In Paris, a Spotlight on Morocco’s Contemporary Art by Joseph Nechvatal on January 21, 2015

PARIS — Three curators, Jean-Hubert Martin (who last year orchestrated the sprawlingThéâtre du Monde show), Moulim El Aroussi, and Mohamed Métalsi, have assembled a vast, 2,500-square-meter (~27,000 sq. ft.) show of contemporary aesthetics from Morocco calledContemporary Morocco at the Institut du Monde Arabe. Without a doubt they have fashioned a fruitful overview of the work of 300 contemporary artists, designers, filmmakers, and musicians. Much of the work invites examination in light of the powers of globalization and the wave of revolutions and protests that have come to be known as theArab Spring. Thus, the show highlights a combination of factors that stress the great diversity of artistic movements there. It implicitly stresses how religious and intellectual openness is part of the Moroccan tradition.

Atbane Younès “9oualab” (2013)

While the provincial aspect of some of the work at times reminded me of nightmare BFA studio visits, the entire exhibition succeeds in depicting a society in movement, thirsty for edgy invention, and unfettered freedom. Highlights of this huge pictorial corpus include the dynamic glowing light and sculptural installation of conical shaped sugar loafs by the visual artist and chorographer Atbane Younès called “9oualab” (2013). In a dark room, white light blinks and sweeps over a beautifully stacked pyramid of sugar loafs. These loaves have a conical form that has not changed for generations, but they retain something that has a paradoxical charge in Moroccan society. They are offered at every important event, like weddings and funerals yet represent rare spiritual value. Thus the work establishes a multiple and unified link of abstract uncertainty between mystical and trivial representation.

Najia Mehadji “Mystic Dance n°2” (2011)

There are also strong abstract paintings here, for example sweeping open gestural paintings by Najia Mehadji (that favor a penchant for contemplation and meditation) and jagged dark paintings by Abdelkébir Rabi, whose work suggested to me the rough and rocky environment of the majestic Atlas Mountains of his childhood. Also of interest were the intensely claustrophobic geometric jumbles by André Elbaz. His paintings tend to balance open forms as they dissolve and deconstruct. All three painters suggest a rich and complex openness to modernity in current Morocco, as does Nourredine Daifallah, a Moroccan calligrapher, with his intricate “Hommage à Imam Al Jazouli” (2014).

Nourredine Daifallah,“Hommage à Imam Al Jazouli” (2014)

There is a fragile and lonely sensibility in the figurative work of Imane Djamil,Safaa Mazirh, Mahi Binebine, Nour Eddine Tilsaghani, Ali Chraibi, andMehdi-Georges Lalou that is both seductive and threatening, expressing both pain and tender anticipate. Particularly strong is Mehdi-Georges Lahlou’s provocative sculpture about theKaaba, “Equilibre à la Kaaba” (2013) and the series of self-photographs by Fatima Mazmouzn, in which the pregnant artist poses as Super Oum in bikini, ski mask, cape, and sexy black boots. A woman exploding taboos.

But for me, the star of the show is 23-year-old Nadia Bensallam. Her cluster of terrific drawings powerfully portrays the ecstatic suspension of time through sex while criticizing dogmatic stances in Moroccan society — including the veil. One feels with her an intelligible emphasis on the black line, like a young Raymond Pettibon, within a general crotchety and slightly surreal erotic aesthetic. Her drawings have something about them that suggests the beautiful heights of a romantic sublime.

Nadia Bensallam, “Liaisons dangereuses” (2014)

Her startling short videoed performance about hypocrisy shows her wandering the streets of Marrakech, cheekily wearing a blasphemous and outlandish combination of high heels and black niqab with miniskirt, carrying a big cherry colored handbag. A teenaged boy eyeballs her and then pursues, shouting something, but I could barely hear what was said. Then the many women she meets in her eccentric outfit insult and curse her out.

Ali Chraibi “Sans titre, Série La Joconda” (2005)

Both Fatima Mazmouzn and Nadia Bensallam seemed to be able to capture the pertinent mood: a distinctly dark aesthetic taste that struck me by-and-large as a form of Romantic Goth that bordered on the erotic.

