Modern Raba(r)t

30 June and 15 and 22 July 2022

Of all the things we expected to find in Morocco, modern art was not one of them but it turns out that we were going to find it at almost every turn and it turned out to be one of our favourite discoveries about the country.

On one of his early sorties on his bike Stefan had come across a defensive fort on the Atlantic coast which had been repurposed as a photography museum. It was advertising an exhibition of women photographers and he returned to tell me it had my name written on  it. So on my first day off and our first day in the city we went to take a closer look.

What is now the Musee National de la  Photographie started life as Borj El Kebir or Fort Rottemburg. The fortress was built in 1889 by a German architect to protect the coast. However, the Fort and its two 30 tonne cannons were never used and it was used only as an ammunition store. Inside its thick walls, the maze of windowless rooms are the perfect setting for its new exhibits.

And there we were introduced to some of North Africa’s women photographers like Lalla Essaydi and Fatima Zohra Serri. Their striking images also delivered powerful messages about women’s bodies, identities and position in society.

Outside and inspired, I tried my best to capture the women of Morocco as they hung out on the ramparts of the fortress.

A few weeks later, and with Stefan recovered from covid, I scheduled a visit to two more of Rabat’s museums both promising more modern art. This time I found more willing victims, I mean companions, in our pontoon neighbours, Gabi, Wolfgang and Julian.

After a quick hop on the tram to the centre I softened everyone up with a lovely breakfast in a perfect shady spot off Rue Mohammed V.

Our first museum didn’t immediately promise art. Finding Roman coins in museums all over the Mediterranean has become a bit of a standing joke in our explorations. (‘With the number of coins left scattered around, its no wonder the empire fell!’ Stefan says.) The Al-Maghrib Bank museum was no exception and evidence that the Romans did not leave Morocco unoccupied.

But after the extensive displays of shiny coins the museum took an unexpected turn.

A couple of random Jacques Majorelle paintings (yes, him of bright blue house and garden fame in Marrakesh) led us to another gallery and a crash course in contemporary Moroccan art.

It introduced us to the rainbow geometric shapes of Mohamed Malehi and the animal hide and pigments of Farid Belkahia and so many more beautiful images of Morocco in public and private.

We found huge canvasses reminiscent of Frida Kahlo, Gilbert and George and Salvador Dali and would have been entirely satisfied gazing at the Bank’s collection were it not that we hadn’t even got to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Just a short walk and we reached the national museum and found there was art sprayed on its walls outside as well as hung inside.

But again it was the photographers who grabbed our attention.

We entered Touhami Ennadre’s Qasida Noire exhibition and were plunged into total darkness. His stunning black and white images leapt brightly out of their frames, beautiful portraits of the public and private lives of Moroccans. I could have stared at them for hours.

Blinking back into the light we moved on to the sometimes playful, always revealing portraits of Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, Samual Fosso, Zanele Muholi and Malik Sidibe, all with their own commentary on race, gender and sexuality in sub-Saharan Africa.

In our new list of top art museums, this one goes straight to the top for introducing us to some of Africa’s brightest stars and planting images in our minds that taught so much and will stay so long.

On our last day trip into the city, after a somewhat uninspiring visit to the archaeological museum, we almost stumbled across the Villa des Artes. I say almost because I’d had it in my back pocket just in case we were passing and, despite Stefan’s museum fatigue, I suggested we popped in!

The gardens would have been enough to satisfy us on their own, a beautiful green oasis tucked away in an ordinary street

but inside the house the art vied desperately for attention amongst the exquisite crafts of the architecture. Despite our new favourite Moroccan artists Fatima Hassan El Farrouj, Mohamed Malehi and Farid Belkahia taking starring roles, it was hard to know whether to look at the exquisite mosaic of the fireplace or the painting above it, the brightly painted ceiling or the canvas on the wall.

It was an incredible treat on one of our last days in a city that had surprised us at every turn with its art, even on the outside of its buildings.

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