Hassan Hajjaj, from My Rockstars series, 2011, Metallic Lambda Print on Dibond
Marrakech's new arts scene in the funky old medina
A new wave of artists is tapping into Marrakech's rich artisanal heritage, bringing a contemporary vibe to the city's most historic neighbourhood. Tara Stevens meets some of its leading lights
By Tara Stevens
It's just another sunny Saturday morning in the cool, green oasis that is Le Jardin (lejardin.ma), a lively riad cafe in the heart of the Marrakech medina and the social hub of the emerging arts scene in the old city. What strikes me about the gathering at my table is the cosmopolitan nature of it all. Kamal Laftimi, who owns the cafe, is there with a New York-based restaurant designer, Sebastian de Gzell, discussing a project they will open together in the spring. His wife, Laila Hida, is the creator of a philanthropic new studio space, Riad 18. Artsi Ifrach turns vintage Moroccan textiles into haute couture, while Algerian designer Nyora Nemiche, who sells her flamboyant abaya robes from a pop-up shop above the cafe, counts Erykah Badu and rapper Mos Def among her fans. Together, they form part of a creative revolution that is bubbling away behind the city's ancient walls.
All this started simmering two decades ago, when Marrakech-born pop artist Hassan Hajjaj burst onto the scene. Popularly known as Morocco's Andy Warhol – for his eye-opening photographic interpretations of life in the medina, recycled sardine can lanterns and Coke-crate benches – Hajjaj acquired international renown, but only recently has he been celebrated at home.
"When I started out in 1993 it was a very lonely place to be, because people didn't understand what I was doing," he tells me from his technicolour home-cum-gallery, Riad Yima (riadyima.blogspot.com), which he opened in 2006. "Morocco only valued fine, traditional art. It was not until Vanessa Branson [Richard Branson's sister] started the biennale that Marrakech became a proper city, artistically."
Branson set up the Marrakech Biennale (marrakechbiennale.org) in 2004, to encourage dialogue and diversity among international and local arts communities, showcase venues in both the walled old city (such as her own recently refurbed riad, El Fenn) and the new town, the Ville Nouvelle, and focus on new media and contemporary art.
The city now has 25 galleries, and they are fast embracing the artisanship of the medina. Stephen di Renza, the newly appointed creative director of Yves Saint Laurent's former home and gardens, the Jardin Majorelle (jardinmajorelle.com) in the new town, is among those looking to ancestral Moroccan savoir-faire as he sets about reimagining a historic collection. "The know-how is deeply refined here," he says. "I'm using 16th-century Islamic arts motifs to embroider leather in a way that feels very modern."
Built like a chunk of honeycomb, the medina is comprised of several neighbourhoods spinning out from its heart – the Djemaa el-Fna square – and woven together by whip-thin lanes and knotty souks. Navigating it seems hopelessly complicated – the city's biggest challenge and its greatest thrill. Thus, after coffee, I'm trotting after Artsi Ifrach, better known as Art/C (art-c-fashion.com), a fashion designer whose parents are from Mellah, the Jewish quarter south of the Djemaa el-Fna. As he twirls through its heavily scented spice souks, he stops every few minutes to riffle through what look like piles of junk on threadbare blankets.
"Look," he cries, triumphantly brandishing a powder-pink porcelain ashtray, an art deco cigarette case, and a battered silver teapot. They are to be props for the old family house he was recently given by his father, and which he opened last week as a showroom for his fashion and art collections (viewing by appointment). Ifrach's garments are created out of antique textiles and curios, each with a history – where he found it, who made it, who wore it. "I don't do the catwalk," he purrs, velvety eyes flashing. "I can't tell the story of the work in 15 minutes, so I present it in a gallery format."
His father's house is exactly that: several oblong rooms glowing with the pastel-coloured light of vintage stained glass that bounces off the artefacts of family life in the 1960s. Ifrach has kept it just as he found it, using the house as a frame for mannequins dressed in clothes from previous collections, such as his French revolution-inspired bathing suit and a rich red dress with an antelope on the front, cut from an antique woven blanket he found hanging on the wall.
"The longer I'm here the more I appreciate the culture and history of the medina," he explains. "As artists and designers, we are learning how to express that in new ways, which for me is about getting back to the innocence of creation."
Likewise, third-generation carpet dealers the Soufiane brothers (13 Souk des Tapis, Rahba Kedima, + 212 615 285 690, by appointment) are located deep within a particularly tangled section of the souks in the central medina. (Call and they'll come and pick you up, because it's hard to find on your own.)
