Essaouira: Morocco's Art Town

Essaouira has developed into a hub for contemporary Moroccan art, and draws artists, poets, and craftsmen from near and far. 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 Mohammed Tabal, Abdelaziz Baki, Ali Maimoun, Mohammed Bouada, and Fatima Ettalbi.

Naïve Art

Many local artists are self-taught and practice a simplistic, "naïve" art reminiscent of aboriginal and indigenous art of other cultures. In the 1980s, 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. Damgaard was one of the first to bring this work to international attention and encouraged local farmers and fishermen in their artistic expression. His gallery is still open in Essaouira to this day. At the time, Tabal was something akin to a troubadour, wandering the countryside performing Gnaouan rites in return for a night's lodging and a little food. Essaouira is considered the spiritual home of the Gnaoua Sufis, whose roots lie in sub-Saharan Africa, and whose powerful, mysterious blend of Islam with animism and fetishism continues to fascinate today.

The work of the naïve Souiri artists is frequently exhibited locally, and you can track down artists such as Abdelaziz Baki, Ali Maimoune, and Asmah Ennaji at their workshops in the joutiya, Essaouira’s flea market in the industrial quarter to the north of the medina. Here, their colorful work is displayed in two and three dimensions, often incorporating found objects or up-cycled items from the nearby market. The newly renovated Centre Artisanal (Artisans Center, opposite L’Heure Bleue) is also a great place to discover local arts and crafts.

Calligraphy

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.

Two Essaouira-born artists in particular are still popular in this field. The first is Mohammed Zouzaf, a Berber artist who marks signs and symbols on lamb's skins. Mohammed Tifardine, "discovered" by Frederick Damgaard, 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. Work of both artists can often be seen at Espace Othello Gallerie d’Art.

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