This article is dedicated to and inspired by our dear friends Gretchen and Rodrigo who are intrepid travelers currently on their own journey with their family (check out www.learnlivetravel.com). We have spent many hours in deep discussion with Gretchen and Rodrigo regarding what constitutes art versus craft and how we identify and value each.
Traveling throughout Morocco and immersing myself into the wondrous visual ornamentation evidenced in places considered high culture and in the daily life of the souq (market) has inspired me to apply this question to this experience and delve into how Moroccans might answer what is art or craft?
While a few Moroccan cities such as Casablanca and Marrakesh have galleries that host contemporary visual artists, we have yet to discover a fine arts museum; however, Arabic art elements are evidenced in every palace, mausoleum, mosque, synagogue, and gate in even the smallest of Moroccan towns. Non-idoltry, or non-representational art is a hallmark of Islamic and Arabic art. Just as the grand naves, domes, and decor of European basilicas and cathedrals inspire feelings of both humility and awesomeness, my jaw would drop each time I stepped into a Moroccan palace or mausoleum and I would feel these same emotions.
At first glance, the overall ornamentation of every surface and variety of materials, chaotic textures, and abundant color palette made for a dizzying if not visually overwhelming experiences, but upon closer inspection, it was the fine craftsmanship of each element that creates what is considered a higher form of art.
The five main elements of Arabic art are manifest in every monument: Arabesque, arches, geometric symmetry, floral, and the use of calligraphy.
Calligraphy is an esteemed visual art learned in medusas, Quranic schools, over the last 1,000 years. The words, phrases, and poetry take four basic forms, that of the Thuluth style of interlaced arabesque cursive that forms an overall shape, and that of the Kufic style from Iraq that is either square, foliate, or knotted. There is a modern calligraphic movement in Morocco as well, but it is in the life in the souqs located in the medinas, or old towns, that show how Moroccans value practical handicrafts more than the visual arts.
My favorite pastime in Morocco has been to wander the local souqs with my partner-in-adventure Aaron. We prefer to follow our instincts and get a little lost by absorbing each moment and taking turns down narrow alleys that often lead us to yet a new discovery. Morocco is an exceedingly safe country, so we have yet to worry that we’d come to any harm by our wanderings. The souqs are usually roofed, mostly with palm fronds or awnings that cover the food stalls, store fronts, and artisan studios. Souqs can also be weekly markets held in each town much like the American Farmer’s Markets.
The souqs continue to be organized by trade as they were in medieval times with the components that make an item such as the fabric, notion, and embroiderers in a row nearby the caftan sellers. This proximity and subsequent competition tend to increase innovation. The messiest (and smelliest) of all the trades tend to be on the outside of the souq as we discovered in the famous tannery of Fez.
Every floor, wall, ceiling, and arch we’ve seen in Morocco whether it be in a restaurant, or city gate, or monument of historical value is covered in Moroccan ceramics, plaster, wood, and metal work. A visit to a busy Fez studio shed light on the process of the ancient craft of ceramics. We watched master artisans, called maalems, who had a minimum training of 10 years, utilizing floral, geometric, and calligraphic elements to their hand painted bowls, tiles, tagines (Moroccan cookery), and more. From the bare-footed mixing of clay to the hand-thrown pots on a foot-spun wheel to the horse-hair and bamboo paintbrushes, the process is a fascinating study on the ingenuity of humankind. Mali even tried her hand at throwing a plate!
Some artisans using nothing more than a basic chisel on glazed tiles spend 3-4 months mastering one mosaic shape, called zellij, out of 360 possible shapes! Many grand monuments have a linear layer of ceramic tiles showing calligraphic words or phrases that had been chipped away exposing a new form of ceramic art for me.
While most roofs are flat with roof-top living spaces throughout Morocco, ceramic tiles that cover palaces are made by the artisan who forms a half-cylinder over their thigh.
The aromatic cedar wood forests of Morocco provide artisans with the medium evident in the doors, walls, window screens and “stalactite” domes and arches, called muquarnas, found in the historical high cultured monuments. Another linear layer of wood-carved calligraphy can be found in most decor. In the northern town of Tetouan, we observed a souq artisan carving shapes in the wood to be inlaid with metal and shell, while in the south we observed loads of tourist-oriented items such as boxes and trays made out of endangered thuya (pronounced TWEE-uh) wood. Like wood, the hand-carved plaster provides visual stimulation and order with geometric forms, florals, and calligraphic design.
The fourth material found in most monuments in Morocco is metal. Large brass doors are incised in geometric designs and massive door knockers in the form of intricate knots adorn the entrances. In the souqs you can find artisans working with copper for pots, brass and tin for pierced lamp shades, iron for grillwork, and silversmiths create beautiful jewelry. Interestingly, the first peoples of Morocco, the Berbers, believe gold is evil hence the profusion of silverwork.
Morocco is most renown worldwide for leatherwork. In fact, the word “morocco” is synonymous with the word used to describe a high quality leather.
Leather is primarily made of sheep skin although beef, goat, and camel are also used. While there are leather jacket and handbag shops throughout the souqs, it is the color explosion of open-backed shoes, called babouches, that are a hallmark of leatherwork in the souqs. Throughout Morocco, I’ve seen men wearing traditional babouches, while the souqs are filled with the multi-colored and intricately designed women’s babouches.
While they are great eye-candy, I found the leather soles unbearably uncomfortable. If only I could have some made with my Merrill sandal inserts! The curing and dye vats of the tanneries, while excruciatingly stinky because of the pigeon poo combined with lye to soften and de-hair the leather, are fun to visit so we can see the entire process from skins to product.
Most of the artisans we saw working in the souqs were men; however, we found that many of the traditions surrounding the massive textile industry were done by women, often unseen and in the countryside. Carpets, felting, weaving, and embroidered goods can be seen all over Morocco and each region specializes in distinct designs. It’s very common to be enticed into a carpet shop with the hundreds of styles unrolled for your delight; as we live in a mobile abode with about 15 square feet of available floor space we sadly declined the invitations meant to persuade our sensibilities.
Morocco is a shopper’s delight with overflowing souqs and romantic artisan traditions that could create a magical decor like those we’ve witnessed in the palaces of Fez or kasbahs of Rabat or mausoleum in Marrakech.
I believe Moroccans have answered that question, “Is it art or craft?” by elevating the value of their artisans as necessary to the achievement of high culture.
-written and photographed by Tammy