They call their tiny hole-in-the-wall stall "Moroccan Bling", as it drips with traditional white, sequined wedding blankets. But, they confess, it's just an appetiser for their larger showroom, which sells carpets with a contemporary edge: geometric shapes, bold colour combinations and new materials woven by the same skilled artisans. And these are presented in an elegant, newly tiled, slate-grey courtyard house that was built by the Saadian dynasty in the 17th century.
The house provides a private stage, on which potential customers can view a stock of 6,000 kilims and carpets, and (in a city of precise copycats) ensures their designs remain one of a kind. It's a far cry from the leather slippers, woven rugs and beaten brass lanterns that are the souks' well-worn cliche, and it reflects a new era – as people look with fresh eyes at what the medina can offer.
Curiously, given Moroccans' inherent distrust of the camera, the most popular medium among the country's young artists today is photography. They work hard to save for the kit, yet there's no formal photography school, so they glean what they can from the internet. It's down to outside influences to help inspire, educate and put things in context, which is generating a force all of its own.
Patrick Manac'h of the Maison de la Photographie (maisondelaphotographie.ma) opened his three-storey house near one of the medina's few landmarks, the Ben Youssef madrasa, as a public archive of life in Morocco, featuring photos that date from the 19th century.
"These houses can help tell a bigger story and be used to interpret Moroccan life and culture for everyone," he says, as we stroll around his latest show, Astonishing Travellers.
Manac'h now receives up to 200 visitors a day, and this week opens his douiria, an 18th-century apartment annexed to a grand house. It is lavishly decorated with original pigment painted plaster and unexpectedly sleek Berber motifs, which, after painstaking restoration, will be complemented by a small, carefully edited collection of art and design from the era.
"Marrakech is full of hidden treasures, if you know where to look," he adds, urging me not to miss the new exhibits at the Palais el-Badi. The "incomparable" palace (as its name translates into English) has long been one of the medina's key attractions. An imposing ruin inhabited by beak-clattering storks, it always provided a welcome stillness but, as of September this year, it has become the temporary home of the new Museum for Photography and Visual Arts (mmpva.org). The British architect David Chipperfield has been commissioned to complete the project, which will open near the Menara Gardens in 2016. Until then, a section of the old palace has been restored as a gallery space and the dynamic Kamal Laftimi has been put in charge of creating the site's cafe-bookstore, to encourage people to spend time here by offering a more relaxed cultural environment.
"We're facing two extremes," says the museum's cultural manager, Mostafa Aghrib. "People living here want modernity, but tourists want tradition. Our aim is to push Moroccans to fulfil their destiny as artists while reconnecting with their roots. It's an incredibly hopeful time to live here."
The first exhibition, A Day in the Life of the Medina, by Magnum photographers, will show at the Palais until February 2014. Locals are capitalising on the buzz created by such a blockbuster show. A group of young artists known as The Mint Collective (mintcollectivemb5.com) is launching a simultaneous exhibition at Riad 18, a local house made over in Tadelakt and concrete by photographer Laila Hida. It's a cool, contemporary space operating as a blank canvas for artists and photographers, poets and writers, dancers and musicians to work, exhibit and perform; the show will update every two weeks between now and February.
Hida says she has always felt that something was missing in terms of places to meet and exchange ideas on culture and the arts in an accessible way. "There is very little formal arts education here," she says, "so it's important that it's not intimidating and is accessible to all."
In the casbah, effectively a walled city within the walled city, and the medina's most up-and-coming neighbourhood, Mike Richardson of Ripon, North Yorkshire – the man who set up the phenomenally successful Cafe Clock in Fez – is soon to open Café Clock II (cafeclock.com) in an old school. Marrakech was the first place Richardson visited in Morocco when scouting for a new project (he'd previously been maître' d at The Wolseley restaurant in London), but with the city then beyond his means, he settled in Fez. Cafe Clock has been ground-breaking in its ability to integrate a foreign and Moroccan clientele; Richardson's cafe in Marrakech aims to do the same, and will feature cooking classes, Arabic lessons and calligraphy. However, it's the storytelling initiative that gets Richardson excited.
"When I first came here I remember being mesmerised by the storytellers in the Djemma el-Fna, but I felt like an outsider because I couldn't understand," he tells me over a drink on his rooftop. "It's a dying art form, but we've been speaking to the elders and they've agreed to perform here with translators so that we can create video archives, and also – inshallah – encourage a new generation of storytellers."If the future is all about harnessing the brilliance of the past, the medina's star has never shone so brightly.