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Uncovering The Art Of Marrakesh

June 8, 2017

Arts | by Harry Seymour


Marrakesh has always had a great allure for the exotic and passion for the arts. Since the development of a 19th century fascination with Orientalism, wealthy and hedonistic Europeans have travelled to North Africa in search of something new and exciting. The rich mixes of pastel coloured walls and skies set against bright souks ands spices makes for an exciting vision.

Artists began visiting the city of Marrakesh in Morocco during the 1800s, where they would paint lively images of snake charmers and swordsmen in turbans on horseback, that were then sold in the galleries of London and Paris to wealthy Victorian collectors who had a penchant for the foreign. In the first half of the 1900s it grew in to a place known for offering superb light for photographers and many flocked there to create avant-garde black and white images. In the 1960s, Marrakesh became a hotspot for homoerotic tourism. Known as a place with loose morals, where anything goes (behind the closed riad doors) it offered a vision through clouds of shisha smoke, of secretive charm. The fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent visited the city during this time, soon after buying a house there in which lavish parties would be thrown, cementing the city’s appeal as the choice place for bohemian, artistic and gay Europeans. The city has managed to retain its old world charm, with stunning Moorish Arab architecture along bustling streets and in covered markets, but in places has blended this with modern sensibilities for creative arts. A handful of new gallery and museum spaces opening in recent years, and on the horizon, are proving that the city has a dedication to the creative industries that helped shaped its name. Digging deeper than ways to keep the tourists coming, these institutions are helping promote Synergy between the historical and the contemporary, and the North African with the rest of the world. Candid Magazine recently visited the ochre city to visit these places and meet with the people behind them. Here, we round up the best of what to see for art and culture lovers in the city.

Housed in the city’s most striking building, the Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts is now the epicentre for photography in the region. Opened in 2016 with a design by David Chipperfield Architects (creators of the Hepworth in Wakefield and Saint Louis Art Museum in Missouri) the space covers 6,000 square metres and is the largest freestanding museum in the world dedicated to photography. Highlighting the importance of the art form to Marrakesh, and vice versa, the museum holds several exhibitions a year that generally revolve around an Arab theme, as well playing home to the museum’s important historical collection of photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries. The stunning modernist building uses sharp lines and terracotta colours to mimic Moorish architecture but with a truly contemporary hand. Courtyards are filled with cacti mirroring the adjacent 12th century Menara Gardens. There is also an on site café, bookshop and educational facilities, as well as stunning views from the top floor. The museum explores the city’s rich historical relationship with the art form through clever curation and a complimentary setting. It highlights the country’s evolving attitudes towards contemporary art and the support of its practitioners both local and foreign, with a view to continually enriching Morocco’s own unique visual culture.

Marrakesh Museum of Photography and Visual Arts

Housed a in three story riad in the heart of the old town, the Maison de le Photographie was until recently a private house until it opened its doors to the public showcasing work both contemporary and historical. The art form, which is a firm favourite still among young artists in the city (despite there being no photography education on offer) is displayed here in a very different format to the Marrakesh Museum for Photography and Visual Arts, with a low-key approach taking precedent. The museum has over 10,000 photographs in the permanent collections, with highlights including exquisite old images of Berber people in their distinct outfits, and the oldest collection of images of the Atlas Mountains printed on glass negatives.

Maison de la Photographie, Marrakesh

Covering 12 acres, the Majorelle Gardens was originally the home of the Orientalist painter Jacques Majorelle. Yves Saint Laurent and his boyfriend visited the gardens in the 1960s when they were open to the public, before buying them to prevent them from demolition in the 1980s. Still open to the public, the gardens are one of the most visited sights in the city – the square trickling fountains and rectangular lily ponds set against snaking cacti-clad paths are a sensory overload. Pink blossoms smells like a sweet shop against a rich azure sky in a setting that instantly makes any visitor understand the appeal of the country and its flora to European visiting artists and why the city became such a source of inspiration for colourists. The bright blue walls throughout the gardens are painted in a colour known as Majorelle Blue that Jacques Majorelle created himself – a colour now synonymous with the country.

Majorelle Gardens, Marrakesh.

The Berbers – the pre-Islamic people of Morocco – have their unique heritage celebrated in the Berber Museum (which is located inside the Majorelle Gardens). Known for their lavish clothes made form twisted brightly coloured wool, and their unique elaborate and over the top silver jewellery, the Berbers have long been a great source of artistic inspiration. Yves Saint Lauren and his partner Pierre Bergé amassed a wonderful collection of fabrics, objects, books, photographs and artworks that are all wonderfully evocative of these people and their way of life. The museum has recently been refurbished and glistens like a miniature trinket box. Despite its small size it’s easy to spend hours in here, admiring the dedication of these people to the way the dress. Often wearing huge amounts of jewellery as a way to protect their wealth (if you silver is round your neck rather than under your bed it is less likely to be stolen), and spending hours of pain staking work on their costumes when few were likely to see them, helps explain the country’s passion pattern and detail. It is little wonder that Saint Laurent found such inspiration here, and many references from the colours, shapes and textures in this museum can be seen in his collections.

