“Moroccan culture is Jewish. It is Berber. It is Muslim and it is African,” exclaims Mehdi Qotbi, exalted by the crowd pressing to discover his latest art exhibition. The cheerful artist, and president of Morocco’s National Museum Foundation, greets visitors with a generous embrace. Politicians, businessmen and arty-intellectuals have gathered in the fancy gallery of Casablanca, interested in acquiring his color-soaked paintings for their private collections. This burgeoning group of patrons may have been inspired by the well-known cultural curiosity of King Mohammed VI. In Mehdi Qotbi’s colossal paintings, Arabic calligraphy and wire fences entangle, suggesting an abstract political statement about African immigration.
Fifty Years of Contemporary Art in Morocco
Globalization, urban realities and civil liberties are today’s leitmotivs of Moroccan contemporary artists, navigating between digital technologies and ancestral crafts. The local art scene boomed in the past decades with the opening of galleries, indie creative spaces, auction houses and public institutions.
Morocco may be a different place from the one that accommodated Eugene Delacroix, Henri Matisse, Jacques Majorelle and many other giants of 20th century Orientalist painting, playfully mired in exotica, but it has a strongly rooted artistry with multicultural influences from Africa and the Western world.
Many Moroccan artists, after formative years in Western art schools and residencies, returned to the rich experiences, materials and techniques of the craftsmen in Morocco. Farid Belkahia, a renowned master painter from Marrakech, spent years in Paris, Prague and Milan, before crafting remarkable artwork out of traditional brass, natural pigments and animal skin. Others incorporated the geometry of Moroccan carpets into their paintings, while some reinvented Berber and African symbology to proclaim their multi-faceted Moroccan identity.
Abstraction rose as a dominant art form that enabled artists to take a creative and subtle political stance. In a common quest for identity, the modern art scene emerged with a sense of belonging to a cultural community and ancestral heritage. But today’s artists like Hassan Hajjaj and Artsi Ifrach shifted to rather affirm the singularity of their individual art, seeking inspiration in international pop culture and in the Self.
Morocco’s Hidden Creative Gems to Visit
Though Morocco is a place steeped in history and traditions, its creative crowd of street artists, photographers and painters has embraced modernity. Here is our selection of the latest creative places to check out around the country:
1. Al Maqam – Tahannaout
Douar Lamgassem, Tahannaout - Km28, route de Taroudant
Will Smith was there for a private painting workshop a week ago. The art residence of Moroccan star artists Mohammed Mourabiti and Mahi Binebine, located 30 km from Marrakech in the direction of the Atlas Mountains, is a hidden jewel dedicated to the promotion of contemporary art.
2. Jardin Rouge – Marrakech
Route de Fes, puis route de Sidi Rahal
In the middle of a 32-acre olive grove, graffiti and urban artists are invited in the residency of the Montresso Foundation to express themselves creatively and develop their techniques. This invitation-only residency recently opened a museum space, with visits only Friday and Saturday by appointment.
3. Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art – Rabat
Avenue Moulay Hassan, Rabat
Opened by the National Museum Foundation in 2014, the Mohammed VI Museum invites legendary international artists (Giacometti, Picasso, Delacroix) and promotes contemporary artists from Morocco in a succession of didactic exhibitions.
4. Marrakech Biennale – Marrakech
All over the city of Marrakech
Founded in 2004 by Vanessa Branson and Abel Damoussi, this internationally recognized cultural event addresses social issues through the arts, using them as a vehicle for debate and celebrating contemporary creativity in Marrakech.
5. Atelier 21 – Casablanca
21 Rue Abou Al Mahassine Royani, Casablanca
Leading contemporary gallery in Casablanca, l’Atelier 21 exhibits and sells the works of established Moroccan artists.
6. David Bloch Gallery – Marrakech
Rue des Vieux Marrakechis, Marrakech
One of the top contemporary art galleries in Morocco, this modern space showcases both international and Moroccan artists, exploring innovative forms and aesthetics with diverse media.
7. Riad Yima – Marrakech
52 Derb Aarjane Rahba Lakdima Medina, Marrakech
Marrakech flamboyant artist Hassan Hajjaj has turned his childhood home into an offbeat gallery, boutique and teahouse, where Warhol-esque pop art objects and garments made out of recycled materials line the walls (all for sale).
8. Matisse Gallery – Marrakech
43 Passage Ghandouri off 61 Rue Yougoslavie, Marrakech
This gallery space features some of Morocco’s most famous names in contemporary art, including Mahi Binebine, Farid Belkahia, Hassan El Glaoui and calligrapher Daifallah.
9. Damgaard Gallery – Essaouira
Avenue Oqba Ibn Nafiaa, Essaouira
Founded by Danish collector Frederic Damgaard in the 1980s, this unique creative space brought Morocco’s self-taught “naïve” art to international attention and encouraged local farmers, fishermen and wanderers like Mohammed Tabal in their artistic expression. The gallery also displays paintings from the Gnaoua ethnicity, with black African and Arab roots.
10. Green Olive Arts – Tetouan
18 Avenue Mohamed ben Abderrahman, Tetouan
A couple of American artsy friends launched this international art studio and urban art residency, connecting young international artists to Morocco’s local communities of craftsmen and students of the Royal Artisan Schools. Original tours of Tetouan can be organized with the owners.