Bringing contemporary Moroccan art to London

Finding a riad-style warehouse teeming with beautiful Moroccan furniture isn't quite what you expect when stepping off the tube at Greenford in west London. But it is in a showroom at the heart of this Ealing suburb, at the top end of the central line, that husband and wife Adnan Bennani and Nadia Echiguer run their complementary businesses.

The light sparkles through Moroccan lamps hanging at one end of the huge room. The tables are adorned with silver teapots, delicately designed crockery, and Myriam Mourabit tumblers. The design is contemporary, says Bennani, but they have been decorated using the traditional technique of henna, applied through a syringe.

Since 1946, Bennani and his family have been tracking down designers like Mourabit, showcasing them in Moroccan Bazaar, and then selling them on to anyone from interior designers to individuals looking to bring the flair of Morocco's medinas to their living rooms.

Above the hand-woven, woollen rugs that adorn the floor and in between the carved, wooden screens a different type of craftsmanship can be seen. Hanging on the walls of the showroom is contemporary Moroccan art for sale; Nadia's recently opened venture. 

One picture by artist Anna Allworthy depicts a skyline in Casablanca. To the left stands the bold Hassan II Mosque, the largest in the country. If you look closely at the image, it's possible to see fragments of a newspaper, first torn up then affixed to form part of the houses.

Allworthy is just one of Nadia's portfolio of artists whose styles span calligraphy, painting and drawing. Nadia works closely with international art consultants, interior designers, hotels and private individuals; her artists' work can simply be bought, or commissioned to produce specific work for specific briefs

Moroccan Fine Art is not the only initiative promoting Moroccan art, but the only one to have an English website and to push the work globally. It is largely an online business, which showcases its paintings at pop up exhibitions and art fairs, but in between shows the works are on display in Greenford.

Recently, she, Bennani and an international art consultancy agency collaborated with the designer at the Four Seasons in Marrakech to deck out the hotel. Nadia chose 12 of her artists and commissioned them to create work that would suit the interior.

"Compared to the UK, Morocco has very few museums" she explains, "so being in a hotel is like being in a museum."

She draws my attention to the work of Larbi Cherkaoui, one of her most prestigious artists who was part of this project. He often works on goat skin, creating large-scale bases for his pictures by combining smaller squares of the skin. Using ink, acrylic and oil he uses large hand movements to paint a letter over the top. Much of his work explores the Arabic script.

Though Nadia's artists are doing well at home and in various parts of the world, compared to work from other Arab countries Moroccan art is just not as big. In Spain and France, the two countries that colonised Morocco, the work is thriving. But partly due to the language barrier in the UK it is not the same here.

Nadia must seek authorisation for her paintings from the ministry of culture in Morocco; unless they're sold, paintings can't be kept in the UK for more than six months and every half year she has to get new stock. "A lot of people are complaining about this because it doesn't help our artists to be known outside Morocco" she says. 

When Nadia did her first art show in May many people told her they didn't know there was art in Morocco. "But Morocco has a huge heritage of art" says Bennani. "Yes" Nadia agrees. "Impressionist artists came to Morocco for the light, for example Matisse and Majorelle."

Nadia explains that her mother loved art, and when she was young she went with her to art exhibitions. She also spent a lot of time at different studios, talking to artists about their work. "I bought my first painting before buying my first house" she says laughing. "Usually people buy the house first."

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor