AIR Artisan open studio exhibition, Sefrou.

Strolling through Sefrou medina is always an enchanting experience, this cultural melting pot has played host to Roman, Jewish, Berber, Moroccan and Algerian communities since the thirteenth century. Known as the Garden of Morocco and famous for its cherry orchards and artisanal craftsmen, the air is perpetually filled with the rich promise of what a day’s exploration will uncover. This weekend however, there was something more extraordinary at play as ten international artists from all corners of the globe opened their studio doors and their hearts to the public, to display the work they had undertaken as part of a month long residency.


Approaching Culture Vultures nucleus at the funduc, the atmosphere was charged with excitement. Aromas of turmeric, ginger, cumin and paprika filled the smoldering charcoal air, as I ducked and dived between the long threads that the carpet weavers had straddled on the upper balcony level, which formed the main focal point of the exhibition. The dulcet sounds of live jazz permeated through the veranda as people from all creeds and none indulged in sweet pastries and the traditional Moroccan tea ceremony to discuss art. Questions filled the air, as curiosities were aroused in this cultural haven.


In its previous incarnations this eternal site of artisanal creativity has been many things to many people and is as indigenous to the artisans of Sefrou as these works of art in turn, are representative of the shifting cultural context in which the artisans of today function in the medina. These transitions have been closely observed by the artists over the duration of their residency as they engaged with and learned from the M’allem’s (masters) using their experiences to inspire their own artistic process. As a site for a contemporary art project, ever-present in the dialogue of the exhibition, this offers us an opportunity to reflect upon these symbiotic evolutions.


The historical elegance of the space drew me to the quietly powerful work of Japanese artist Ayano Nishmiura whose exquisitely embroidered head scarf, juxtaposed so humbly with the pattern she used from the neighbouring tailor, who was actively stitching in the adjacent space. The sophisticated use of human hair offers the observer the opportunity to reflect upon the notion of a mane as a symbol of beauty and the Islamic tradition of modestly covering ones hair while ironically still having the element of hair externally visible.


Wilhemina Garcia’s installation, which deals quintessentially with raising environmental awareness of recycling litter, demanded a unique space to be seen and considered. She developed a new technique of twisting and reworking materials from the tailor she spent time with. Her vibrant use of colour and texture from the garbage she collected from the banks of the River Aggai in association with young people from Dar Al Shabab brings the enormity of the endemic littering problem of Morocco’s throwaway society to life in dramatic fashion.


The seminal work of New York jewelry designer Lucia Perluck, which is deeply embedded in Arabic calligraphy along with the ethnic colours and patterns synonymous with Morocco, required a space for reflection and to appreciate the associated meanings of its symbolic visceral visual language. Her collaboration with local metal engraver Mohammed Benjebara has fortuitously blossomed into a potential new business partnership.


As I continued my journey, I focused on the work of Japanese ceramicist Hidemi Tokutake whose unique subject matter surrounds visitors as we breathe in Tokutake’s multi faceted creations, which incorporates the artisanal context in an abstract manner.


Raw Bird from Paradise, a sculptural work in progress by artist and Culture Vulture Director Jess Stephens, epitomizes Moroccan cultural nuances through her unique modern approach. Rag rug technique, wicker frame, second hand djelaba and headscarf cloth constitutes this evocative piece. Stephen’s language of perception, which radiates from a central point in the artwork found its home in the axis of the exhibition affirming the projects emerging vocabulary.


In an alternative space Fatma Gültas’s hanging woven carpet completes the tapestry of time and repetition that influenced her work. Positioned as it was, hanging from the ceiling, it allowed an opportunity for reflection as the audience could develop their own personal response to the theme. Sharing a space with Lisa Bornholdt’s mixed media woven installation, the influence of Islamic geometric patterns permeates both art works and provides the viewer with a multiplicity of perspectives and platforms from which to communicate with the works and the recollections triggered within and without, as both pieces extend outwards into the space.


The inclusion of a collaborative projected film project above the tea room, convenes robustly yet tranquilly in a darkened room where this paradox informs the viewer of the artisanal process and enunciates the voices within the industry. Sonia Hamza, a French photographer and textile artist, Catherine Wilson, an Australian photographer and video installation artist and Alexandra Schmidt a radio documentary and experimental audio artist from the USA, developed this captivating and engaging reel. The artwork echoes their intrinsic understanding of the residency, uniquely interpreted through their own artistic philosophy, reflecting each artist’s pensive approach. The creation bears a romantic dimension and embodies something more mystical and intimate in a space where the artisans recount their own personal experience and the film is infused with joy, sadness and endless expectation. The inclusion of a soundtrack developed from Gnawa musical rhythms, perfectly portrays the trance like cycle of repetition that is indicative of their individual craft processes. It reminds us of the importance of this rich heritage and inspires us to give credence to their voices.


Culture Vultures exhibition of work from these artists – it could be said raises more questions than it answers. Where there are unanswered questions then there must be discourse, and where there is discourse there is passion. For the ongoing development of this inspiring residential arts project, this seems like a very good place to start.







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