Monday, October 3, 2016


The vibrant Alaouite Kingdom of Morocco is a country whose rich unique culture, diversity and tradition are joyously captured in the essence of its wealth of traditional arts and ancient crafts. Bounded by an ocean, a sea and a desert, split by mountain ranges, super highways, caravan trails, steppe-like plateaus, coastal plains and the Sahara, the dramatically-contrasting landscape mirrors an ethnic cultural mix of tribal Berbers, Arabs and Africans intermingling with Muslim, Jewish and Christian influences, all reflected in the beautiful and practical objects of extraordinary workmanship in bright and bold patterns created by a proud people, from stunning pottery and ceramics and wonderful mosaics to textiles and carpets, jewellery and leather goods, fine wood carving and impressive jewellery in an extensive repertoire of designs fusing those indigenous Berber traditions with subsequent Arab, Jewish, Andalusian and other European influences, combining delightful ‘gabss’ friezes in Arabic calligraphy that celebrate verses from the Q’uran, graceful flower patterns and abstract geometry with sharply stylised birds, animals, zigzags, triangles and squares and icons of ancient Berber origin. These all result from traditional skills handed down with passion over countless generations whereby technique, at the core of Moroccan crafts, is passed on through a master ‘maalem’ who, over years, instructs their apprenticed family and determines their skills in combining quality with intricate decorative work in rich designs of flowing lines with precision draughtsmanship and craftsmanship.

The major characteristic of Morocco’s crafted pieces of art is that that they are made by hand, using traditional machines and tools, thus making each object unique and truly authentic. Three major crafts decorate and furnish Moroccan buildings: woodwork, chiselled plaster lattice work known locally as gabss (stucco) - one of the most difficult to master where the craftsman has to work fast, first spreading a thick layer of wet plaster and then shaping and incising many levels of relief in stages before it dries - and then there is the wonderful ceramic mosaic tile work called zellij. All are to be seen at their best in the decoration of the Medersas (Koranic schools) built between the 12th an 16th centuries of Fes, Meknes and Marrakech and in the surviving palaces and renovated houses converted into riads of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Some say that Jewish artisans came to Morocco as early as 950 B.C during the reign of King Salomon; possibly as his artisan emissaries and probably to escape his oppressive rule. One way or another, Moroccan Jews believe that they laid the foundation to arts and crafts in Morocco since time immemorial and before the imageduction of Islam into Morocco in the 8th century A.D., when tribal artisans were producing wares not limited by the consequent prohibition of figural imagery in religious art, especially that of humans and animals. Such figures were not, however, forbidden in the home, when figurative images adorned items such as carpets and in other textiles and jewellery that tend to be made of silver for men and gold for women, giving to Morocco’s arts and crafts that something very special which might never have been appreciated without it - the motif - whose designs perpetually weave and interlace resulting in a glorious mix of geometrical genius with tribal history.
A profound sense of aesthetics is ever-present in the structural and landscape architecture of urban centres such as Fes to remote hamlets hidden away high on the Atlas Mountains and further south deep in the Saharan regions to resurface, additionally to all mentioned before, in stained-glass, illuminations of poetry and religious books as well as documents such as marriage contracts, tents, carpets, curtains, bed covers, clothing and musical instruments. This sense was and remains so pervasive in Morocco that it captivated modern art pioneers such as Delacroix, that romantic painter who inspired by both classical and Medieval art, to open the floodgate to Impressionism by imageducing into European art the vivid colours of the Maghreb when, in 1832, he stopped in Tangier and Meknes. Here, moved by Berber, Jewish and Arab beauty, he produced masterpieces depicting the essence of Moroccan esthetics, including observations of daily life, of the interiors of Jewish homes and portraits of Jewish women, which appeared in his eyes beautiful and charming and their costumes dignified and graceful. Following Delacroix, Henri Matisse came to Morocco in 1906 to study the culture and where he was inspired by the bright colours of the sun to become fascinated with the traditions, art and intense colours. He also spent the winters of 1912 and 1913 in Morocco perfecting his colour scheme under Mediterranean sun. Many other artists followed went on pilgrimages to Morocco, most searching for artistic redemption in the exotic, the colourful and the sensuous. It also was to inspire abstract contemporary art in the work of the architect and painter Le Corbusier and the abstract Expressionist painter Wassily Kadinski, who evidently borrowed from Berber geometrical forms, colours and symmetry.
