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  • Nia Alexander Campbell

Designing Lamps in Marrakech


What You’ll Find in This Post:

  • My experience participating a brass lamp making workshop

  • The circumstances that defined this experience

  • Many photos of lamps


Lamps in the workshop

The whole reason I was in Marrakech was to participate in a brass lamp making workshop with my MFA program. So, that is what this post is about: What we did, where we did it, and what the experience was like. Let’s start at the beginning…

Marrakech was actually our Plan B

The artisans’ workshop

At the time, doing a workshop outside the country was part of a specific class that all MFA students and faculty participated in. In this class we designed “soundscapes,” a collection of sounds that represent Qatar housed within aluminum lids. The last part of the class was to cast our lids at OK Foundry in Richmond, Virginia, USA.

However, the trip to Richmond got cancelled because – long story short – not everyone could get a visa to the grand ‘ol U-S-of-A. Actually, some people couldn’t get a visa to Morocco either, but at that point Marrakech, Morocco was kind of our only option.

Déjà vu

The front of the art center we worked at

I thought it was funny that whether we had gone to Richmond or Marrakech, it’d be a city I had been to before. Once arriving in Marrakech, though, I realized the how deep the déjà vu really ran.

The workshop was held at an arts center I had visited the last time I was in Marrakech and it was led (in part) by a man I had met the last time too. This man was originally introduced to me in 2017 as a random guy who led our class to a random boutique in the medina and failed (twice) to go through with a date with one of the students. This time around I learned that he was an incredibly talented designer by the name of Volmar Manuel.

When it comes to the workshop location itself, we worked at an arts center called Centre de Formation et de Qualification dans les Metiers de L’artisanat. Here artisans train in traditional Moroccan craft and, wow, their talent is out of this world. The last time I was here we just took a brief tour, but this time we really got to go into the workshops and see more of the process for creating things like lamps, ouds, leather, ceramics, plaster carving, and wood working. I didn’t realize I had been here before until I entered the building because the first time I visited I didn’t know the name of the place, and this time around no one else could tell me what the name of it was.

The courtyard of the Centre de Formation et de Qualification dans les Metiers de L’artisanat

There is one thing that I feel I have to talk about, though. I don’t mean to cast a bad light on the arts center, but I want to prepare potential visitors.

The bathrooms.

They were gnarly compared to what most of us are used to in the United States, though not necessarily uncommon around Morocco. There were no hoses, no toilet paper, no soap, no hot water, and they were dimly lit. Sometimes the sinks didn’t drain, often the toilets didn’t flush, and some of the stall doors didn’t have handles on the inside, which made it easy to get stuck. However, most of these descriptions apply to what was later revealed to be the men’s room; the women’s restroom was essentially around a few corners, further away from the workshop area. Many of us didn’t even know there were gendered restrooms at the center because 1) All the signs were in Arabic with no imagery and 2) We were directed toward the men’s restroom. There was also a slightly cleaner bathroom upstairs that some students got to use, but it is only accessible with a key because I think it’s meant for staff only.

To me, all this boils down to language barriers – as opposed to malice or disregard – but I thought it was still important to note because of the way it effected students. Me, I was alright for the most part; at this point in my life I am a master of keeping my cool and being strategic in my navigation of disgusting restrooms. Other students, however, were refusing to eat or drink so that they wouldn’t have to enter the restrooms. To add, some of the Muslim students expressed that their avoidance of gross bathrooms goes beyond being boujie and dips into the important role of cleanliness in Islam.

Also, perhaps it is worth mentioning that the workshop was really cold on some of those November days because many doors are left open and the heating wasn’t turned on (if there was a heating system at all).

Please don’t let all these things deter you from visiting this place, though! It is a great spot to experience and I highly recommend it for group trips, art trips, study abroad trips, and even solo explorers too. The people that run this place and the artisans to work here are passionate about what they do and seem very welcoming of guests. You can see their contact information in the photo below.

