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Morocco's Art Town
Essaouira has developed into a hub for contemporary Moroccan art, and draws artists, poets, and craftsmen from all over the country. It's therefore thronged with art galleries, with both expatriates and numerous local and regional artists producing works year-round. Among the better-known artists are Nurredin Alioua, Mohammed Bouada, and Mohammed Tabal.
Essaouira is considered the spiritual home of the Gnaoua, whose cultural roots lie in sub-Saharan Africa, and whose powerful, mysterious blend of Islam with animism and fetishism continues to fascinate today. As well as trancelike music for which Gnaoua are known, the beguiling fantastic designs and bold colors of Gnaoua art have become fashionable in recent years.
Some see this "tribal," "native," or "trancelike" art as having similarities with Caribbean-island-style painting in its colors and fluid designs. Danish collector Frederic Damgaard saw echoes of the Tahitian work of Gauguin in the nature and color of the paintings of Mohammed Tabal and others; he was one of the first to bring the work to international attention in 1988. At the time, Tabal was something akin to a troubadour, wandering the countryside happily performing Gnaouan rites in return for a night's lodging and a little food.
As with the music, Gnaouan painting is considered autodidactic, as the artist gives himself over to quasi possession by another, higher force that guides the strokes of the brush and takes the artist into a trancelike state. Other practitioners include Ali Maimoune and Fatima Ettabi.
There's also a great calligraphy tradition here. Artists are bringing the beauty and inspiration of Arabic and Berber script to the canvas, and many of their works hang in the more-affluent riads.
Three artists in particular are going strong in this area. The first is Essaouira-born Mohammed Zouzaf, a Berber artist who marks signs and symbols on lamb's skins. (To see his work, head for the Espace Othello Gallerie d'Art and look out for the walls in the long-established riad-hotel Villa Maroc.) Another is Casablanca native Mohamed Boustous, whose elegant works on skins and paper focus on calligraphy in the grand Arab tradition. Mohammed Tifardine, an Essaouira native, also paints with calligraphy, taking inspiration from the great philosophers. His work tends to be soothing and magnificent, and manages to communicate a clear beauty to viewers, even if they don't understand the script.
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