Friday, December 28, 2012

Morocco: Tile Workshop

While in the city of Fes, we had the wonderful opportunity to tour and draw at the Moroccan architectural decoration workshop of Arabesque (Moresque). While at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I noticed the brand name in the videos of the construction of the new, very beautiful Moroccan court in their Islamic Art wing. I contacted Arabesque, the creators of the court, and they welcomed us to come and draw in their workshop for a day.

The factory was in the Ville Nouvelle, the modern city outside the medieval medina. It was a sprawling three floor establishment, with the dozen or so zellij tile workers huddled together in one small dusty corner on the first floor.

 The other floors housed incredible in-progress display rooms that were created using modern designs and techniques as well as replicating each individual period of Islamic decoration with perfect attention to detail. The colors, glazes, patterns, and shapes were created using the original period-specific methods. The detail, precision, and beauty were incredible to see. All of the carved plaster, stained glass, intricately painted wood, and zellij tile were all created by the master craftsmen there.


I spent most of my day watching the workers on the first floor, listening to the repetitive tinkling of the chisels on tile. The incredible amount of work involved in creating just one tiny tile is awe-inspiring when you consider the scope of an entire wall. Each shape must be traced out onto the tile in a white paste, and then every extra piece chiseled away to perfection. The glazed ceramic tiles are held against a cinder-block and tapped precisely and delicately with a surprisingly hefty chisel until it has been chipped into the specific shape to fit into the overall design.

Each man had a specific task. One would draw the design onto a tile; some would chisel the raw tiles into large squares;

 some chiseled the squares into smaller pieces; 

 some chiseled them into even more intricate pieces;


some stopped to sharpen their chisels;

some stenciled designs on tiles and chiseled away scrolling pieces of a larger pattern;

and all together they worked like pieces of a machine to create beautiful, mind-boggling work.

It was a wonderful experience to be able to spend the day there, and to see the whole process. Many thanks to Adil M. Naji, the President and CEO of Moresque/Arabesque, for agreeing to have us come and for his wonderful hospitality, and to all of the craftsmen for their warmth, kindness and willingness to let me impose on their work.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Morocco: Children

While we were in Marrakech there were a few times when kids would come by and watch us draw. One little boy found us near the Koutoubia, and helped make the drawing above. He even drew our portraits! I'm the monkey, and Chris is the one next to the cube with the big ears.

The next week, after coming back from Essaouira, we saw him again and he sat down to draw with me. Chris gave him a sheet of paper, and soon more and more kids crowded around. Chris gave them each a sheet of paper, and they were so excited to draw and play around with my pastels.

Last week, Dalvero Academy had an open house, and many of the artists brought their kids to draw as well. Looking around, it was amazing to see how much their drawings looked like the Moroccan kids' drawings. The same set up, but minus the minaret or a Moroccan flag in the background. It is the same joy, love, and play that kids have no matter where they are born.

My thoughts are with those children and parents in Newtown, Connecticut this week. I grew up in the neighborhood where the Columbine tragedy happened in 1999, and I can still only imagine what the community there is going through. My hope is that the children from that school who survived will still find the same joy, love, and play, and will find a way to heal and still be kids.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Morocco: Jemaa el-Fna and the Halqa

 As we headed back to Marrakech, there was one more thing I wanted to find. I had read books about the storytellers of Marrakech, and how this thousand year old tradition was not too slowly fading away. These men turn storytelling into a public art, with a catalog of hundreds of tales to choose from, stored away in their minds, each one shifting and growing depending on their audience. In 2006 it is said that there were less than a dozen storytellers left in Marrakech, and they often getting older with no apprentices. In Marrakech, their stage is The Big Square, Jemaa el-Fna. Here western tourists and Moroccan tourists alike come to see this flurry of energy full of hissing cobras and snake charmers, horse-drawn carriages, apes on chain leashes, water-sellers in flamboyant costumes, and pushy throngs of women doing henna tattoos.


At night, the square transforms. As the sun sets behind the Koutoubia minaret, the center of the square unfolds into a series of temporary restaurants with loud auctioneers competing for the attention of the hoards of tourists and locals that flock there at night. Where snake charmers sat before, musicians and performers take their place, and I was hoping, maybe a storyteller.

Smoke from the open flames of the grills fills the air.

We searched all over the square for several nights, behind every orange juice stand and date seller, and on every hidden corner we could find, but we couldn't find a single storyteller. Perhaps we weren't looking for the right things to find them, or perhaps they weren't there that night. What we did find, though, was the lifeblood of the storyteller, the halqa. A halqa is the circle of people that forms around the storyteller (or halaiqi) and other performers.

After standing on the edge of a circle of people surrounding some musicians and drawing, they eventually pulled us into the center. Although I couldn't understand the stories he was telling, or the words to the music, I began to feel a part of the halqa. They laughed at my portraits of them, and gave Chris and I some Berber whiskey (mint tea).

We may not have been able to find one of the storytellers, but the feeling of the halqa is one I won't forget. It's a spontaneous connection with people, and you can feel the energy of it and how it feeds both the performers and the audience.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Morocco: On the bus

The bus rides between cities often showed as much about the country as the cities themselves. Groves of olive trees stretched for miles across endless landscapes as men rode by the roadside on donkeys (or in trucks full of donkeys).

