- Nia Alexander Campbell
Extreme Arts & Crafts
(Potter in Fes)
As someone with 6 years art history classes stuffed into my brain, when I imagined travelling to experience art I always saw myself in Italy after a lengthy layover in France or Greece. Morocco, however, gave me an unexpected artistic experience that I believe I will cherish more than the day I finally get to see Mona Lisa or Donatello’s David. The trip, hosted by the School of the Arts, was naturally centered around Moroccan arts, crafts, and design. This resulted in visiting a variety of handicraft complexes, workshops, artisanal centers, and one art museum, each one offering something special for an artist. Heck, even if you’re not an artist seeing the artistic traditions of the country is a unique way to experience the culture.
I will admit, though, due to some hidden addresses, Arabic signage, and a surprisingly unhelpful itinerary, I didn’t know where exactly I was half the time. I’ve taken my best guesses though, and I hope they can serve as a starting point if you choose to have your own adventure.
Now, let me show you the kinds of art Morocco introduced me to.
Moroccan buttons are small knots made of thread. Yes, they are used as literal buttons, but also in necklaces, earrings, and decorative bits on tassels. I watched women make them at lightning speed at Ensemble Artisinal, outside of Fes. I thought the place was in Sefrou, but all my research suggests I was actually in Meknes. All I know for certain is that it was across the street from a park. While I was here, a woman taught me how to make buttons, a process that involves two needles, a knack for remembering thread patterns, and a precise eye for making teeny tiny loops. Evidently, I was rather good at it. Finally, my nearsightedness and tiny fingers had come in handy! I would have made it my side hustle, but thirty minutes after mastering it, I had already forgotten the first step. Oops.
(Different styles of Arabic calligraphy)
At the Université Internationale de Rabat (UIR) we were taught about Moroccan culture, which included calligraphy. At the time, my only calligraphic point of reference was when people asked me to do calligraphy for their wedding invitations . . . a skill I have never had, might I add. I had also never considered what calligraphy looked like in other languages, especially Arabic, a language I had rarely encountered. To see it done by a master calligrapher (Qarmad Mohamed) was amazing and offered me a new way of seeing calligraphy as an art form, one that took years of practice to get it just right.
(Calligrapher Qarmad Mohamed)
(Fun fact: Qarmad Mohamed did the calligraphy for the Moroccan dirham)
Embroidery was also something very present in Morocco. Napkins, tablecloths, shirts, slippers… whatever I saw, the finished products were consistently lovely. We watched some women embroider at a place that was perhaps Pavillon Artisanal in Meknes. Although, the room was a bit too cramped for all 11 of us, so I got a glimpse, took a picture, then waited outside in the heat. While I was there I got some nice shots of us against a very large fountain, the only clue I have suggesting where I was.
I was first introduced to henna in middle school where it sported by my Pakistani and Indian classmates. I thought it was so pretty, unlike anything I had ever seen before, but whenever I asked them about it their only response was “my sister got married this weekend.” As someone outside the culture, that answer didn’t really give me much insight—but hey—we were 12 trying to have a conversation in the middle of 6th grade Spanish, the vague succinctness is forgiven. It wasn’t until the henna workshop at the Université Internationale de Rabat that I learned exactly what henna was, how it was done, and why it was done.
I learned that henna is traditionally used for any celebration (not just weddings), that it can be applied to more places than just the back of your hand, and that both men and women dye their hair with it. I also learned that every culture has their own style of henna, which means Moroccan henna is stylistically different than Indian or Sudanese henna, for example. The ladies in our group had the option of getting their henna done during the workshop, which further showcased the artfulness. Not only was everyone’s design different, but they were each applied from the artist’s memory quickly and with incredible precision.
The henna I got in Morocco was my first time ever getting it done and most everything about it caught me off guard. I didn’t realize henna was a paste that stained as it dried, I didn’t realize I could have cracked it off after a few minutes instead of an hour, and I didn’t expect it to burn like it did (thanks to the lemon juice). By the end of it, though, I loved it.
Be wary, though, it's easy to get pulled into a henna trap. Outside Hassan Tower, a henna artist tried to grab the arm of a teacher in our group. Another student gently shoved the professor out of the way, but as a result the artist grabbed her hand and suddenly started doing her henna—complete with blue glitter—then asked to be paid. I can respect a hustle when done right, but I’m not a fan of having strangers put their hands on me.