Abdelkébir Rabi, “Sans titre” (2011)

I know Morocco through occasional visits, and I found this overview of the current Moroccan arts scene, like Morocco itself, to be both familiar and continuously mysterious. The formal issues and conventional syntax of the work lent a mixture of recognizable technique to a reflection on, and questioning of, certain Moroccan religious and cultural traditions. That seems highly relevant in wake of the “Je suis Charlie” slogan/movement adopted by supporters of free speech and freedom of expression after the January 7th massacre at the satirical newspaperCharlie Hebdo in Paris.

The best artists in the exhibition demonstrate the blossoming role that softly subversive art plays in the life of open minded Moroccans (and all people). It is an art that reflects the diversity and fusion inherent in the history of Morocco itself. One where conventional syntax does not squash unconventionality. Thus it is fitting that a huge red sign reading “Nous sommes tous Charlie” (We are all Charlie) in Arabic and French has been placed on the facade of the Institute of the Arab World.

"Nous sommes tous Charlie" (We are all Charlie) in Arabic and French on the facade of the Institut du Monde Arabe (image courtesy IMA)

Le Maroc contemporain (Contemporary Morocco) continues at the Institut du Monde Arabe (1, rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, Place Mohammed V, 5eme, Paris) until March 1

A Little Thing to Wear That Speaks Volumes ‘Kimono: A Modern History’ at the Met Tells Rich Stories Through Fabric By KAREN ROSENBERGDEC. 25, 2014 From The New York Times


When clothing appears at the Metropolitan Museum, it’s typically a big to-do involving the Costume Institute, haute couture and numerous theatrical set pieces. (See, for instance, the current exhibition of Victorian mourning attire.) But “Kimono: A Modern History,” quietly folded into the museum’s Arts of Japan Galleries, is a different kind of fashion show.

It’s as stunning as anything the Costume Institute has to offer, with case after case of richly embroidered, dyed and printed robes. Its point of view, however, is more scholarly than sartorial. Really it’s a history of modern Japan, told through a garment with a simple T-shaped cut and a name that translates, simply, as “thing to wear.”

Despite its ceremonial, traditional reputation, the kimono belongs (and has always belonged) to a wider material culture that runs high to low and includes hanging scrolls, prints, books, magazines and decorative objects. Kimonos have even served as home décor, as seen in a pair of six-panel folding screens from the late 16th century that show pictures of robes draped over stands to form a makeshift room divider.


Folding screens from the late 16th century. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Edo period kimono pattern books, displayed alongside contemporaneous woodblock prints of kimono-wearing actors and glamour girls, link kimonos to the theater and to a flourishing publishing industry. Men’s kimonos from the 1930s and ’40s, printed with airplanes and battleships, meanwhile, do double duty as war propaganda.

Throughout, the show revels in the versatility of the kimono — a garment worn by men and women, commoners and elite samurai, Westerners and the Japanese alike. Although the curators include some incredibly luxurious examples, like the sky-blue silk satin robe embroidered with gold shells that may have been part of a wealthy young woman’s trousseau, they also make room for coats worn by farmers and firefighters (which, to a contemporary eye, are just as fabulous with their patchworks of recycled fabric and printed figures from Japanese folklore).

Although the most sumptuous textiles in the exhibition date from the Edo period (1615-1868), the section on the subsequent Meiji period (1868-1912) is even more stimulating. It unfolds as a lively back-and-forth between Japanese kimono designers and their Western counterparts, made possible by the opening of Japan’s ports to international trade. Prints by the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi set the scene, showing a mix of Western-style dresses and kimonos in of Yokohama, a port city.

A coral silk velvet evening coat by Jean-Charles Worth, a great-grandson of the Paris-based English designer Charles Frederick Worth, attests to the kimono’s appeal for fashionable Western women (especially those who had tired of the corset). Corsets and bustles, meanwhile, found their way into the wardrobes of high-ranking Japanese women.


Prints depicting a period when corsets were au courant (just as kimonos were becoming popular in the West): top, “Nobility in the Evening Cool” (1887), and “Concert of European Music” (1889), bottom.CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Materials and techniques were exchanged along with designs; wool traveled east and silk west, and a new, hybrid method of stencil dyeing, called kata-yuzen, evolved, enabling such gorgeous creations as a silk gauze kimono bordered by a summery scene of carp and waterlilies.

