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  • Nia Alexander Campbell

Let's Talk About Art

My Moroccan adventure was technically an “arts field study” hosted by the design departments of VCUarts. As you can imagine, the goal of the trip was all about art: Seeing art, making art, and learning about art.

So, I guess it’s time to talk about some art.

It Started at the VMFA

Somehow, some way I found a VMFA book in a coffee shop in Marrakesh.

Small world, huh?

That’s the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, right down the street from VCU in Richmond. It’s an excellent museum that hosts some very nice exhibits every few months, one of which being an Yves Saint-Laurent exhibit.

I had never heard his name before and had no idea what kind of art he did, which naturally blew the mind of the fashion design students in our travel group. However, as I walked into an exhibition space filled with well-dressed mannequins and jewelry displays, I quickly concluded that Mr. Saint-Laurent was a fashion designer and clearly a big deal.

How could I have never run across his name in all my many years of art studies? Well, for one, fashion designers weren’t included in any of the art history courses I took, which created a seven-year situation of “you don’t know what you don’t know”. Most of what I knew about fashion came from watching every other season of Project Runway, while in my personal life I usually wore hand-me-downs, gifts from grandparents (one of which is a seamstress), or whatever the thrift store coughed up.

Ah, but wait. A quick anecdote:

My relationship with fashion is funny to me because as a child I wanted to be a fashion designer. Somewhere in middle school, however, I realized that I loved the characters and their stories more than the clothes I dressed them in. So, when I got placed into VCUarts’ fashion design program for my second year of undergrad, my heart wasn’t in it, and I immediately switched to painting. That didn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate fashion as an art form; it has all the technical, conceptual, and communicative qualities as a painting or a film may have.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that there were a variety of factors that effected the way I experienced the Saint-Laurent exhibit and overall, I genuinely enjoyed it. I learned he was pretty hip to the visual art scene, that he was known for using non-white models, and I found many of his designs to be a great inspiration for characters and stories.

The dude was cool.

You may still be wondering, though, why we started our Moroccan adventure at a museum in Richmond, Virginia. Well, it’s because Yves Saint-Laurent split his time between Paris and Marrakesh, Morocco. He even helped renovate the Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh, which has a memorial to him, as well as a new museum, and its where his ashes were scattered.

He was surprisingly very relevant to our international adventure.

Pretty cool fun fact, right?

What about the art in Morocco?

Much of the art I saw was made by craftspeople at work (see the “Extreme Arts & Crafts” post), but there was a ton of other art to be seen in other places that was just as interesting and inspiring as watching the craftspeople work from scratch. Seeing this art in conjunction with the crafts added another layer to my idea of Morocco’s relationship with art, which was extremely exciting for me.

So, what is this “other art” I’m referring to? Let’s talk about it.

Art Museum:

The Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, to be exact. It had only been open for three years when I visited in May 2017 and wow it was amazing. It had multiple floors of contemporary art featuring a variety of media, and the building itself was stunning. There was also a Picasso exhibit on display when I visited, which was more thought provoking than I anticipated; it truly allowed me look at Picasso with fresh eyes, something not easy to accomplish when he’s been repeatedly drilled into your art educational experience since kindergarten.

The best part for me, however, was to see so much contemporary artwork made by black artists, and much of it included black figures. I realized in that moment that I had never experienced that before; I had never been in a huge, public gallery space filled with images of black people created by a variety of contemporary artists. Sure, I’ve seen rooms full of artwork by heavy hitters like Kehinde Wiley or a retrospective of Jacob Lawrence. And, sure, I’ve been in small galleries with paintings featuring people of color, exhibitions hosted by POC organizations and targeted at a POC audience. There’s nothing wrong with either of those experiences, but being in a freshly established, government-run, multi-storied, public museum with multiples rooms of artwork made by such a variety of people—people who share my experiences as a black person and a black woman—was incredible.

These aren't the best quality photographs and I didn't catch every artist's name, but hopefully you'll get the gist:

Jardin Majorelle:

Also called the Majorelle Garden, this was once the Marrakesh home of artist Jacques Majorelle and was later renovated by Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé. Nowadays, it’s essentially a small museum complex connected by an expansive desert garden. The garden is visually striking, not only because of the plant life, but because the buildings are painted a prominent shade of royal blue, accented by yellow, green, and orange décor. If not for the crowd, it probably would have been a calm place to sketch.

The Majorelle Garden also housed the Berber Museum which held incredible examples of traditional Berber clothing and jewelry. It was my favorite place to see and in the gift shop I bought a book, Berber Women of Morocco, which I use for visual references, cultural research, and general creative fodder. Two more museums have been added to the garden since I last visited the country: The Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech and the Musée Yves Saint-Laurent. (You can see more photos of the Majorelle Garden in the post "Five Cities")

Art in random places:

Artwork on display at where I think was Ensemble Artisinal in Marrakesh. You'll understand my skepticism after you read the "Shopping" post.

Artwork at the Handicraft Room in Meknes

(In the center is a framed mosaic of the king at Moroccan Craft in Marrakesh)

Just like in America, restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, and essentially any place of business have art on display. Much of the artwork hanging on the walls felt different than standard “hotel lobby art”. It wasn’t bland, generic, dated, or unoffensively abstract; it was colorful and interesting, and often seemed to allude to a story. It was artwork I could really appreciate looking at while I scarfed down an egg sandwich or got ready for bed.

Color and pattern:

Closeup of a rug in Marrakesh

Rabat, Morocco

You know how I mentioned that specific shade of blue at the Jardin Majorelle? Well, I saw a lot more of that color scattered around the country. It was on street poles, railings, jewelry, construction tarps, trash cans . . . it was everywhere and in unexpected places, and I truly enjoyed the moments when I would spot that splash of color. I later learned that the blue I kept noticing is officially called “Majorelle Blue”, named after—you guessed it—Jacques Majorelle. He had a thing for that particular shade of blue after seeing it in Moroccan tiles and architecture, and due to his extensive use of the color on his property, it eventually bore his name.

Rabat, Morocco

Université Internationale de Rabat

Outside the Kasbah of the Udayas

The Kasbah of the Udayas in Rabat was also hooked on blue, but it was taken a step further in a beautiful way. Every door, wall, window, step, and flowerpot in the little town was different, painted with a variety of blue hues, patterns, and gradients. Even though we were led through it by an unwanted tour guide, the Kasbah was stunning, and the experience was a bit surreal. For a while, though, I had it confused with Chefchaouen (or Chaouen), a blue city near Tangier, miles from where I was. That place is worth a look too, but just so you don’t make my mistake, they are definitely two very different places.

An emphasis on color and pattern was the most consistent quality I saw within all of the art throughout the country. It was in museums, restaurants, architecture, and in the most mundane of places (like lamps, windows, tables, and rugs). It was easy to feel overwhelmed by it, especially in the Fes medina, but it wasn’t a bad experience. I have a notable affinity for color and pattern—both in my art and my personal style—so even though it made my head hurt half the time, it was worth it.


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