(Wet henna. To the left is Indian styled henna, to the right is traditional Moroccan henna)
(Everyone's henna. Photo courtesy of Larry Camper Jr.)
Come to find out, Moroccan leather is a big deal. Seriously, it’s got its own Wikipedia page and a history that goes back centuries. I didn’t know this while in the country, but boy does that explain that tannery! The tannery (Chouara Tannery) was filled with the highest quality leather goods I had ever seen in my life. Granted, I spend most of my shopping time in thrift stores, but I’d still bet 30 dirhams that the leather in this place was better than anything Richmond has to offer.
When I entered the tannery, I was handed a thick stalk of mint leaves. It’s to help with the smell, which apparently is horrible, but I wasn’t bothered by it at all. Seeing how the leather is made and seeing hundreds of examples of finished products hanging on the walls and ceilings was just amazing. Shoes, bags, belts, jackets, skirts, poufs—they had everything in every color.
While I was there I acquired a pair of leather shoes. Well, the shoes were more like a gift from a flirtatious shopkeeper, but they were beautiful and had a stamp that said “Vrai Cuir Babouches”, which means Real Leather Babouches (babouches are a type of slipper; you can see pictures of them in the Shopping post).
For the life of me I cannot determine where the heck I was. It was a workshop crammed into what felt like an obscure part of the Fes, no more than 20 minutes away from the center of the city. All I have for reference is a photograph of the steps and a window.
Inside they showed us the entire process of making brass bowls, plates, and tea sets. I watched them unroll the sheet metal, cut it, beat it, heat it, cool it, hammer it, and turn it silver. It was unlike anything I had ever seen or will ever see to be honest.
In my art school experience, plaster had only ever been used to cast molds of people’s faces, hands, and the presumably lead-based toys of the early 2000s. That’s not to say student artists weren’t doing more interesting things with plaster, it’s to say I wasn’t doing interesting things with plaster. Just like clay, I avoid the stuff, and the first time I showed up for my mold making class, I dropped it within the hour and replaced it with Ancient Greek history.
Like I mentioned earlier, there’s 101 reasons why I’m not a sculptor and plaster is #94. That said, the plasterers at (possibly) Moroccan Craft used plaster in a way I’ve never seen before. It was artful in a way I had never seen before. They carved intricately into it, not a crack in sight, and their finished products were not the kinds of things you’d see on a DIY kitchen remodel.
(My painted vases made at Marylin Bottero's studio)
Let’s be real: I don’t like clay. There are 101 reasons why I am not a sculptor and one of them, since elementary school, is clay. On top of that, just being around sculptures—whether it’s that vase in my great-grandmother’s china cabinet or that abstract glass thing at the museum—makes me nervous. The idea that there are very fragile things so close to unpredictable human interaction cranks my anxiety up from a constant 5 to a straight up 9.
That said, the enjoyment I got out of a pottery studio proved to be a pleasant surprise. I had a genuinely good time at Marylin Bottero’s studio. She and her assistant helped me out big time and by the end of it all I had painted a vase and sculpted my own . . . vessel. It’s too small to be of any use and I never fired it, but it’s got a bangin’ flower on top thanks to their help! It surely trumps the three high school coil pots my parents still keep around the house.
It was also very exciting to hear about Marylin’s art practice. She showed us her closet full of clay, the view from her rooftop (where you can see the hill she used to harvest clay from), and all her artwork was displayed in the studio. It was like a sculpting wonderland, and that’s coming from someone who avoids sculpture like a brittle & muddy witch’s curse.
There was also a workshop to be found at an artisanal center in Marrakesh, possibly Moroccan Craft, which had a variety of exquisitely made ceramics. My favorite, though, was in Meknes at where was possibly Pavillon Artisianal. I watched men hammer silver wire onto plates, vases, and sculptures with incredible accuracy. And, like with most skills we don’t possess, when we see an expect does it they make it look easy.
I have never had much interest in how tiles got onto iron park tables, bathroom walls, and dirty mall fountains, but seeing the way tiling was treated in Morocco really made me not only consider it, but see it as an art form. I knew that ceramic tiling in Islamic art and architecture has been a pretty big deal for a few centuries, and seeing the monumental examples of it (like tiled gates and buildings) was incredible, but seeing the little examples of it—the tables, the walls, the fountains—was just as striking.
