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Thursday, December 26, 2013

The art-naif painters of Essaouira, Morocco

The city

Blue, white, blue, white, blue, white: the hypnotic rhythms of the Gnawa music; repeating, repeating, the blues of the Sahara. Blue skies - vast; white seagulls - arrogantly noisy; blue ocean - the Atlantic till the horizon; white surf; carrying on endlessly with its chore of breaking on the shores, shamelessly offering the smell of unknown sea creatures it has brought along; blue boats - packed like sardines; white catch from the sea – shocked eyes reflecting the sun; blue doors and windows – ways to consider the world; white houses - matchboxes lighting up the sky. Such a place is Essaouira, and it soon becomes clear to a visitor why painting became an obvious second career option for local fishermen and greengrocers here. Basking in the crisp sunlight, they tentatively developed their own form of painting – Art Naif or Naïve Art.  "There is something in the air of Essaouira," says Ini’Youssef, a grocer, "it drives the painters and the seagulls crazy. And I am not talking about the sewage smell."

“I am the Picasso of Essaouira,” says Assed Eddane with not an element of self-doubt. He has evidence. From his bag comes out a handful of exhibition catalogues, in Casablanca, Marrakech, and of course, Paris. He looks much younger in those catalogues. Nowadays, he just brings along a dozen of his paintings everyday and places them against the fence of a government building next to the shipyard. “This pavement is my gallery,” says Picasso. Like typical Art Naif painters, he uses bright contrasting colors, bold curves, a multitude of characters whose amoeba like forms fit in perfectly against one another, bright eyes, and dots, big dots in colors filling up the canvas. In this heavy use of big dots, the Art Naif painters resemble the Australian Aborigines who too use a similar style. “Don’t you want to get photographed with the Picasso of Essaouira?” Eddine commands and we follow. We buy a painting from him, signed not as Picasso but as Assed Eddine. He runs from place to place to get us the change. We manage Picasso’s open air gallery for the next ten minutes.

The Picasso

We head on to the Damgaard Gallery – the space that defined it all. The gallery displays works by the big names of Essaouira art – Mohamed Tabel, Ali Maimoune, Abelhak Bahlak, Regragui Buslai, Abdellah Elatrach, to name a few. A large portrait of King Mohamed VI looks over two lonely rooms filled with paintings, sculptures and furniture in the Art Naif style. Except for this royal portrait, everything here is about dreams, in color. These dreams are fresh from reading a children’s fairy tale, mythical and real animals, Totoro-esque characters, wriggling chromosomes, all in splashes of color, swimming, captured in that moment by those large colorful dots when they had nicely spread out on the canvas.

Damgaard Gallery

Such dreams could only be seen in Essaouira where Jimmie Hendrix allegedly wrote his song “Castles in the sky” even before he had visited the city! The possibility of these dreams attracted artists born elsewhere like Addel Eddine who was born in Casablanca. Dreams and drugs had also made Essaouira the hippie capital of North Africa in the 60s. Today, the youth of Essaouira are trying to revive this spirit of the hippie, or rather, the Beat, in the town. On the walls of the fort overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, we meet Abdel Elebbar and his guitar wielding friends, some of whom had spent months in Varanasi, India. Abdel is in his twenties and is a musician and a writer, “Come join us tonight. Why do you want to go back to Marrakech? What’s there? We will play music and talk all night. Last night, we were people from nine nationalities, we talked and talked, and finally we figured out that Art is all about messing up with creativity.” Impressed by such vibes, many young Moroccans from the diaspora are returning back, making Essaouira their home.    

Many of the artists from Essaouira trace their roots to Black Africa – Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso. African sensibilities, therefore, run through their work. They have rather humble roots: Akjait a mechanic, Tabal was a drum player, Sanana a fisherman, Lakadar a farmer. They typically have had no formal training, drawing inspiration from Boujemâa Lakhdar, the granddaddy of Moroccan art, who was also a self-taught artist from Essaouira.


As we came down the ramparts of the fort, we meet Hossain, another painter, dressed as a cowboy. His specialty lay in painting on the bricks from which the walls of Essaouira were made of. Being bricks, his canvases were rather heavy. “It’s not heavy, see, it’s so light,” he began juggling with his art pieces, “Let me put them in your bags.. now, see.. they are not heavy at all.”

Art by the fort
We walked through the maze of the medina where there were more galleries and workshops for polished wooden boxes, another Essaouira specialty. These galleries mostly stocked tourist art, unexciting renderings of Berbers on horseback firing guns. Boredom was setting in. By the time we hit the city square, we were convinced that we had seen enough.


But then, at the edge of the square we meet Mustapha El Harchi, a disabled painter who yielded the brush with his mouth. Decked in his wheelchair, he greeted us with delight. “When you go back, please send me pictures from India and China. Send me pictures of the grass, the houses, the kids and the women. I will paint them."  So, dear readers of this post, if you have any pictures of your homeland, her grass, her houses, her kids and her women; please send them to Mustapha El Harchi, BP: 1370, CP: 44100, Essaouira, Morocco.

El Harchi's work

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