Saturday, May 8, 2010

Casablanca's New Art Galleries and "Unsung" Old City

We must admit that Casa(blanca) is often (purposely) bypassed when in Morocco. It has too much of what we go to Morocco to get away from. Here are two articles, one from the New York Times, that celebrates Casa's burgeoning art scene and one from the Guardian that offers tips on appreciating Casa's medina (old city). Only the first page of this article is posted below because it is too long to post in its entirety. Please see the link above for the full Guardian article.


Now, Cultural Casablanca

Published: May 9, 2010

ON the industrial outskirts of Casablanca, Morocco, feral dogs roam the grounds of an abandoned meatpacking plant. Today, the sprawling factory, still replete with dangling meat hooks and blood-stained floors, is the unlikely venue for Casablanca’s largest independent art exhibition space, Les Transculturelles des Abattoirs, or the Transcultural Slaughterhouse, which has featured unusual site-specific pieces: sets of sculptured feet placed side by side on the ground, for instance, and faces pasted directly on the white tiles lining the space’s walls.

The transformation was made possible in 2009 when Casablanca’s mayor, Mohamed Sajid, warded off eager commercial developers and placed the 215,000-square-foot complex (rue Jaafar el Barmaki Avenue, Aïn-Sebaa Hay Mohammedi; 212-526-51-58-29; in the hands of Casamémoire — a nonprofit architectural preservation society — with help from the city’s nascent arts community. The move was a testament to the emerging importance of Casablanca’s cultural sector, as were the openings, over the last two years, of a stable of contemporary art galleries across the city.

Nestled amid the street peddlers and roaring diesel engines that clog Casablanca’s boulevards is the nearly two-year-old Galerie Atelier 21 (21 rue Abou Mahassine Arrouyani; 212-522-98-17-85; For Aziz Daki, the gallery’s co-owner and an art historian, the city’s mushrooming art scene is a reflection of the cultural interests of King Mohammed VI, an enthusiastic collector. “His passion for the arts has been one of the inspirations for what is now a growing group of Morocco-based collectors,” said Mr. Daki, whose gallery represents 14 Moroccan contemporary artists. “He really is one of our art world’s most important role models.”

The years since the 1999 transition from the relatively repressive reign of King Hassan II to the more tolerant and economically savvy regime of his son, King Mohammed VI, have meant big business for entrepreneurs like Youssef Falaky, a co-owner of the six-month-old Matisse Gallery (2 rue de la Convention, Quartier Racine; 212-522-94-49-99), a spinoff of a location in Marrakesh. “Before the death of Hassan II, people were living in the dark,” he said. “No one wanted to look rich. But now people are spending, and that has meant more investments in the art market.”

Hassan Hajjaj, an artist who splits his time between his native Morocco and London, was one of the first artists featured in Matisse’s Casablanca space. “Casablanca has its own special flavor,” said Mr. Hajjaj, whose work updates stereotypical Orientalist imagery with an almost Andy Warhol Pop Art flair. “The city is at that stage where there are a lot of hungry people that need spaces to show. It’s a big, chaotic city. But good things are growing out of it.”

Myriem Berrada Sounni, 29, who owns the 11-month-old Loft Art Gallery (13 rue Al Kaissi, Triangle d’Or; 212-522-94-47-65; with her 26-year-old sister, Yasmine, said the city’s art scene has gone mainstream. “At the opening of our last exhibit we had ministers and presidents of banks,” she said. During a recent visit to the gallery, little red dots signaling a sale could be found next to nearly every painting on its pristine white walls. “In Casablanca,” she said, “art galleries are now a place for people to see and be seen.”

Of all the medinas … insider's guide to Casablanca

Few tourists visit Casablanca - which is a shame, says author Tahir Shah, because it is Morocco's unsung jewel

* Tahir Shah
* The Guardian, Saturday 8 May 2010

Close your eyes and think of Casablanca, and your mind most probably comes alive with images of Bogart, Bergman, and Sam tickling the ivories in the smoke-filled Rick's Café. And there's nothing wrong with that. Except that Casablanca the movie has almost nothing to do with Casablanca the city. Shot almost exclusively in Hollywood, the wartime film portrays Casa (pronounced "Caza" by locals) as a cosmopolitan colonial crossroads of the exotic east. It features just one (uncredited) local character, Abdul the doorman. It's a fabulous example of Hollywood not letting the facts get in the way of a good story line.

Six years ago I dragged my wife and two small children from our cramped flat in the East End of London to live in Casablanca. We bought a rambling mansion with five courtyards, gardens and a pool in the middle of the sprawling Sidi Ghanem shantytown. It is quite the most magical spot but the learning curve has been a steep one, especially when we learned that the house was said to be infested from the floor to the rafters with wicked spirits, known as jinn. After lengthy exorcisms and endless renovations, we set about getting to know the city that had become our new home.

Casablanca seems to bear the brunt of every Moroccan joke, while being given a wide berth by most tourists. But spend a little time here and you begin to see that those who scorn it are missing something very magical.

In recent years the international jet-set have discovered Marrakech and a handful of other Moroccan cities. They wax lyrical about the "real" Morocco they've found in the narrow streets of labyrinthine medinas. Yet none of them ever mentions Casablanca, except to relate how they escaped it as quickly as they could. And that's the first thing that appeals to me about Casa – the absolute lack of tourists.

Eat in one of its many restaurants and the food is consistently good – because they rely on repeat business, rather than on tourists they will never see again. The restaurants, cafes and nightspots are full of Moroccans, not tourists, and thus far more atmospheric.

When the French took control of the small Portuguese-built port of Casablanca a century ago, they set about transforming it into a showcase of their colonial might. From the outset, they conceived it as a pleasure dome of art-deco architecture and European culture, the kind of city in which local Moroccans would be reminded of the imperial motherland. Luring the greatest architects from France with the prospect of building a city from scratch, the French administrators had Casablanca designed from the air, the first city in history to be laid out by aeroplane.

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