Image result for HENNA TATOUAGE IN MOROCCOHandicrafts
Embroidery and Weaving -At the heart of Morocco's vibrant handicraft culture is the essentially feminine art form of embroidery on silk, cotton and linen earning a well-deserved reputation for decorative textiles since the time of the Roman conquest of North Africa. The more refined art of weaving appeared in Morocco in 14th century A.D., when, from that time on, textiles from an extensive range of materials of sheep or goats’ wool and imported silk could be said to become the flagship of Moroccan art and craft, from the elementary to the most sophisticated decorative objects, bearing witness to the sophisticated taste of a bygone society. By the 16th century, Fes became Morocco's principal centre for the weaving of fine wool and silk for both domestic and export markets. Since these times, the city's professional craftswomen have embroidered silk velvet with gold and silver thread using a flat couched stitch to work elaborate flower and foliage designs for luxurious house furnishings, wedding garments and horse trappings. While some samples of incredible Moroccan hand embroidery date back to early in the 18th century, Moroccan women started this time-consuming occupation long before when Moroccan women decorated their hands and feet with henna for special occasions. These intricate, meaningful patterns were later to be transferred onto pottery and then into embroidery, using naturally dyed silk, most commonly deep red, indigo blue and black, sometimes purple, shades of brown, yellow, and green, to be embroidered monochrome onto white cotton. In the late 19th century, when the tradition was still strong, some two thousand women or more were teaching embroidery in Fes alone. Once married, they continued to embroider at home or, in some cases, in harems, where women from other countries would certainly influence the women with their style and technique whilst they exchanged ideas, love stories, dreams and technical expertise to be translated into silken fantasies on fine fabrics. During the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, they began using chemical colours for the silk thread.
One may also marvel at the woven and embroidered fabrics of the Berbers. Today, the hardy women of these tribes produce some of the most stunning and impressive articles on the African continent when their rhythmic variations of motifs, the shimmering of impressive colours and variety of texture make them unique as they continue with their hand-loomed weaving of wool blankets, rugs, cloaks, storage bags, pillow and cushion covers using natural black, brown and white yarn.
Embroidery played an important social and economic role in northern Morocco where each city, town and village developed its own distinct and varied style. Cities such as Tetouan, Chefchaouen, Meknes, Rabat, Salé, Azemmour and Fes are all known for their unique embroidery styles, techniques, colours and fabric with Fes embroidery being perhaps the most celebrated - easy to identify from its highly graphic and geometric design; a triangle representing the eye, but may also symbolise the female sex should there be other triangles in each corner and/or the hand of Fatima (the Hamsa) included in the embroidery for protection against evil eye.
Wealthy families exhibited their status through the use of exotic fabrics, elaborate decoration and abundant jewellery where the children were taught to embroider at a young age, sometimes in special workshops when those well-to-do families would buy cotton fabric from Egypt, silk from the
Orient and special looms, so their daughters could practice at home the skills and art they learned from their teacher, or maalma, who would keep all the original work as her commission for this free training. Over the years, the women would accumulate many personalised patterned pieces to be displayed or worn at special occasions - gandoras, djellabas, caftans, shawls, belts, handkerchiefs and headscarves, or to decorate interior spaces through squared and rectangular bed spreads, cushion covers, tablecloths, tray cloths, curtains and mats, each demonstrating their absolute originality through the freedom with which the motifs are arranged, the variety, visual intricacy and elegance of the time-consuming compositions and their exquisite colour sense of a cultural art passed on to following generations. Clients would come to order new embroideries, or have their old ones restored.
