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.
Moroccan painter, Rashid, in front of
his Mural in Assilah, Morocco
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
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
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.
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.