While waiting in one of the bus depots with a gaggle of European and Moroccan tourists, we fell in love with a tiny stray kitten (of which Morocco has no shortage) who we named Bertouche (after his American cat uncle Bert). He wandered around the cafe outside mewing and squeaking for food (we gave him some chicken on our way out) and then nestled into a flower pot for a nap.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Morocco: The Fishing Port

After a few days in Marrakech, Chris and I took a short trip to the seaside town of Essaouira. Swirling with seagulls, the beautiful 18th century is famous for its ramparts upon which Orson Welles shot his "Othello". The city, with its French, English, and Italian built architecture, feels both very European, Moroccan, and African all at once. The people felt more conservative than in Marrakech, in both dress and attitude towards the swarms of tourists trying to take their picture.

Usually I have not encountered the same resistance from people towards drawing as I have seen towards photography. With drawing, you are in a more vulnerable position since you have to wait and finish, so it feels less predatory and more reciprocal to me than photography. But in Essaouira, the people in general felt very hostile towards it, and one man was furious and ripped up the drawing I had done of him.

The only place this was not true, was in the fishing docks where everyone was very friendly, and interested in what I was doing. As an international port, the center of the city is the fishing dock where fishermen go out in bright blue fishing boats all through the day and bring back their fresh catches to sell on the docks and into the medina.

Early in the morning, the men prepare their boats and repair their nets to go out to sea.

Men wait as the fishermen bring in the latest catch.
Men and women along the docks wait to sell fish, rays, sharks, eels, lobsters, crabs, and any other type of sea creature you can think of.

Also at the fishing docks is the shipyard where a dozen ships are put up on dry-dock for repairs.

After drawing so long at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, it was wonderful to be able to see a completely different type of shipyard.  Here the men were repairing a sardine boat, with ribs exposed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Animation Screening with African Film Festival Inc.

My animation "Roots" was screened last night at Maysles Cinema in a program put together by African Film Festival Inc. and the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute as a part of their fall film series "Untold Stories From Africa & The Diaspora".

Based on the history of the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan, this animated short explores the ritual of coffins and burial as an unbreakable connection between the Africans brought to America as slaves and those who stayed behind in West Africa.

Very exciting to see it presented for the first time!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Morocco: The Red City

Our trip began with Marrakech, The Red City. Surrounded by African desert and thick red walls, Marrakech was more foreign even in the approach from the airport than I had been expecting. Because Morocco is so diverse and so close to Europe, I had begun to think before leaving that it would be more like a trip to a European country than an African one, but Marrakech quickly shattered that idea.

In a country as foreign as Morocco, it can often be difficult to break down the barrier between tourist and local: you don't want to be seen as another tourist, and they don't want to be seen as an exotic native. Being blonde and white makes me visible to every salesman from halfway across Morocco, so every person on the street is competing to try to sell something by the time I get there. It's often an overwhelming experience, and one that made us shut down a few times just from the stress of finding a restaurant.

I think that drawing on location often offers a unique experience to be able to interact with people in a different way. Because you are doing something new and exiting, people often drop their usual tourist routine and both groups let down their guard a little. While wandering around in the medina, Chris and I came upon a neighborhood that was completely residential, with not a tourist in sight, but still bustling with people. The walls of the quarter had been freshly washed with "Marrakech Red", and bright red and green flags hung from every building.

As we started to draw, people would smile as they passed, which was very reassuring in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Soon a gaggle of kids began to crowd around us, hopping up to see the drawings and asking to have each one of their portraits drawn. Some men and women came by to peek as well, and one man even shooed some of the kids away to help when he thought they were getting too boisterous. It is one of my fondest memories from Morocco because when you can engage with people on a personal level, where the differences aren't so great, it makes you feel more at home.

We stayed and drew there until sundown, under the latticed roof of the tiny maze-like alleyways, watching people and mopeds pass by, and kittens scamper down the dusty streets and across the rooftops.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Morocco: The Eid

I'm back from a wonderful and intense trip to Morocco, and to start off I thought I'd post some drawings I did of the preparation for the Eid al-Adha which took place this Friday (Eid Mubarak!). The Eid is a major Islamic holiday that celebrates the story of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son to God. In response to Abraham and his son Ishmael's willingness, he gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice in his son's place, and so Muslim people sacrifice an animal for their family as a celebration and remembrance of that sacrifice.

All throughout the trip we saw little glimmers of the coming holy day's approach: On bus rides we passed shepherds tending their flocks by the side of the road and trucks full of sheep being shuttled to town, and shopkeepers were more willing to give a good price to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed tourist to get a little extra money to buy a sheep. By the time we reached Fes near the end of our trip, the preparations were in full swing.

Outside the medina, sheep grazed in a nearby stable, chomping away and stumbling into each other, oblivious to their impending fate.

Families came to look at the sheep, and sometimes to select one for purchase.

Then came the parade of sheep down the tiny, maze-like alleyways of the medina. Sometimes they were rolled down the streets in carts, but often men picked up the hind legs and wheelbarrow-ed unruly rams down the hill, while children laughed and pulled their tails.

It was exciting to be able to see a part of Moroccan culture that tourists are not really a part of. The Moroccan/Tourist barrier sort of broke down when people talked about the Eid, and I got more of a feeling of what people were like outside the tourist industry. Little kids were just as excited to see the sheep as I was, and sat around watching me draw in the stable. Although the traditions and symbolism are different, the energy felt very much like the approach to Christmas with people shopping for last minute gifts, picking out the perfect Christmas tree, and the buzzing excitement of the coming celebration with family.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Today I leave for Morocco, and it will be three weeks of new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. There will be a lot of drawing to come, but first here is a thumbnail I did imagining our camel ride through the Sahara.

'Till I return!