On a freewheeling painting trip in Morocco
[post by A.Rmyth in Marrakesh, Morocco]
A month of fairly intense sketching and painting had put me in a trance-like state, everywhere looks rounded and colorful. When the “art residency” program was over I had no reason to put pressure on myself or make a plan. I was flying back home in 6 weeks and in the meantime I had the use of a friend's little house in the Médina of Essaouira, a 3 hour bus trip west of Marrakech. So that's where I went.
On my arrival at Bab Doukkala (above) bus station outside the old city Gerard, my french contact, was waiting to guide me through the labyrinth of the Medina, a smaller and quieter version of the one in Marrakech. He began introducing me to the mysteries of the town as he has known the place since the late 60s, when Essaouira was a hippie hangout. The medina, like its big sister the Medina of Marrakesh, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Gnawa World Music Festival, known as the “Moroccan Woodstock”, takes place there every year, and Essaouira is also a well known spot for kitesurfing.
For a few days I seemed to do nothing but follow my guide through the little alleyways to the best places for authentic tasty soup, pastries, tajine and couscous. I was adapting to the oceanic conditions, sudden rain blowing in and being taken away by vigorous trade winds, fast changes of light, deep blue. All the time I was scouting for inspiring and favorable locations in the town, its outskirts and the port.
I was equipped for wide panoramic painting, with a half-size french sketch box easel and a light, home-made, folding support 126 cm long. I had no desire to do any easel-kite surfing, or become an attraction for the throngs of photographer tourists.
Hoping that the right weather window would come, I began on a smaller scale by sketching in the port among the seagulls and workers at the dry dock.
I began to find my way around the port, always looking for an interesting viewpoint and taking every possible opportunity to sketch. I was inspired by its loud and lively market,
the fortified “Skala” platform with its bronze canons (designed by Ahmed el Inglizi in the 18th century) which once protected the harbour,
the armada of wooden trawlers swinging at the ends of their loose hawsers after their cargoes had been emptied.
Then the dock would get as busy as the medina, boxes of fishes were passed from hand to hand in line, tricycles delivered ice, people, cats and gulls would sneak around picking up any fish that got dropped. I found a place on a sea wall where I could look down and see the whole site, as well as the open sky with its aerial ballet of yellow-legged gulls.
It was a cinematic setting and a timeless and authentic spectacle, i wouldn't have been surprised to see a pirate sloop cruising into view around the harbour wall.
That's for my romantic side of the postcard. But I shouldn't just be a daydreamer so here are some facts:
Essaouira is Morocco's third biggest fishing port, particularly for european pilchards, but reports warn that the natural resources are over-exploited, and that mass tourism and the gentrification of the seafront are creating a strain.
This is the main region for Argan trees in Morocco and a large area is designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve to protect and prevent further degradation. There is a need to promote sustainable development.
As far as history is concerned, the construction of the port and the médina brought a lot of slaves to the town. “Ulad Bambara”, the captivating song of the Gnawa (those coming from sub-Saharan Africa), tells of their forced exile through the desert and the suffering of slavery, it can still be heard in back alleys of the medina around the Zaouia (shrine). Here Gnawa gather around their maâlem (master) who sets the tempo by playing the Guembri to lead the healing trance.
My guide and now friend Gerard goes to these gatherings on Sunday evenings. He did invite me along but I wasn't sure, I was only there for a few weeks and was still a tourist. But as I stayed longer, and through our conversations, I was building up a picture of the multi-layered maze of this intriguing town. Once again I needed time for it all to soak in, to immerse myself in the light, the colours, the rhythm of the place. I wanted to render graphically the distillation of my experience, in this complex and intricate region.
I fell very quickly into a routine and the days were flying by. In preparation for my wife's arrival I decided to have a shave and haircut. Azis Coiffure was a very welcoming hairdressers and after bargaining I sat on the bench waiting for my turn. The tiny place turned out to be more than just a hair salon, as friends kept coming for a tea, to chat, watch tv, etc. We all squeezed on the bench and, after checking that I was not taking up valuable client space, I got my sketchpad out. I have always been fascinated by tiny workshops, they remind me of my father's atelier in the Faubourg St Antoine in Paris in the 1960s.
My wife arrived for the last weeks of my Moroccan sojourn. We got married last November after a 25 year try-out period and it was a kind of honeymoon on a shoestring budget, like young students or bohemians.
I was unsure about staying here, at times feeling too boxed in by the medina and unable to paint wide, open air landscapes because of the unpredictable gusty winds. She loved the atmosphere of the medina and the cosmopolitan vibe. We spent a few delightful days, eating millefeuille pastries, jostling over bargains in the crowded sunday flea market “La Joutilla” and making daytrips to various places - the green oasis of Ain el Hajar and its palm grove and bubbling irrigation channels, Sidi Kaouki beach on a windless day.
Hearing of the existence of a relatively unfrequented bay and its fishing village 45 miles South , we headed down to Tafedna for our final honeymoon location.
As the weather was unstable, we went walking and visited the nearest berber douar (small village) or wandered along the two-mile sandy beach between the cliffs, the wadi (riverbed) and the ocean. Because of the weather the boats were not going out to sea, activity was minimal, everyone was waiting for the right conditions.
I did not quit the sketching dynamic so as not to get rusty. My marker pens were worn out, I started mixing gouache with the remaining markers or watercolors, making the most of what was still available. My A3 and A4 sketch pads of 250gr/m² drawing paper would run out soon, I was pleased to have brought just the right amount.
Finally, on the last three days, conditions were favorable for me to paint wide panoramic landscapes with acrylic paint.