Berber Museum, Marrakesh

Opening this autumn across the road from the Majorelle Gardens, and the house in which Yves Saint Laurent’s Partner, Pierre Bergé still lives in, the new Museum Yves Saint Laurent Marrakesh will be the Moroccan counterpart to Paris’s Fondation Yves Saint Laurent. Housing over 5,000 outfits and 15,000 accessories in its galleries, alongside ever changing exhibitions, and a library, research centre and restaurant, it is set to become the city’s latest creative centre and testament to its creative legacy in the twentieth century. A full feature on the museum is coming out in the next issue of Candid this June.

Back in the historical Medina, there are a host of locally grown gallery and creative spaces popping up. Clock Café, south of the spice market, hosts calligraphy lessons and has traditional story telling workshops, while Riad Yima is a café and gallery space founded by famous Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj – called by locals the Moroccan Andy Warhol. The David Bloch Gallery is one of the key players in the town’s commercial gallery world, helping support emerging North African artists with a continual roster of exhibitions in a seriously hip gallery space. The art in here shows that Marrakesh and its artists can easily compete with any other trendy European city in terms of creative talent.

David Bloch Gallery, Marrakesh

If you don’t get out this year, 2018 is playing host the seventh Marrakech Biennial. Founded by Vanessa Branson (Sister to Richard Branson) who also owns one of the most fashionable hotels in the city, the Biennial is under the patronage of King Mohammed VI of Morocco himself. 2016’s Biennial lasted from February to May, and saw over 50 artists bringing together an array of works curated by Reem Fadda, Middle East curator at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi to great press and public reviews. Building cultural bridges in the arts through multidisciplinary approaches, the 2016 Biennial helped promote the city as both a North African and global arts hub, whilst supporting the efforts of its young creative giving them international exposure. The 2018 programme is still a closely guarded secret.

After a day of tracking down the arts, you creative curiosity doesn’t have to stop when you return to your hotel. La Sultana is possibly the hardest to find hotel we have ever come across. Located down a bustling road in the heart of the old town, just around the corner from one of the cities most beautiful mosques, the hotel offers a tranquil oasis inside its walls. Comprised of several renovated riads, rooms look on to one of several courtyards, which either contain a whirlpool, lily pond, water fountains or a turquoise swimming pool (complete with glass sides looking through to a bar). The rooms are full of marble, gold and dark wood in the traditional style to keep you cool in summer months, and each individually designed suite is overflowing with character. There is a roof terrace with a further plunge pool and bar that looks across the old town with its terracotta roof tops, and on to the snow-capped Atlas Mountains beyond. The hotel is stuffed with original Orientalist art works and the hotel’s own art historian in residence is always on hand to offer an art tour of the collection, making it the perfect point from which to begin and end your art journey in the city. The walls have been hand carved with exquisite detailing the hotel is an absolute jewel of Moorish architecture – possibly some of the finest in the city.

La Sultana, Marrakesh

For some of the best traditional food and to eat like a local, head to Azar in the new town – a restaurant that continues the Orientalist theme. Mixing organic meze platters with grilled free range meats, the food merges traditional ingredients with contemporary fusion flavours. The setting also mixes the Moroccan love of gold metal and red fabrics with contemporary architecture and Moorish latticework. There is a shisha smoking lounge and contemporary cocktail menu and entrainment in the form of dancing and musicians. It’s a true way to experience Moroccan culture, cooking ands hospitality done in the 21st century way. At the other end of the scale is La Mamounia, which was the city’s first five star hotel and favourite of none other then Winston Churchill. It has Moroccan, French and Italian dining rooms, as well as a terrace restaurant and poolside bar, with its very own fruit orchard, vegetable patch and herb garden in its acres of grounds. The hotel’s architecture and design across the restaurants and bars features camel leather wallpaper, endless rows of hand made Seljuk tiles in rich greens and blues and original artworks throughout. It is like stepping back in to the golden heyday of travel but with all the luxury amenities of now.

Marrakesh is a city where old meets new in a variety of ways – the food, art, fashion, botany and hospitality all offers its own unique creativeness. Everything from the colours to the smells to the people are incredibly bold, vibrant and dazzling. They city brings all five senses to life and it doesn’t take long to realise why it has offered such a draw for artists and designers that have found themselves returning for the city over hundreds of years. It marks the ideal spot for a trip away for art and culture lovers and year on year is raising its contemporary profile, making it one to keep an eye on.