10th Jul 2019
Marrakech has been tantalising stylish individuals from around the world ever since Yves Saint Laurent paid his first visit in 1966 and decided to make it his second home. Later in life, he famously said: “In Morocco, I realised that the range of colours I use was that of the zelliges, zouacs, djellabas and caftans. The boldness seen since then in my work, I owe to this country, to its forceful harmonies, to its audacious combinations, to the fervour of its creativity.”
Over the years, countless artists have been seduced by the kingdom’s fourth largest and most magical city, from perfumer Serge Lutens, who arrived in 1968, to Madonna, who celebrated her 60th birthday here last year. Now, though, a new wave of talents and initiatives are taking Marrakech up a peg as a cultural destination. In the past three years alone, the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech, Comptoir des Mines Galerie and Musée d’Art Contemporain Africain Al Maaden (MACAAL) have all established themselves, and 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair has expanded its editions from London and New York to the ochre city. “A historical and contemporary confluence of people from across Africa and Europe, Marrakech has a stirring energy that inspires creativity in all art forms,” says Touria El Glaoui, the founding director of 1-54. “Marrakech has always had a strong and active community of artists and the landscape is now full of spaces that are dedicated to them.”
With the Dior Cruise 2020 show having descended on Marrakech in May, further cementing the city’s growing creative confidence, and as it looks forward to becoming the first African Capital of Culture next year, we meet some of the local innovators making sure their home is favoured for more than just hammams, mint tea and Majorelle Blue.
The godfather – Hassan Hajjaj
Hassan Hajjaj is one of Morocco’s most recognised contemporary artists and a mentor to many who have followed in his joyful and celebratory footsteps. Using the language of fashion photography and Pop Art to challenge the West’s stereotypes about North African Arabic society, his fun-loving portraits feature people from all walks of life (snake charmers share equal billing with Hollywood stars) wearing colourful costumes and framed by kitsch paraphernalia. “I’ve been shooting for over 20 years and lucky enough to capture friends from around the world,” says Hajjaj. “They’re not just pretty pictures of people dressed up, each series has a story to tell. The message is that we’re all together, not separate.”
His series depicts henna girls in counterfeit logoed veils astride zippy motorbikes. Meanwhile, , featuring musicians as varied as rapper Afrikan Boy and Gnawa master Simo Lagnawi, was last seen as an installation at his 2017 Somerset House solo show and this October becomes a live performance at The Ford Theatres in Los Angeles.
Hajjaj’s family relocated from Larache to London when he was young and in the 1980s, he became a club promoter and stylist before teaching himself photography. He now divides his time between his Shoreditch studio and Riad Yima, his gallery/café/store in the medina. His practice also includes textiles, furniture, graphic design and sculpture, which all combine in his installations. “Salons in Morocco are where people come to sit, eat and recline. At first I’d do it for parties, then galleries and then museums, which is incredible. I call it my flying carpet,” he says, referring to the fact that has travelled far and wide. Currently you can find it at Hajjaj’s show The Path at Nottingham’s New Arts Exchange and at MACAAL. Also in Marrakech is Mi Casa Su Casa at Comptoir des Mines Galerie, his two-year curation of emerging Moroccan photographers that comes to an end this July. Then in September a major retrospective of his work opens at Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. All aboard for a very magical ride.
The rule breaker – Amine Bendriouich
“We are building a new narrative around what it means to be Moroccan, to be African, and how to experience this city. It allows us to exchange on a deeper level with people and have an influence on the community,” says Amine Bendriouich of his concept store in the heart of the medina. Shtatto opened last year and now has a second location selling his own avant-garde, unisex clothing alongside other labels he admires, plus one-off commissions by artists such as Yassine Balbzioui and Zineb Andress Arraki.
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Bendriouich was raised in Marrakech and launched his label Amine Bendriouich Couture & Bullshit (ABCB) in 2008. A year later he won the Goethe-Institut CreateEurope award to work in Berlin. Since then he’s shown everywhere from Dubai and Lagos to Marseille and Moscow, collaborated with Hajjaj, Kehinde Wiley and Massive Attack, and consulted for Adidas. Now back in Marrakech, he’s experimenting with site-specific installations and working closely with artisans to create his signature fluid pieces, such as sarouel-style trousers and boubou-esque gowns. His dream is to open an arts school and residency in his family’s kasbah just outside the city. “I want to keep growing organically and to explore different mediums by continuing to bring creative people together.”
Artwork by Laurence Leenaert. Image credit: Supplied
The free spirit – Laurence Leenaert
Ghent native Laurence Leenaert visited Morocco on holiday in 2015 and only returned home to pack up her belongings. “I love the vibe here. You wake up with the sun and to views of palm trees, plus the people are so open. It’s addictive,” says the designer whose successful lifestyle brand LRNCE is steeped in the city’s craftsmanship. She started off with leather sandals and bags, then developed painted ceramics, canvas kimonos and embroidered textiles recognisable by their abstract decoration. More recently she’s gone into bamboo and marble furniture, including summer beds and deckchairs.
“First I find the material, then I draw, and then I go to my artisans and ask their opinion. It’s about having respect for their expertise and them for mine,” she reflects. “My designs are very personal and spontaneous. I want to make unique pieces that are happy and colourful, and I need to be free to create in the moment.” Leenaert attracts customers from everywhere to her studio and will soon open a riad in the medina. Her advice to those who wish to emulate her gentle process? “Don’t plan too much. Let life come to you. Breathe. It’s really cool that so many interesting people are coming here now, but you need to relax and take time to get to know everyone you want to work with.”
