Kimba In Morocco
By Laura McIntyre
Natalie and I visited Morocco this January, seeking an auspicious start to the New Year. We were based in Marrakesh’s medina for two weeks in a riad about a 20-minute walk from Jemaa el-Fnaa, the central market square. Our open rooftop, home to stray cats and potted plants, became a centre-point for stillness and reflection. The uninterrupted light reinforced the sky’s seeming infinitude, which span omnipotently over the low dusty-rose cityscape.
I’ve been drawn to Moroccan culture since hearing Gnawa music, which originates from sub-Saharan African communities. It is particularly popular in Marrakesh and the nearby coastal town of Essaouira - a place Jimi Hendrix supposedly fell in love with. Gnawa is highly spiritual, deriving from ancient African religion, rituals and Sufism; it developed from slave migration of black Africans with Berber and Saharan groups. There is, in fact, a small scene in London dedicated to it. Last summer we attended an evening of Gnawa at the now closed-down Hive in Dalston. We sat on a bed of cushions, spread out on an adorned carpet. A musician tentatively draped red and orange cloths over our heads. He then gifted us with dates and milk to consume as the entire musical ritual became realised.
Six months later we found ourselves sipping mint tea in Jemaa el-Fnaa, observing the army of hagglers, henna tattooists and street entertainers, including Gnawa musicians, who soundtracked our evening meal: spiced harira soup, followed by cinnamon coated orange slices and perfumed chebakia sweets.
Gueliz, Marrakesh’s modern district, has a discreet passage of contemporary art galleries, including the Matisse Art Gallery. We were drawn in by the name alone and found it sold, perhaps unsurprisingly, a book called Matisse in Morocco. I was unaware of Matisse’s affiliation with Morocco up to this point and the catalogue seriously resonated with my experience of the evocative country so far.
Henri Matisse, one of Kimba’s primary inspirations, stayed in Tangier from 1912-1913 and produced a body of work influenced by the characters and landscape here. Blue is the dominating tone in these pieces and ‘Window at Tangier’ exemplifies the scope to which Matisse extends the use of the colour in varying tones, from the lighter, distant sky to the dark walls in the foreground. The prevalent blues remind me of all the turquoise jewels scattered copiously throughout the souks, or markets. Blue is particularly evocative of Essaouira, which comprises of white and blue buildings, like a Greek island, and holds azure fishing boats in its ports. The presence of blue seems indicative of Matisse’s aesthetic aim: to create art that is of ‘balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling and depressing subject matter’.
His subjects are depicted minimally. Little detail is put into their faces, compared to the exquisite but subtle embellishments on their clothes. Four of his Tangier portraits are of a local woman named Zorah. ‘Zorah on the Terrace’ shows the woman sitting meditatively on a rooftop terrace and the scene manifests through a turquoise filter. It captures what we found so exquisite about Morocco and what Matisse sought to aid his vision: the North-African light. The upper-left corner has a pale yellow triangle - the luminosity of which is unbelievably true to the light I remember and tried to capture in my own photography. The suggestion of peace and simplicity is given not only in her facial expression but also in the curvature of her body, the vase, and the roundness of her slippers. This is typical of Matisse’s Moroccan subjects, who are composed predominantly of circular shapes. He establishes compositional harmony between the round components of his characters and their environment: the soft, oval ceilings of mosques and empty arches above cobbled pathways.
This body of Moroccan-inspired work also includes landscape paintings, including ‘The Palm’, ‘Periwinkles (Moroccan Garden)’, and ‘Acanthus’. Botanical motifs were strongly developed in the Morocco period and are evident in later works such as the ‘Trivaux Pond’, even up to the cut-outs. His plush gardens are painted with vibrant greens but are set against stylised purple and pink backdrops. The tones are very deep, blocked out in an abstract manner. These paintings call to mind the epitome of Moroccan botanical beauty: The Jardin Majorelle- what was once the home of Yves Saint Laurent.
Reminiscing over our trip and revising Matisse’s work confirms for me that Morocco harbours a special energy that promotes creativity. Like Matisse, we were imprinted by the colours, the bold lines and amazing light that we now hold happily in our memory. Here is selection of photos we took that hopefully give you a sense of its essence:
By Laura McIntyre
Laura McIntyre is a freelance editor and writer from London who's written for various publications including Tank magazine.