Brochure for the Centre de Formation et de Qualification dans les Metiers de L’artisanat

What did we do?

The (awesome) lecture

1. We sat through a lecture by a vibrant, passionate, and talented master lamp designer.

Some of our lamp sketches

2. We designed our lamps on paper

This surprised some of the students because it was assumed we’d be adhering to one of the lamp designs we had been sent in an email prior, but as it turned out, we had the freedom to design whatever we want. But then, the leaders of the workshop thought we would already have our lamps designed prior to arriving, which further highlights the general skips in communication we were all experiencing.

I had an uninspiring time designing my lamp simply because coming up with a meaningful concept and achievable construct with an unfamiliar material is challenging when you’ve only got an hour or two to crank it out.

Some of the lamps our group designed

3. We made the lamp…kind of.

Us students spent a lot of time waiting, watching and, honestly, doing nothing, sometimes for an entire workday. There were about four artisans, one advisor, and thirteen of us total, which meant that there just weren’t enough people or tools or translators to get everything done at a steady pace. In fact, we were told that we may not get everything done by the time we left the country. Personally, I was frustrated because it felt like I was going through this design process without knowing the next step.

The results of me fiddling with leftover brass scraps

Many of the students were surprised to learn that we weren’t actually going to make the brass lamps ourselves (and some of the instructors were surprised that we were surprised). I think we, as students, were thrown off by the example videos of prior trips we’d been shown that displayed very labor intensive activities on the part of the students. Some students did get to do a few things like cut, saw, and glue, though.

But then, something else that may have thrown off the work process is that the artisans were not expecting the faculty to be designing lamps as well and they had other projects to work on apart from the lamps for our group.

The artisans and some of their work

I also feel I should mention that there was one lamp design that the artisans were uncomfortable creating. This design included a quote from the Quran and, essentially, the object fell into the centuries-long debate over whether holy script should be placed on objects. To oversimplify the issue, on one side are people who believe the ornamentation is a way to honor God while others believe putting sacred text on an object runs the risk of disrespecting God (i.e. if you were to put holy text in a bathroom or on a door mat). Ultimately, the student had to change their lamp design, which was doubly frustrating as the artisans had already cut the metal pieces before realizing they were uncomfortable finishing the lamp. However, this student later received a gift from that master lamp designer I mentioned earlier, a beautiful lamp with holy script carved into it.

The process of creating my lamp

I essentially designed a wall sconce, a thing that I had forever been calling a “wall scone” up until this point. I appreciate the lamp I designed because it is unique, but a part of me does wish I had designed something different, something more meaningful to me as both a designer and a person. This is not to say that I dislike my lamp, though; I think it’s cool and had plans to install lights on it over the summer, but alas, Corona had different plans. Ultimately, all our lamps got created – and some even got wired – though some designs had to be tweaked to make it more feasible and at least one had to be shipped to its designer after we left.

The master artisan’s showroom

4. We visited the showroom of the master lamp craftsman

At the end of the workshop, we all visited the showroom of the lamp artisan who had given us the lecture earlier that week. The work on display was gorgeous, but dang it, I can’t remember the man’s name! Our itinerary he is just referred to as “craftsman.” However, he has designed and created some phenomenal work and he is known around the country, if not the world. The craftsman also looked at some of the lamps we designed and praised us for the work that had been done. We also received handmade journals as gifts from the leaders of the workshop.

The handmade journal we all received

Alright, I know I have pointed out a few things that make the workshop experience sound kind of meh, but believe me when I say it was a wonderful experience that I am so grateful to have had. Keep in mind that this trip was put together at the last minute compared to the planning that had gone into the original Richmond trip. Because of this, I can forgive the stumbles in communication and planning, especially because it would have been so easy for the program to just cancel the trip entirely or take the L and say “too bad, so sad” to the students unable to attend the original trip. The MFA program really gets a gold star for pulling this trip off with only a few hiccups.


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