The carpet king – Soufiane Zarib
Soufiane Zarib learned the carpet trade from his father and since the age of 18 has dedicated himself to revolutionising the family business. Twenty years down the line and with four discrete retail destinations, he has a superior reputation for offering the finest traditional Berber carpets alongside his own contemporary, award-winning designs. “I take inspiration from the old carpets, and then develop modern collections using vegetable-dyed wool and classic weaving methods,” Zarib says. “But the real artists are the Berber women we collaborate with in the Atlas Mountains. They have freedom over their needles to make true masterpieces using strong symbols, charming colours and working with sincere love.”
Alongside his brothers Said and Ismail, Soufiane is sought after by clients, dealers and fairs across Europe, and his customers have included Bethann Hardison and Iman. Discerning shoppers are drawn to his luxurious rugs, which range from figurative and geometric designs to rich colourscapes seeped in the deep indigo, earthy reds and dusky pinks of Marrakech.
Artwork by Janine Gaëlle Dieudji. Image credit: Supplied
The art activist – Janine Gaëlle Dieudji
As exhibitions director at MACAAL, Janine Gaëlle Dieudji’s focus is masterminding inclusive exhibitions, programming and special commissions that resonate as much with art professionals as they do with the city’s migrant groups, young children and taxi drivers. “Our aim is to be a local museum with a global vision,” she says. “We want to touch our community while offering international standards. Cultural mediation is 70 per cent of what we do, through workshops, school visits and social events. If we don’t have an audience that can break through the intellectual barriers around a space like this, what’s the point?”
Dieudji was born in Cameroon, studied in France and set out in the art world in Italy before joining MACAAL in 2017 during its soft opening phase. The new, not-for-profit museum is owned by the Lazraq family and forms part of its charitable association, Fondation Alliances. The stunning sandstone building houses its private collection of African art among its lively displays. Currently on view is Material Insanity, curated by Dieudji and MACAAL’s artistic director Meriem Berrada. “We have challenged artists to reflect on social, economic and political issues by using everyday objects that we all relate to,” Dieudji explains of works in the show, including those by Moroccan artists M’barek Bouhchichi, Adil Kourkouni and Amina Agueznay. “Marrakech is becoming a vibrant hub for art and it’s our mission to make sure this beautiful city can amaze you with its culture.”
The ancestral whisperer – Bouchra Boudoua
When Dior’s 400 guests sat down for dinner at Bahia Palace on the eve of the Cruise 2020 show, they ate from elegant terracotta bowls (many with “Christian Dior” hand-painted across them) produced by Bouchra Boudoua. “It was a big challenge for my artisans to make so many pieces in such a short time, but I’m happy that Moroccan craft was integrated into the theme in this way,” says the young designer, who was commissioned via her Instagram account.
She was born in Casablanca, studied at Central Saint Martins and established her eponymous brand in Marrakech in 2016 as a way to explore her dual passion for patterns and preserving the art of Moroccan ceramics. “My grandparents were Berber so on a personal level, pottery is a way to connect to my roots,” she says. “In Morocco pottery is a man’s job and usually they paint very symmetrical, Arabic designs. I am interested in bringing modern principles to this ancient language and using simple, freehand brushstrokes.” She’s also made a limited-edition collection for MACAAL and exhibited in New York, Paris and Abu Dhabi. “There is so much creative energy coming out of Marrakech and there are many of us working hard to show a different side of Morocco.”
Artwork by Noria Chaal. Image credit: Supplied
The storyteller – Noria Chaal
Noria Chall grew up in France and worked as a filmmaker in Berlin for five years before the lure of Marrakech called her home a year ago. “I came to make a film on immigrant identity and realised there was so much human connection here. It just felt like the right place to be,” Chaal says. “It’s important for me to use my creativity to have an impact on this society.” She’s creating music videos and short films with underground musicians, such as the jazz singer J.Lamotta and trap duo Kamyn, and works closely with the annual Atlas Electronic Festival in Marrakech, both as a DJ and to document traditional artists such as the Sufi musicians of Joujouka whose spiritual sounds are dying out.
Chaal is especially focused on women artists and has been a vocal supporter of the #Masaktach (I will not be silent) movement, Morocco’s answer to #MeToo, which started last year as a response to a teenager called Khadija being abducted and raped by men in her village. “As a woman you can be handicapped in this country. Masaktach organises peaceful demonstrations and activities on social media. So many different people have come together to walk this difficult corridor with them and I am keen to film these collective actions.”
The artful host – Philomena Schurer Merckoll
Philomena Schurer Merckoll’s peripatetic lifestyle has taken her from London to Paris (where she runs the creative agency Le 31), Berlin, Dublin and New York, where she worked in the art world. But on her first visit to Marrakech 14 years ago, she was hooked. “For me, there’s a frisson in the air. It’s an inspiration for all of your senses, there is artisanship everywhere,” says the consultant and hotelier. “Even now it still offers a sense of fun that’s hard to find anywhere else.” She went on to buy a riad and undertake its sensitive renovation alongside local designer Romain Michel-Ménière. “Each of these beautiful old buildings have their own language so it was about respecting its original soul and just paring things back,” she says.
Riad Mena opened in 2014 and quickly became popular with visiting creatives drawn to its serene mix of minimalist mid-century furniture, contemporary art and Moroccan textiles, all nestling among verdant greenery. “We sourced most things in Marrakech. The only things we did bring in were a lot of books. The ultimate luxury is a good library!” The secluded oasis’s other amenities include a swimming pool, a hammam and food grown at the riad’s permaculture farm. Schurer Merckoll now lends her talents to other interiors projects and will open a crafts boutique in September.