Coming to Terms with Marginal Art(ists) in Morocco
By Farouk El Maarouf
There is a Moroccan community (based particularly in the Rabat/Sale regions) of vernacular dealers, connoisseurs, and savvy art practitioners, who, like their classic elite fellows, have a great deal of knowledge about the fine arts. They are keen appreciators of art movements, sculptures, paintings, and other top-notch products; and they are expert judges and adjudicators in matters of world art. But unlike their affluent and prosperous counterparts, this underground art society rarely escapes marginality.
Parts of my research, which looks at this community, were inspired by my encounters with Hassan, a painter and goldsmith, in his small rooftop room in Qariat Oulad Moussa, Sale. Hassan owns very little beyond his artworks, paint, a small gas bottle, a burnt pan, and some art books – including numerous auction catalogues by Christie’s and Sotheby’s that he picks up cheaply from the joutia (black market). Underneath his bed, Hassan stores more than 400 canvases and more than 500 pieces of Croquis paper, on which he has painted over a period of 15 years. Most of what he earns he sends to his wife and children, whom he left in the southern town of Zagoura, a ten-hour drive by car from Sale. I have always been amazed by the amount of knowledge he has about art and artists. He is a living encyclopaedia, if I may describe him as such. When we sat in a café, Hassan spoke, extensively, against the background noise of loud chatter, a television, and thunderous traffic, about prominent art figures in Morocco, the genius of Moroccan painters Chaïbia Talal and Jilali Gharbaoui, Moorish Spain, artefacts from manuscripts, musical instruments, or silk belts. He loves to speak about Judaica artistry, the exceptional san’a (craftsmanship) of the Moroccan Jews, and the current high demand for silver amulets. Hassan rarely talks about his own art as something sellable. For him, his art is spiritual, possessed, and alive, and if he sells his paintings, they should, unlike him, settle in the good neighbourhoods of the country. If he spares them the misfortune of being trashed (by being sold cheaply), they might one day also pull him out from the miserable and wretched life he leads today.
My research, specifically, revolves around visual art and art communities in contemporary Morocco. It is about communities that, unlike the typically upscale, wealthy fine art connoisseurs of Casablanca, London, Frankfurt, Paris, and Las Vegas, live below the poverty line, and barely make ends meet. My research examines different ways of seeing beauty in contexts of socio-economic deprivation and social death, where people are struck with impoverishment, unemployment, and illiteracy. Fluctuating between subjectivities and ways of looking, I present a dynamic perception by positioning concepts like ‘beauty’, ‘happiness’, and ‘marginality’ in relation to globalisation, modernity, art, canon, and value. By focusing on the marginalised communities that dwell in hidden Moroccan markets, weekly souks, café bazaars, and informal transaction locations, I attempt to come to an understanding of how such communities conceive of art in the absence of the most basic forms of decent living. I want to understand the theatrics of the pursuit of beauty and its implications, its motives, its actors, and its paradoxical whereabouts. Does beauty, in this context, replace happiness? Where does beauty begin, and where does it end? And, most importantly, can there be enough of it? In essence, the category of beauty cannot be reduced to basic definitions of aesthetics, appearances, and shapes, because in many cultures beauty can mean happiness, love, security, faith, tranquillity, or even violence and gore. Beauty here, hence, is not something that is, but something that will be, in a process of pursuit and becoming.
If one passes by the café that accommodates the tired bodies of Hassan and his peers, one would never imagine the views these art-obsessed citizens hold towards beauty, aesthetics, and happiness, towards life itself, or the way they (un)see themselves and their surroundings. Lhoussine (another art dealer) argues that life has become ugly, but does he really see it as such? And if he does, what kind of effect does this have on him and his peers? Are they immune to the ugliness of current times and the world, or do they have an antidote that allows them to perceive life in vibrant gleams and hues? If one scans their faces, hands, and feet, meditates on their tattered trousers, disintegrating shirt collars, and worn shoes, would one think that they discuss questions such as how Van Gogh really died; why Lautrec was obsessed with prostitutes; what story hides behind the ‘V’ that Maurice Utrillo included in his signature; why the medical properties of rhinoceros horns are a myth; why faceted rubies are more expensive than ruby cabochons and beads; or why collecting Ming Dynasty porcelain is on the rise? Would one think their discussions drift beyond the immediate vital questions related to their daily struggles with paying for water and electricity, and the rising prices of vegetables, fish, and gas?
Their struggles do not mean that the members of this community are divorced from worldly significations and are numb to present predicaments. While they are hit by poverty and need, and trapped to their waists in the quicksand of social deprivation, economic crisis, and political inefficiency, they have also decided to methodically unsee what is happening around them. The domain of art, far from merely being a space of visual distractions, comes with the prospects and possibilities to shift gears altogether to a kinder tide. In a personal discussion with Lhoussine, he told me jokingly:
When you enter this ‘domain’ in the beginning, hoping to become a thriving member, you get glasses with green shades at the entrance. When you put them on, everything you see becomes green and prosperous even when it is a deadly desert. After you enter, whether you choose to keep the glasses on or take them off does not matter; after all, you would not trade the ‘domain’ with your previous life.
This piece of wisdom that he expresses as a joke reverberates through the perceptual paradoxes this research project seeks to underline. Hence, I address the foregoing by examining moments of such paradoxes in margin-centred socialities – paradoxes that mark the collapse of theoretical speculations, failures of perceptual interpretation, and visual judgments. This research acknowledges the existing lack of adequate measurements (of value, appearance, perception, or emotion) when it comes to people belonging to the social footnote and to objects of art circulating the periphery. And this is especially true with people who depart from their rough deployment of the senses and end up radicalising the existing methods of reading history, seeing art, and experiencing beauty. Thus, I seek to problematise the notion of beauty, among other things, in a community that does not belong to itself, as most of its members – in the waiting room of becoming – are beauty-seekers without beauty, and art dealers without art.
Farouk El Maarouf is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center for the Study of Culture, University of Giessen. His research project revolves around visual art and art communities in contemporary Morocco. El Maarouf’s academic research engages several thematic fields within cultural studies, including alternative economies, risk society, local art markets, treasure hunting in Morocco, street art, and Maghribian literature.
Further articles in the #Aesthetics&CulturalPractice thread of the #MECAM series on TRAFO:
Angela Rabing, Can Images Shape the Future? A Conversation with Director Abou Bakar Sidibé, 03 February 2022
Call for Contributions: Aesthetic Practices and Mediated Temporalities of the Maghreb and the Mashriq, 20 January 2022
Citation: Farouk El Maarouf, Coming to Terms with Marginal Art(ists) in Morocco, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.02.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/33635