I was born in Asilah, a small town on the Atlantic coast in northern Morocco, 40km from Tangiers. Dotted with the tombs of marabouts that define the important focal points of the town and mark out its urban fabric, we could freely move about this place without losing the spiritual links to Sufism that defined our moral stability. Navigating without a map in a sea of avant-garde and Western influences, I came across my first dilemmas on entering the world of art. The goal was the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (the School of Fine Arts) and to leave Morocco. In order to do so, I needed to get to Europe, to get to Spain. Towards the end of the 1950s, the schools of Fine Arts in Seville and in Madrid – where I familiarized myself with the language of the visual arts – taught a very rigorous and academic curriculum. The teaching dated from the 18th century, with its drawing and modelling classes in which we would reproduce the human form constrained by its contours and classic curvatures within an atmosphere characterized by an iconographic heritage.
Learning and appreciating the basics of aesthetics is important in the tradition of Fine Art, but where was the art that sprung from the spirituality and heritage of the civilizations that I carried within me? Emigrating for the purpose of learning presented a problem, even though Islam itself had drawn its knowledge through distant journeying, sometimes even as far as China. The Fine Art Schools of the 20th century continued to lean on Classical iconography. It was a time when gleaning knowledge from other civilizations or studying universal modes of interpretation or representation through the subject of philosophy, for instance, was not yet part of the curriculum.
Following ten years of art practice across Spain, Italy, France and the United States, I returned to my country to share the experiences I had gained abroad. The only option I was offered was to engage myself in teaching art at the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca. But on what principles and techniques would I base my teaching? Morocco is so close to Europe geographically, separated by a distance of only 12km, and yet they are diametrically opposed in terms of artistic practice.
Whilst starting to think about the teaching programme, we1 came up against the problem of the absence of a tradition of representation, particularly in a society in which figurative art was never really of interest nor a means of communication.
In truth, figurative art is not banned in Islamic countries, contrary to popular belief. In Morocco, representation was brought in by the presence of foreigners, mainly, but not exclusively, the colonial powers. In the period before the arrival of scripture-based religions to Morocco or North Africa, myths and daily life were not portrayed according to the classical forms of Roman or Greek antiquity. Islam in turn never codified nor imposed a ban on representation. Take, for example, the Alhambra’s Court of Lions in Granada or the carafes and utensils shaped in the form of animals, as evidence of this. In the Punic period, for instance, the representation of myth and of North African religious symbolism was often simplified and subject to abstract stylisation. Morocco began in the 20th century to open up and to adapt to modern standards through the influence of the French and Spanish protectorates. However, at the same time, there was a movement against the use of the figurative in likeness to the occupying powers’ lifestyle.