Morocco. One needs only pronouncing these syllables for faces to transform in awe. Navigating the “Western” perception of this place entails inevitable walks through windy imaginations of souk streets, intoxicating stories of food, spices, smells, light “quality”, dark humid public baths, black soap and how much skin can be left on site. I am always touched by these stories, don’t get me wrong. I know they are all true, so true, I forget how this place really feels like. Lost between tourism industry lures and alarmist views of Arabs, I yearn to go back to my 16 year old self, before moving to Europe, before 9/11, and see what she would see.
Hospitality. Many French painters and writers travelled across the Mediterranean to spend time in Morocco, searching for inspiration, trying to capture “its light”. From Eugene Delacroix (see below) to Matisse and Majorelle, they all ran down south painting “Moroccans”.
Matisse, was known to travel to Morocco whenever he was faced with a creative blockage. He made “The Moroccans” in two trips he undertook in 1915 and 1916. In this painting Matisse summarizes for the viewer (in three bullet points) what they need to know about Morocco. Pious men in mosques, flowers on balconies and vegetables. The black painted background, reflecting perhaps his ignorance of the rest, connects the three elements, all supposedly captured from “the terrace of the little cafe of the Casbah” (Henri Matisse, The Moroccans, MOMA.org), another very Moroccan term. Tracking this style of painting is very important, as it will freeze the future imaginations of Morocco. Muslim cultures commonly believed not to allow depictions of humans, the French take it upon themselves to document daily life moments. Self-elected cultural translators, they set the Moroccans up for the task. Deliver on these imagined expectations.
Matisse, The Moroccans, 1912-1913
Human. When I first came across John Currin’s painting the Moroccan, I was immediately offended: What is this fish on our heads?! I thought to myself. What an insulting image. First, I thought it was a fisherman, but when I read more about it, I was surprised to find out this was a woman and this is how J. Currin treats most female subjects in his work, earning strong feminist critiques (Peter Schjeldahl, Irresistible, newyorker.com). Ironically, and although I stand with most feminists, I feel joy at a non-exotifying image of a Moroccan woman. She, is not young, not veiled, not sensual, not naked and not dark haired/eyed. In fact, she is almost androgynous, something we never imagine Moroccan women to be.
The Moroccan, John Currin, 2004
Own eyes. Morocco saw a blossoming of arts since the passing of King Hassan II. The “new” King (coronated 20 years ago) is supportive of artists in general. Galleries, museums and festivals are everywhere. With it an urge to redefine ourselves, our identity, leaving behind the colonial gaze and harmful loyalties to white and middle eastern people. My first thought goes to painter Hassan El Glaoui, propelled and trained by Churchill during his stays in Morocco. El Glaoui learnt to see like his protector (Touria El Glaoui was speaking, Churchill’s Moroccan Artist Protege, Hassan El Glaoui, BBC.com). Thankfully, restricting himself to horses and Fantasia (Moroccan horse racing folklore) made him the royal family’s favourite painter and with that dismissible by the general population. My second thought goes to painter Chaibia Talal, an illiterate woman snatched by European enthusiasts who exhibited her work in France, Denmark, Spain, Germany and Morocco (Wikipedia.com). Chaibia was a truly beloved figure of the Moroccan people, but her tokenization by Europeans and King Hassan II’s dictatorship did not allow her to fully explore a post-colonial female Moroccanity. The new wave is something else however, highly skilled artists like Yasmine Hadni (see below) from renowned Moroccan or other schools, claim back the Moroccan figure (Au Maroc, La Figuration Revient En Force, diptykmag.com), meet each other in international exhibitions and rewrite the narratives of their diverse identities, seeking no validation from the colonizer, the King nor religion.
I think my 16 year old self recognizes something there.