This summer I had the great fortune and honor to participate in the 22nd International Cultural Moussem (Festival) of Assilah, an international fine arts residency program and political conference held in Assilah, Morocco. Artists, poets, musicians, philosophers, educators, critics, diplomats and media representatives from around the world were invited by the Ministry of Culture and the Government of Morocco to the coast of North Africa for a two to three week period to create art, make music and literally paint the town. Assilah is renowned worldwide for its murals, and artists are invited to paint the whitewashed walls of its ancient medina. The murals remain up until the next summer, when the walls are whitewashed again, and await other artists’ inspirations.
Assilah is also known for the international convergence of art and politics. This year many diplomats and government officials participated in a conference entitled “The Democratization of the South”. Each evening during the festival, musicians and performers presented concerts either in the famed Raissouli Palace halls or in the newly constructed Assilah Cultural Center.These fantastic performances covered an extensive repertoire of music from all over Africa and the Muslim world. Soufi Music, Ensemble de l’Opera du Caire, Dancers and Musicians of Rajastan, Ballet Troupe of Mali, Nasir Chamma, a renowned Iraqi lute artist from Egypt, Troupe Musicale and the Dancers of Senegal, to name a few, were outstanding.
Rashid in front of his mural
Moroccan painter, Rashid, in front of
his Mural in Assilah, Morocco
According to the Lonely Planet Guidebook of Morocco, the 2000-year old port of Assilah, 46 km south of Tangier, boasts a turbulent history. It was conquered by the Carthaginians, the Romans, and then, in the 10th century, by Norman raiders from Sicily. In the 14th and 15th centuries came the Christian victories over the forces of Islam. In 1471 the Portuguese captured Assilah and built the walls around the city. It was, at one point, taken over by Spain and then by the Moroccans. Early this century, Assilah was the base for one of the most colorful bandits ever produced by the wild Rif mountains, Er-Raissouli. His most profitable business included kidnapping westerners. He and his gang held many luminaries for ransom, including several US businessmen. In 1909, he constructed a three-story palace in Assilah. It includes a main reception room and a stunning terrace overlooking the sea. It is told that it was from this terrace that Er-Raissouli forced many convicted murderers to jump to their deaths onto the rocks below. It is in this gorgeous and historically auspicious Palais de Raissouli (Raissouli Palace) that artists are housed, and exhibitions and concerts are presented. The headquarters for the Moussem is also here. The government has built a beautiful conference center near the Palace which has an auditorium, a spacious gallery and reception halls. Attached to the original Palace is a dining room where breakfast and lunch were provided for artists. We were treated to delicious traditional Moroccan cuisine, including “tagines” (stew) of fresh seafood, chicken or beef atop couscous, and wonderful fresh fruits, like figs with honey and watermelon. I can tell you no one wanted to jump to the rocks below! This year marked the opening of new studio spaces, including the inauguration of the print facility. The director of the print atelier is Mohammed Kahlil (USA/Sudan), Master Printer and Professor from the New School at Parsons in New York. Kahlil originally established the printmaking program for the Assilah Moussem in 1978. He was approached by Mohamed Benaissa, formerly Ambassador of Morocco to the United States, who is now President of the Municipal Council of Assilah and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Morocco; and Mohammed Melehi, Artist and Director of the Cultural Foundation of Assilah. Benaissa and Melehi both grew up in Assilah, and through their vision and joint efforts have revived this small fishing village and made it into the host for one of the most unique arts festivals in the world and a most popular tourist destination.
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Eileen Foti and Susan Goldman, in front of Rashid’s
Mural, Assilah, Morocco
In 1978 the print studio of Assilah opened primarily for Arab artists in Africa. Every summer new artists were invited to come together to explore in a new cultural context. This opportunity afforded them a platform to renew understanding of cultural sensibilities of the South and the North of Africa. As time progressed artists from other parts of the world were invited. This summer the largest number of artists attended. The highest concentration of these artists included twenty-five printmakers. Countries represented included Iraq, Morocco, USA, Denmark, Spain, France, Canada, Algeria, Bangladesh and Italy. Artists are invited to come and work and produce a series of editions. One third of each edition and the printing plates produced are retained by the Moussem.
These artworks become part of the Assilah Foundation’s collection, which will be housed in a new contemporary museum that is scheduled to be built in the next few years. This summer, for the first time, workshop facilitators were invited to lead demonstrations on non-toxic approaches in the print studio. Henrik Boegh of Denmark and Abbas Al Kadhim of Iraq presented Non-Toxic Printmaking. Boegh, a colleague of Keith Howard, has refined and improvised alternatives to Howard’s technique; however, not too many of his methods are different. Marion and Omri Behr, from the USA, presented techniques in Electro-Etch. The Behrs study and assist Professor Mohammed Kahlil at the New School in New York. They have developed an etching bath contraption that can etch copper or zinc via electromagnetic current. This approach is very interesting and yields great results; however, they were using rather caustic solvents to clean oil-based grounds off plates, which seemed ironically contradictory to the idea of non-toxic. They may have eliminated the dangers of acid, but need to study the other aspects of studio hygiene.
You may be wondering what I accomplished in the studio in Assilah, given all the many wonderful distractions. Well, although there was indeed much to partake of, I created a series of monotypes inspired by so much of the pattern and pottery that I saw. Also, the beautiful light of the ancient city by the sea served to give me great inspiration. There was constantly music playing. Sometimes it was a band of neighbors and happy families, beating drums and blowing horns all night long because a new baby was born. Sometimes it might be because someone was getting married. The awareness that art is a constant natural expression in the life of Moroccans was overwhelming and fascinating. I believe the feast before my eyes and in my ears will sustain me through a chilly, fast-paced and stressful Washington year.
On a more professional and technical perspective, it was a great honor to come together with so many different types of artists from a part of the world where one-on-one communication is the key. I firmly believe that political peace and understanding can be bridged through the arts. Many technical differences still exist, especially in the realm of the use of toxic materials, and safety and respect for materials. Many Europeans and Africans still use terrible cleaning chemicals, like White Spirits and low-grade alcohol. We were able to get the kitchen to donate liters of cooking oil to clean plates. Many artists were also constantly smoking cigarettes in the studio. My solution was to rise very early in the morning to print. I also often had to ask visiting tourists, who were observing us work, to please smoke outside! Many of the artists were very curious and intrigued about my multi-drop process and my lexan plate, which I had carried along, rolled up in a tube with my papers and litho inks. I think it is next to impossible to get these materials in Morocco. Mohammed Kahlil imports almost all his materials, including the three presses that were on site, from the States.
Travel is the ultimate teacher, and I know that I have learned many new things that have yet to emerge in my work. I feel that as a printmaker I was able to share even more in the community of invited artists, because printmaking is the ultimate community activity. Many different personalities come together in one space. Diplomacy, courtesy, respect and an openness to explore a new way of seeing, are at work. I have returned knowing that everyone has a different culture that truly influences the way they perceive the world and how they make their art. But I also returned knowing that we all really want the same thing-happiness, security for ourselves and our families and the ability to create good work.