Synthetic Western dyes are responsible for the deep purples and other brilliant colors of kimonos of the Taisho period (1912-1926). And some early Showa period robes, from the 1920s and ’30s, borrow liberally from the stylized, swirling patterns of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements.

Other Showa kimonos flaunt aggressively modern, representational motifs: Leicas and Rolleiflex cameras, in a men’s under-kimono from 1955, or Mickey Mouse, in a midcentury child’s kimono. These mass-produced items, sold in department stores and suitable for everyday wear, stand in vivid contrast to the show’s older, handmade kimonos (which, by midcentury, had become sought-after collector’s items).

Inspired by and dedicated to the independent textile historian and scholar Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, who wrote the detailed and insightful book that is the show’s catalog, “Kimono” was organized by the Met’s curator of Japanese art, John T. Carpenter, and the curatorial fellow Monika Bincsik.

It concludes with kimono-inspired fashions from the 1950s through the early 1990s, by designers such as Bonnie Cashin, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, displayed alongside traditional kimonos made by Japanese artists who have been designated Living National Treasures. The show might have benefited from some more current examples; Mr. Miyake’s persimmon-colored shirt with long, spiraling sleeves, from 1991, is the most recent piece on view.

Fortunately, Ms. Milhaupt’s book (edited, after her death, by her widower, Curtis J. Milhaupt) offers an up-to-the-minute account of kimonos in contemporary culture, with nods to gatherings of kimono devotees in Ginza and Kyoto and kimono-promoting pop stars like Puffy AmiYumi. It also quotes some sage advice on kimono styling from Mr. Yamamoto, who reminds us not to get too fussy: “It’s only a kimono (meaning ‘material for wearing’).”

Baghdad was once an intellectual centre and a hub of world trade


Baghdad was once an intellectual centre and a hub of world tradeDuring ancient times the lands now comprising Iraq were know as Mesopotamia (“Land Between the Rivers”), a region that  gave rise to some of the world’s earliest civilizations. This wealthy region, constituting much of what is called the Fertile Crescent, later became part of larger imperial powers, including the Persian, Greek, and Roman dynasties, and, after the seventh century, it became an integral part of the Islamic world. Baghdad became the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth century.

Founded in 762, the city of Baghdad was originally built on the west bank of the Tigris River. As the city spread beyond the original walks to the east bank of the Tigris, the two halves were joined by a bridge. Baghdad once stood at the centre of trade routes between the East and the West, linking Asia with Europe. Caravans and travellers along the Silk Road brought silk and other valuable items. Ivory, gold…

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The Aga Khan Museum’s collection includes a painting by a renowned Mughal artist



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The Mughals were a Muslim dynasty of Turkic-Mongol origin that ruled most of northern India from the early 16th to the mid-18th century, after which it continued to exist as a considerably reduced entity until the mid-19th century. The Mughals built a magnificent empire based on well-founded and enduring institutions, laying the foundations of a dynastic rule which inaugurated the most glorious period in the history of Islam.

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The Aga Khan Museum’s collection includes a travelogue of a prominent Chinese Islamic scholar


The Chao Jin Tu Ji is the travelogue of Ma Fuchu (Image via AKDN /  Aga Khan Museum Online Gallery) The Chao Jin Tu Ji is the travelogue of Ma Fuchu (Image via AKDN / Aga Khan Museum Online Gallery)

The earliest Muslims in China were traders who came to the south eastern ports as part of the Indian Ocean trade as well as along the Silk Route, an ancient network of routes stretching for over six thousand miles from China across Central Asia to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Muslims of China are generally divided into two groups: the first group consists of descendants of Arab, Persian, Central Asian, and Mongol traders who married Chinese women and settled in small communities around a central mosque – they are known as the Hui. Culturally and historically diverse, the largest concentration of Hui can be found in northwestern China. The second group consists of Muslims belonging to minority groups whose homelands are located in the territories of the former Soviet…

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The history of silk –

According to Chinese legend, Empress His Ling Shi was first person to discover silk as weavable fibre in the 27th century BC. Whilst sipping tea under a mulberry tree, a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. The empress became so enamoured with the shimmering threads she discovered their source, the Bombyx mori silkworm found in the white mulberry. The empress soon developed sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms, and invented the reel and loom. This is the earliest surviving reference to silk history and for nearly 3 millennia, the Chinese retained a global monopoly on silk production.

