich ornaments are then outlined in black or other colours and individual flowers are shaded. The outlines and the shadowing of the various ornaments importantly illustrate the shape and condition of a motif´s surface. As a result, the painting not only forms a picture but has a spatial dimension to it. (© Dresden State Art Collections, Dresden Museum for Ethnology, photo: Anke Scharrahs)

‘Ajami work as a living organism

An ‘Ajami artwork must be considered as a living organism, as the wood and the colours continuously react to their environment. This knowledge and the harmonization of the individual components with the laws of nature were essential for the quality of the work, especially in historic times. The correct composition of the colour, for example, depends on the season and the humidity of the place where it is made. As a living material, wood cracks and expands depending on the weather. New material such as MDF (fibreboard) has helped to make the practise of the craft easier with its soft surface. However, much of the knowledge and original aspects of practising this craft has fallen into oblivion over the centuries. (Photo: © Stefan Weber)

Raising awareness about the importance of safeguarding traditional handcrafts not only includes fostering the practise of a craft itself but further requires the involvement of other disciplines related to the safeguarding of the historical material heritage such as the field of restoration. Furthermore, there is a need of comprehensive research that is able to unveil historical trails of a craft in order to better understand their development over time and their interpretation in present days. Anke Scharrahs has dedicated her professional career to the conservation and research of polychrome decorated wooden interior work. It is due to her comprehensive research, amongst others, that the work stages of the production of the polychrome decorated panels in historical times can be understood today. 

Read other articles and interviews from the series ‘Ajami:

العجمي من الألف إلى الياء
العجمي من الألف إلى الياء
العجمي من الألف إلى الياء
العجمي من الألف إلى الياء
العجمي من الألف إلى الياء
العجمي من الألف إلى الياء

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