A Moroccan girl's dowry of embroidered curtains, bed covers, tablecloths and many other intricate pieces which had easily take a generation to make and to be displayed at the wedding were to reconfirm the visible wealth of the family, whilst other less well-to-do parents might rent out particularly magnificent pieces for this purpose. Before the wedding, a Moroccan bride would be accompanied by womenfolk to the steam bath, the hammam, wearing clothes embroidered on the sleeves, the belt, the veil and even on the under garments. There were also pieces especially embroidered for the henna ceremony. Traditional dress is important in these marriage rituals, where the bride is robed in layers of garments and wraps of brocaded silk and gold-embroidered velvet, adorned with a gold crown strung with pearls, beads or amber necklaces. The bloodied wedding sheet, made of crêpe de chine embroidered on the ends, would later be shown to everyone at the party, to prove the virginity of the bride. A Moroccan newborn baby often receives a beautiful embroidered pillowcase and sheets and the continuing importance of embroidery in Moroccan life can also be seen in the traditional ceremony held for infant girls at the age of four months, when the baby is placed in a chair and given a needle and thimble along with some silk thread to hold, in anticipation of a life blessed with the needle's art.
Moroccan dress requires the crafts of textiles, jewellery and leather. While European dress is increasingly worn in the cities, it is quite normal to see contemporary versions of traditional clothing worn by men and women, purchased ready-made in the local souq or commissioned from a tailor. Two major trends emerge - the urban costume and the rural costume. Women may wear
the ha’iq, a sort of ample cape made out of a light and white fabric covering the body from head to toe, seen mostly in rural areas. Under this is worn the q’miss, something similar to a long light camisole or baggy trousers. The Caftan, of Persian origin, imageduced into Morocco in the 16th century and the Mansouria are two long, wide, collarless dresses for women, usually of thin fabric or silk, closed in the front. The mansouria is generally worn in the home as a kind of simple house coat or under the caftan, the latter often with many embroidered buttons whereby the caftan highlights femininity in shimmering colours, plain or with gold and silver embroideries, and decorated contours and extremities. A wide, plain belt, or one embroidered with silk thread and gold, gathers in and tightens the waist. Hardy mountain and desert womenfolk wear lengths of cloth as cloaks, woven with geometric motifs, fastened with silver pins and brooches (fibula), topped by elaborately folded headdresses.
Men wear the Silham or Burnous, a large cloak, plain coloured, brown, black or rarely white, usually a mixture of rough wool and camel hair, over a Djellaba with a hood. The djellaba is an ample, ankle-length, loose robe with long straight sleeves and a pointed hood in fabrics ranging from fine wool, light-weight cotton, silk, and blends of synthetic fibres to rough, homespun yarn. The opening for the head is large and starts around the upper chest. The Gandoura, usually white, is a voluminous flowing garment resembling somewhat a short, sleeveless and collarless nightshirt, made of lightweight cotton or woollen cloth. In the Saharan regions, in cold weather, the menfolk would first put on a white gandoura, followed by a blue one and then a woollen outer garment. The sleeves could be rolled up or gathered and put over the shoulder.
A Tarbouch or ‘Fez’ is used as a rimless, red felt, tasselled head cover mainly worn by the male city dweller, named after the Imperial city of Fes which has become a national symbol of Morocco, whilst the Rozza is a turban worn mostly in the mountainous rural or desert areas, whilst the crimson felt brimless cap - the Taghia - decorated with silver embroidery may be seen worn by Gnaoua musicians. Both men and women wear silken embroidered Belghas or leather Babouches (Oriental slippers), though heavy sandals and boots will be worn in the mountainous regions.
Because of the rarity of older patterns and difficulty in conserving textiles in extensive hot, sometimes very humid temperatures, Moroccan embroidery remains largely undiscovered outside of the kingdom; furthermore, unfortunately, relatively few Moroccan women today practice the art of hand embroidery, with many items now machine embroidered. It is such a pity that this beautiful tradition is slowly being lost and we should treasure and encourage what remains.