Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A bizarre and beautiful journey

Rania Khallaf shares her experience in Marrakech

A bizarre and beautiful journey
A bizarre and beautiful journey
Al-Ahram Weekly

Artists from different countries flocked to Marrakech last week to participate in the third round of the Marrakech International Forum for Visual Arts (23-27 March), on the theme of “women and transformation legends”. Organised by the Syrian theatre director Akram Al Youcef, who lives in Morocco, and the cultural activist Nadia Lkhalifi, the chairwoman of the Morocco Creativity and Civilisations Association (MCCA), the event opened with a group exhibition by Moroccan artists, “Compositions of Colours and Letters”, and a play by a young Moroccan theatre troupe, Worrisome Clothes.

Sadly my dream of visiting Morocco to do art – in the company of the Egyptian-Canadian artist Wagih Yassa, what is more – was not fully realised. Our train trip from Casablanca, where we landed, took almost eight hours by train. We had to change trains, too, and lugging the baggage on and off through the uncomfortable journey was unpleasant. By the time we arrived at the Amani Hotel at 8.30 pm the opening was over.

The first day of the workshop was compensation enough. In the morning we boarded a small bus along with visiting artists from Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Italy and Kurdistan as well as young artists from different parts of Morocco, and like a model Arab League we proceeded past architecture in every shade of red imaginable framed against the green and blue of the surrounding countryside, Marrakech being the famed Red City, to Dar Zagora or Zagora Studios, named after the desert village where the owner and director, the celebrated artist Rachid Rafik, was born.

At the open-air space, open to for artists’ residencies throughout the year and receiving some 20 visitors every month, we were welcomed by Rafik, who treated us to small glasses of mint green tea before the workshop started.

Using a graphite pencil on a large board, he commenced by drawing abstract figures of women. They were full of life, their opulent curves denoting the coming of the spring. Just as the artists started to work on their canvases, however, it started raining. Some of us resorted to the closed rooms, others took shelter in the corridors.

The sun playing hide and seek with us, the place was freezing but still pleasant with the music in the background and our readiness to move about, even dance to warm up. Lunch was tajine and hot bread, an unforgettable feast.

Born in 1976, Rafik embarked on his career when, at the age of 11, he met a French woman who taught him to paint at her private studio. He studied economics as well as fine art, graduating in 2000. Rafik uses natural materials including soil, pomegranate crust and kohl to paint the female body, particularly nudes.

“There is too much suppression related to our awareness of female bodies in the Arab culture,” he told me, “and this is no longer acceptable.” Rafik feels he has more freedom with subject matter than older generations of Moroccan artists, and to him this is a major achievement though, as he puts it, “The taboos of religion and politics have not yet been completely broken.”

While Otman Douay, a young artist from Tangier who started painting in acrylic on canvas 10 years ago, focused on abstraction and calligraphy — “I believe that viewers should seek out the hidden implications implanted in my paintings,” he says — Samira Aitelmolem from Agadir painted a globe symbolising women.

“The body,” she explained, “has always been my theme, not in its physical aspect, but as a vessel for the soul. The material world that we live in is driving us to be like machines. I am trying to give more value to the human body. Its joy, sadness, weakness and power should be illustrated.” Aitelmolem studied at a fine art college in Marrakech for five years, and she always works with her hands, refusing to let the brush come between her and the surface. She employs sand and other media in addition to paint for various purposes. “People might think there is a kind of contradiction between my naked figures and the scarf I put on my head,” she commented. “I don’t care.”

The Tunisian artist Fatma Hajji’s nine-minute performance, Birth — Hajji had participated in the Hurghada Symposium with a variation on the same work, called Penetration, in 2014 — was an interesting topic of discussion.

In the performance, Hajji is imprisoned in a box made of 170-cm high canvases. Inside, there is a narrow space and limited time for Hajji to paint on all four large canvases, which is the task she sets herself. “The nine minutes’ duration resembles the nine months of pregnancy,” she explained. When she is done Hajji emerges covered in paint, while the paintings inside remain a record of her psyche. Penetration was also presented in a women’s prison in the Tunis, where the cube was all red. “It was one of the great performances, as I was influenced by the suffering of female prisoners and the bad conditions there,” she said.

Hajji teaches art in Tunis, and her feeling is that the new generation of artists in Tunisia take the topic of the woman’s body lightly. “There is an increasing number of masters students who are interested in focusing on the female body in their projects, but they are stereotypical and superficial ones.”

Following these discussions, at 4 pm we moved onto Lalla Takerkoust, a scenic place overlooking a lake outside Marrakech. The gathering featured the Kurdish-French visual artist Dilshad Questini entertaining us with Kurdish songs.

Born in Kirkuk in 1957, Questini emigrated in the mid-1990s. His first solo exhibition, which took place in Greece in 1995, demonstrated a fascination with the Kurdistani landscape in beautiful abstract form that stresses the play of light and dark tones. His father being a singer, Questini is equally interested in Kurdish music and poetry but, unlike poetry which is seldom translated to Arabic or English, Kurdish art has transcended boundaries. “My life as a Kurdish artist has had a great influence on my paintings,” he says. “I express loneliness, longing for my homeland, love and joy.”

Bad weather the next day prevented our visit to the natural reserve of Terre d’Amanar on the Atlas Mountains, where we were supposed to paint in the open air. It was a profound disappointment. With Yassa and Fatima Boamani, a beautiful Moroccan actress, I used the free time to tour the famed Jemaa El Fna, the outdoor traditional gathering point famed for street performances and grassroots cuisine. It felt like walking around the alleyways of Islamic Cairo and I was not impressed, but a delicious dinner with live music at Jnane Leila made up for it.

***

“Despite huge progress in communication, dialogue among cultures is under serious threat,” Al Youcef, director of the MCCA, said in the inaugural speech . “Artists alone are the backbone of the common human and cultural civilisation. Our mission is to fight side by side through art against ugliness, hatred and destruction, which are supposedly spread under the cover of politics, religion or race.”

Lkhalifi later recounted, “When Al Youcef and I first started establishing the Moroccan Association for Creativity and Civilisation, it was as if we were living in a dream, the dream that this association would become a home for artists from different parts of the world, where they would gather to exchange their experiences and stories. Now, here we are living the dream together.”

“With the help of Moroccan and foreign intellectuals we have managed to survive for the third round,” Al-Youcef told me, adding that the institution now has official recognition as a centre for dialogue among cultures. “I have studied the Amazigh culture in the Atlas Mountains quite seriously, and I found out that they are the origin of all history. There are interesting myths relating to Berber women, amazing stories of people who lived in caves. I thought it would be interesting for artists to figure out these symbols.”

Another aspect of the forum that is important for Al-Youcef is its multidisciplinary approach, gathering together theatre, poetry, and visual arts. “I am interested in attracting more small theatre troupes to our forum in future rounds,” he said, citing Wamda, a Syrian band that performs in sites of destruction, and Jamih, a theatre foundation affiliated with the centre.

“We have received initial approvals from Spanish, Venezuelan and Iraqi universities to support the centre through different means,” he smiled. “The best is yet to come.”

The closing ceremony included poetry readings by Ibtessam Hosni and Zainab Al-Tahiry from Morocco as well as myself (I also got to sign copies of my new collection), a Moroccan fashion show by Eman Al-Malky and the honouring  of several artists including Yassa and “spot drawing” by Corrado La Mattina, a young artist from Italy.

The next round, Al-Youcef announced, will take place in the southern city of Agadir.

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