By Nandita Baxi Sheth , Cohort ’19, PhD Candidate
Note: This article is respectfully dedicated to the many people we met-- artists, gallery and artist residency staff, hotel staff, vendors, and other Moroccans impacted by the earthquake that struck the region of Marrakech-Safi on September 8, 2023.
In May of 2023, several cohorts of IDSVA students, professors, and administrators landed in Marrakech, Morocco. Our schedule for the residency included lectures, seminars, and visits to gardens, traditional architectural sites, and contemporary art museums and galleries. We stayed at The Es Saadi resort on the outskirts of the city center which houses its own contemporary art collection of works by Moroccan artists. The aesthetic experience of Marrakech is a play of contrasts that rub up against one another at every turn. These frictions include for example: pattern and austerity, ancient and contemporary, sky and earth, dust and water, chaos and quiet, desert and oasis.
Inhabited since Neolithic times, the city of Marrakech sits at the foot of the Atlas Mountains at the edge of the Sahara Desert. The desert's ochres and blue skies are infused throughout the city (Figure 1). This play of contrasting colors resonates through the visual language of the city. The local architecture is constructed from ochre-hued earth. Gorgeous ultramarine blue buildings located in the gardens of the Jardin Majorelle bring the color of the sky to touch the earth. Similar blues and oranges permeate the intricate geometric tilework at the Medersa Ben Youssef and tilework artifacts at the El Badi Palace.
Marking a visual shift from outside to inside, geometric patterns cover inner architectural spaces in traditional structures. The aesthetic concept of horror vacui, meaning fear of empty spaces, aptly describes the patterning that covers the walls of the Medersa Ben Youssef, a 14th-century Islamic school. Our local expert, Professor Ilham Ibnou Zahir, tells us this tilework is called zellige. In addition to vibrant patterning, the emptiness of the desert is punctuated by lush gardens. Jardin Marjorelle and the Secret Garden are oases, green respites from the hustle and bustle of the city. The gardens feature flowering plants, succulents, cacti, herbs, and fruit-bearing trees such as limes and figs. Plant life added another sort of patterning, a vegetal pattern language that combines blues and golds into a wild range of green hues.
In addition to the abundance of visual information, Marrakech offers a range of sensory experiences, including taste, scent, and sound. After the tart richness of brined olives that opened every meal, we tasted the warmth of cinnamon, lemony cumin, and the bite of black pepper in local tagines.
Break times were complemented with steaming hot mint tea poured from beautiful silver teapots into small etched glasses. Essences of rose and orange blossom emanated from delicate bites of pastries. Walking through the narrow passages of the city center, the Medina, horse-drawn carts clomped by, motorcycles zipped past, and shopkeepers sorted wares. The call to prayer from the minaret tower of Marrakech's Mosque marked time throughout the day. The sound of water trickling through gardens in slim channels and bubbling through fountains was a sonic reminder of the preciousness of water in a city at the edge of the desert.
Marrakech brings the ancient and modern into critical dialogue through vibrant contemporary art sites that include residencies, museums, and galleries. One such art space is the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) whose mission is to promote African creation and access to art for all audiences (https://macaal.org/ ). At the time of our visit, the museum featured a comprehensive exhibition of Madagascarian artist Joël Andrianomearisoa. The entire museum was dedicated to his works created in collaborations with local artisans. Artworks included installations, ceramics, metal sculpture, drawings, and textiles. The exhibit’s title, “Our Land Just Like a Dream,” was drawn from his large metal sculpture with the exact words. Placed on an outside balcony, the landscape beyond is visible through the words of the sculpture.
The wall text for the exhibit explains,
The exhibition’s title is a verse, a chanted poem, or mantra that speaks of origin and earth, evoking the infinite possibilities held within the material–raw material–that Joël Andrianomearisoa appropriates, reshapes, or reinvents. (transcribed from photograph by NBS)
Of particular interest to artist-philosophers is text that is part of many of the objects. A series of stacked ceramic plates inscribed with what looked to be graphite pencil scribbles were accented by one plate that read, “On A Never Ending Horizon.” The words “On a Never Ending” and “Horizon” are split by an unevenly drawn line. A series of abstract ink markings on paper are interspersed with poetic statements. One page of the series reads, “We are all waiting for a miracle.” Words from the various artworks are repeated in a large text installation in the stairwell. The repetition of words in different media, typographies, and scales immerses the visitor in a soundless mantra, a poetic pattern language that occupies architectural space instead of a page in a book. As we wandered, paused, and read, we became part of reiterating the poetics in ourselves. Andrianomearisoa’s creative use of text is a haptic experience of Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadic space. Deleuze and Guattari define nomadic aesthetic-philosophical spaces as local and relational. They write,
…as local integration moving from part to part and constituting smooth space in an infinite succession of linkages and changes in direction. It is an absolute that is one with becoming itself, with process. It is the absolute of passage which in nomad art merges with its manifestation” (Thousand Plateaus, 494).
By incorporating local materials and processes with his aesthetic vision, Andrianomearisoa distributed the sole authorship of the artist among the people and landscapes he temporarily occupied. Coming together from around the world, we, IDSVA students, add another dimension of nomadic gathering that is marked by ephemerality. For many of us, after two years of pandemic closures, traversing Marrakech's topology felt like a dream or miracle. At our final dinner on a rooftop overlooking the marketplace in the city center, the sun set around us, a magical moment of closure (Figure 5). Along with the clamor of the marketplace below, our conversations contributed another layer of pattern to the city, this time a dialogic one reflecting on our experiences of place.