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.