Diamonds to chickens

Cultural exchange in Morocco

The artisanship in Morocco is rich and long-lived, all over the country you can find artisans working in studios in much the same way as they have for hundreds if not thousands of years. Mustafa is a weaver from the market town of Sefrou, 30 kilometres from Fes. He works on a loom that his Grandfather inherited, and thinks that it may be four centuries old. When asked how long it takes to become a Ma’llam (Moroccan for Master) he can’t really answer, he grew up with looms and weaving has always been a part of his life, it has shaped the way he thinks. 

Mustafa is an artist in his sensibility, this is clear as you hear him speak, even if it is not fully represented in the simple blankets that he weaves and sells. But Mustapha feels isolated, he knows there is a whole world of people working in textiles, yet in the ancient Medina of Sefrou there is little interest in what he does and little economic opportunity. Most Moroccans look to a modern future, the ancient medinas in cities like Sefrou are the forgotten parts of town, areas for the poor and disadvantaged. Inhabitants of the new city, which has developed around the Medina, rarely set foot inside its gates.

Jess Stephens is a UK-born visual artist who has lived in Sefrou for eight years. Through her organisation Culture Vultures she has built a vast network of artisans in Sefrou and Fez and is committed to raising their profile and to connecting them with people from all over the world. In January 2016, Culture Vultures hosted a textile residency bringing artists from, America, Australia and Europe to Morocco and linking them with local artisans working in the field of textiles.

This is how Heidi Abraham came to be in Sefrou. Australia-born with Ukrainian and Egyptian heritage; she is a contemporary artist interested in cross-cultural positioning and text, both are central to her research and studio practice.

Heidi and Mustafa met on an orientation tour at the beginning of the residency. Afterwards, Heidi approached Mustafa asking if he would work with her. They decided to build a loom together and Mustafa taught Heidi how to weave.

Meeting them both it is clear there is recognition of each other as artists. When asked why he decided to work with Heidi, Mustafa answers, ‘we have a saying, “we don’t give diamonds to chickens’” He then adds “how is it possible to evaluate this sort of sharing? It’s priceless” It is clear for both of them many diamonds discovered and shared.

For Heidi the project was a surprise.  As an installation artist working with text and transcripts, she didn’t expect to be building a loom and weaving.  Her research led her to the shared origins of the words text and textile with the Latin word texte meaning to weave. Other linked phrases include spinning yarns, the thread of an idea, weaving words, all point to strong connections between words and weaving.

Heidi states “I never contemplated textiles like that before; not that long ago everything was made by hand, We have forgotten that. I think that feminism, has effected that, that’s why I am an artist in a way because I am a modern woman but the arts give me contact with domestic things, but in a different context.”

It is rare now for us to own anything made by hand, as a result, there is nostalgia for tactile connection. Morocco offers a link to this past and this accounts in part for its popularity as a tourist destination.

There is no denying that Mustafa is proud of what he does, and the life it provides him. Having said that it is clear he lives hand to mouth, he has pressure to produce in order to live. Younger generations are opting for study and the promise of a better-paid office jobs. He faces the reality that he may be the last generation to use this four hundred year old loom.

In many ways this cultural heritage is a diamond that belongs to us all, so there is something very hopeful in the exchange between Heidi and Mustafa, it offers the possibility for this heritage to continue. Perhaps the old systems of apprenticeship are fading but through residency programs like these, the artisanship in places like Morocco can be acknowledged and celebrated and the knowledge carried forward to future generations.

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