In Marrakesh, at the craft center that was possibly Moroccan Craft, I saw for the first time how tiling was done. I watched an artist sit on the floor, surrounded by bags filled with tiles, each different shapes and colors, cut and glazed by hand. Each one was the size of a quarter and he laid them with incredible accuracy upside-down inside an iron circle that would later be a table. Having seen finished products all around the country, it was—to say the least—a downright cool experience to see how those beautiful things were made.
Reason #32 why I am not a sculptor. Wood is heavy, warp is a bitch, “measure twice, cut once” has never worked for me, and there are too many ways for me to mortally wound myself in the woodshop.
Places like Moroccan Craft and Pavillon Artisanal had some incredible woodworkers, though, despite my reservations about being in their workshops. Anything you can imagine they had carved out of wood: Animal sculptures, magic boxes, paint palettes, bicycles, it was all incredible. Needless to say, the woodcarvings I saw in Morocco were a much different flavor than the chainsaw log sculptures I see at the State Fair every year.
There was also a woodshop in Fes that we were brought to, but I cannot begin to guess where we were. I don’t even know where our guide came from, a young college student who seemed to just kind of pop up. Wherever this place was, though, it had piles of cardboard cutouts sprawled out on a drafting table. As I soon learned, these were the patterns they used to draw designs onto the wood before cutting it out on their old machines with intense precision.
We also had a brief workshop at (presumably) Ensemble Artisinal, the same place I learned to make buttons. Here I was taught how to carve a spoon, and even though I lost the spoon the same day and will likely never ever choose to carve my own wooden kitchenware again, I appreciate the experience!
You may have noticed that some of these places overlap.
Many of the places I visited were artisanal and handicraft centers, as in to say, they were complexes that housed multiple workshops for multiple art forms. I loved this set up, not just because it facilitated my introduction to all these art practices, but simply because it was pleasant to be in a place filled with artists who had their own spaces to do what they enjoyed. There was another artisanal center in Marrakesh, presumably Ensemble Artisinal, that had a little bit of everything.
Before I confuse you, yes, it has the same name as the one in Meknes, but this one, dear friends, is in Marrakesh. It was an artisanal center, a shopping center, and had a tiny restaurant where I got a pretty good egg sandwich. There were artists making and selling musical instruments, jewelry, clothing, sculptures, magnets, woodcarvings, tablecloths, and a bunch of other stuff I probably didn’t even get to see.
(Map of Ensemble Artisinal, Marrakesh)
Just like at Artistic Ensemble, it’s likely to find artists working in their shops, and what better place to set up shop than in a market? It was easy to find artists crafting, well, anything in the souqs and I never knew when I’d stumble upon something interesting:
(Artist at a souq in Marrakesh. Art made from cans is still art!)
Morocco offered something new.
Not new because I had never seen it before; I’m not going to pull a Christopher Columbus. It was new because for the first time I was able to experience art from a culture that usually takes up half a chapter in the back of an art history textbook.
Let’s be frank: The history taught to us in the western world was written by white men who, for a variety of reasons, often chose to limit what we’re taught about non-western history. This bleeds over into art history and explains why in seven years of art history lessons, Islamic art was summed up as minarets and a lack of zoomorphic imagery. To boot, African art was rarely ever discussed, and when it was, it was masks, pyramids, and a handful of contemporary artists.
By the time I got to college, I was able to choose what art history classes I wanted to take, three of which were completely about Islamic or African Art. When I tell you I had never been in a class where I didn’t know anything until the teacher taught it to me, I am not overexaggerating; those classes were the highlights of my undergraduate education. Part of the reason I took those classes was because of what I experienced in Morocco; the art in the country had piqued my interest in an art history that had rarely ever crossed my path. Now, I am absolutely in love with it.
As an American, a person of color, a woman, and an artist, I challenge myself to explore art outside the textbook, outside the U.S., and outside the Western canon. It’s one thing to Google “Moroccan art”, another thing to take a class on it, and another thing to see it in person. Learning about it from the source was a special experience because I worried less about the information being skewed or whitewashed; I didn’t have to backtrack and double check what was being taught to me. It was incredible and, like I said, even if you’re not an artist, art is a wonderful way to experience a culture not your own.