Initially first reserved for Chinese royalty, silk spread gradually through the Chinese culture both geographically and socially. From there, silken garments began to reach regions throughout Asia. Silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants, because of its texture and lustre. 


During the later half of the first millennium BC, demand for this exotic fabric eventually created the lucrative trade route now known as the Silk Road, taking silk westward and bringing gold, silver and wools to the East. Named after its most valuable commodity, silk was considered even more precious than gold. The Chinese realized the value of this beautiful material they were producing and kept its secret safe from the rest of the world for more than 30 centuries.

By CE200, sericulture had spread to Korea via Chinese immigrants, emerging in India, Japan and Persia around CE300 and reaching Europe around CE550 via the Byzantine Empire. In the 7th century, the Arabs conquered Persia, capturing their magnificent silks in the process. Sericulture and silk weaving thus spread through Africa, Sicily, and Spain as the Arabs swept through these lands. Andalusia was Europe’s main silk-producing center in the 10th century.
By the 13th century however, Italy had gained dominance and entered the hall of fame in silk history. By the 17th Century, France was challenging Italy’s leadership, and the silk looms established in the Lyons area at that time are still famous today for the unique beauty of their weaving.
In Medieval Europe, silk was used only by the nobility.

The nineteenth century and industrialization saw the downfall of the European silk industry. Cheaper Japanese silk, especially driven by the opening of the Suez Canal, was one of the many factors driving the trend as was the advent of manmade fibre, such as nylon which replaced traditionally silk products such as stockings and parachutes.

Japan became the world’s biggest producer of raw silk until China recaptured her position in the 1970’s. Today, around 125,000 metric tons of silk is produced in the world. Almost two thirds of that production takes place in China.

Producing high quality silk (sericulture) is a lengthy, complex process that demands constant close attention and the Chinese have perfected this over the centuries. China is committed to continually elevate its quality by investing in the latest manufacturing machinery.

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The Persian art of decorating book covers influenced European styles


Persian artists  introduced a range of innovative ideas, both technical as well as artistic …

Persian miniature painting  transformed book covering into an elaborate art form.

One of a pair of painted covers. Persia, late 16th century. Private Collection, LondonImage: The Institute of Ismaili Studies One of a pair of lacquer painted covers. Persia, late 16th century. Private Collection, London
Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

The art of binding and the protection of scripts are as old as writing itself. The contribution made by Musli craftsmen has been a significant element in the history of this craft and the contribution of Persian craftsmen is particularly important. It was Persian artists who introduced a range of innovative ideas, both technical as well as artistic, and these were to have a profound impact on subsequent bindings and decorative styles. In the earlier period of book production within the Islamic world, book covers were generally decorated in a restrained manner. However, around the sixteenth century, Persia took a lead in artistic…

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The Wall Street Journal | Rethinking ‘Islamic Art’


Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum features diverse, high-quality works to dispel the idea of a homogenous aesthetic.

[…] Everything in the museum seems committed to dislodging all legacy of this perspective, using beauty to lure us in close enough to appreciate the distinctiveness among Muslim civilizations.

– Lee Lawrence, The Wall Street Journal, Asian and Islamic art writer

Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, building designed by Fumihiko Maki. (Image: The Wall Street Journal / Janet Kimber) Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, building designed by Fumihiko Maki. (Image: The Wall Street Journal / Janet Kimber)

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Arabesque is a distinct style in Islamic art


Islamic art describes the art created specifically in the service of the faith such as the mosque and its furnishings, but also characterizes the art and architecture produced in the lands ruled by Muslims, produced for Muslim patrons, or created by Muslim artists.

Tile with Arabesque Decoration,  early 15th century, Turkey Metropolitan Museum of Art Tile with arabesque decoration, early 15th century, Turkey. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Islamic art has been produced in diverse regions using a variety of materials and patterns. It is generally agreed that the term Islamic art describes the art created specifically in the service of the faith such as the mosque and its furnishings, but also characterizes the art and architecture produced in the lands ruled by Muslims, produced for Muslim patrons, or created by Muslim artists. The lands conquered by the Muslims had their own artistic traditions and, initially, those artists continued to work in their own indigenous styles but for Muslim patrons. With its geographic…

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