Meet the traditional artisans of Fez

Start with the ancient North African city of Fez.  Add the often hidden, traditional artisans who tenuously preserve the old craft techniques.  Spice it up with local and international contemporary visual artists,. The result: – Exposé Artisanal –an exciting project emerging out of Fez’ old medina to inspire creativity, expand portfolios of design and celebrate the treasured yet dwindling number of Fassi artisans.  Exposé Artisanal offers a unique opportunity to foster a new appreciation of the talent and traditions behind the crafts people of Fez and celebrate the influence of their unique heritage on the wider world.

http://www.zoomaal.com/projects/exposeartisanal/1478

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Artists Call Out - Artists and designers are invited to apply for a one month artist residency with an attribute of working alongside a Fassi artisan. Culture Vultures invites designers, visual artists, installation artists, writers, musicians, performers, researchers or conceptual artists to spend a month investigating and practicing the techniques,  materials and personalities of the traditional crafts masters in Fez. The definition of artist is broad.  C.V. has a preference to unexpected collaborations that combine both approaches and an in-depth exchange.

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AiR Artist – Artisan – Spend a month residing in a house in the ancient city of Fez, the world’s largest car-free urban metropolis and Moroccan capitol of crafts. Recognized by UNESCO and many national and international development organizations as a valued heritage of Fez, the crafts and their makers play an important role in the cast of this magical North African city. Artists will be housed together in a traditional house in the medina of Fez and spend extensive  time in the workshops of the artisans.

For more information go HERE

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Summer Souk Sale

Twareg Necklace by Moroccan Bling

Moroccan Bling launches today its summer sale with discounts on all stock on our etsy shop. Items on offer include pieces from the twareg inspired series, this summers leather necklaces and cuffs and earrings assembled from modified djelaba buttons and mixed metal work for the south of Morocco. Browse, click and wait for a essence of North Africa to land on your doormat.

Leather Cuff by Moroccan Bling 2012

Anne Graaf, art historian writes about Moroccan Bling.  One Western artist neatly and nicely combines the best of Morocco and Europe in her vibrant work.  She is jewellery maker Jess Stephens, her exuberant and gorgeous necklaces, bracelets and earrings are on her shop at etsy.com/shop/jessieculture

Lemon and Olive textile earrings

Moroccan Bling 2012

Jess’s exciting little gallery is choc-block filled with designer jewellery pieces that have both the whiff-on-the-wind of the wild Bedouin woman of the near Atlas hills and the complexity and colour sensibility of the a Camden art graduate.  And if teapots can become chandeliers,  jellaba buttons can be bracelets. There is a wonderful inventiveness and re-use of some traditional items of Moroccan garb. In the collaborative spirit of the Festival, the adornments bring together Orient and Occident, the world of here and the world of there. And like the sense of oneness and community elicited by some of the music, these delicious trinkets create a hunger for the coming together of cultures. They embody the exciting frisson that can occur when different world traditions rub together. This then, the coming together of cultures, is at the heart of this year’s sacred experience at the seventeenth festival of music in Fes.

To benefit a 15% discount use the etsy coupon code SUMMERSOUK2012 when purchasing. Sale continues until the end of August.

http://www.etsy.com/shop/jessiculture

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North African jewelry – an overview

For millennia North Africa, including the nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Egypt, has served as a crossroads for the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. Starting well before the Christian era, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans and Greeks mingled with the Amazigh peoples. Also known as Berbers, they are thought to be the original inhabitants of the region, along with Africans from south of the SaharaDesert.

Coral neckpiece from North Africa

In the elaborate jewelry worn by North African women, a profusion of pendants, colored enamels and precious or semi-precious stones transform the pieces into flamboyant and conspicuous works of art. Women receive jewelry from their husbands when they marry, and they wear them as symbolic expressions of social codes and identity. In certain shapes and materials, jewelry is seen as a way to protect the wearer. The hand, or khamsa, is considered a potent shield against the evil eye.

In rural areas jewelry is generally made of silver and favors geometric form and decorations. Pieces crafted in urban settings and sometimes made of gold display floral, arabesque and rounded designs. Many jewelers in urban centers were descendants of Jews who fled Spanish persecution beginning in the 13th century. Itinerant jewelers worked in rural areas, where their techniques included casting, piercing, filigree work and enameling. Niello decoration lends a distinct black outline to patterns on silver jewelry. These techniques were inherited from Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine traditions.

Neckpiece from the Draa Valley – Morocco

The rich mixture of materials in North African jewelry reflects the varied cultures of the region’s inhabitants and their long history of extensive trade and contact. Imported materials from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe were lavishly combined with local materials of diverse color and form. It is not uncommon to find jewelry with elements, some more than two thousand years old, from Europe, India, ancient Egypt and Central Asia.

Used widely throughout Africa, beads have been imported and made locally for thousands of years. Beads of all shapes and sizes made of stone, coral, amber, glass, shell, old coins and later Bakelite and plastic buttons are combined in elaborate designs. These are often based on older jewelry forms handed down over generations. Amber, a fossilized resin imported into North Africa from the Baltic and beyond, was often strung with beads made of copal, a semi-fossilized resin found in West Africa. Gold and silver are metals of choice in North African jewelry. Because pure gold and silver were rare and restricted to the wealthy, most jewelers worked with alloys, sometimes made from melted coins, salvaged metal objects and discarded jewelry.

Many materials are thought to have protective and healing qualities as well as symbolic meaning. Silver is linked with honesty and purity, and when combined with certain stones it can heal select ailments. Red Mediterranean coral, associated with life-sustaining blood, is prized for its healing properties. It is worn to promote fertility and to prevent harm to children. Yellow amber attracts sunlight and deflects darkness.

Berber Niello Work

The range of techniques also reflects the cosmopolitan history of the region. Jewish silversmiths living among the Kabyle of northern Algeria specialize in cloisonné enameling and also introduced niello. This technique, with Turkish and Central Asian origins, involves fusing silver, copper and lead to make a black powder that is then applied to a base layer of metal. Other techniques, such as filigree, granulation and engraving, suggest ties to areas as distant as Yemen, Syria and Somalia.

 Source :http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/hermes/index.html

See Moroccan Bling’s collections inspired by Morocco here

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Traditional Moroccan Leather Tanneries – Fez

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Within Moroccos’ artisanal economy leather is the country’s largrest export to partners like Spain, France and India.and exports up to 100 million slippers annually. Much of the leather production is carried out in factories to keep up with export standards however Moroccos ancient tanneries are still very much in working execution. Fez, is the heart of where it all began centuries ago.

The city of Fez was founded in the 9th century and is now home to over one million people. . In 1981 the Old Medina was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Old Medina is specifically home to three ancient leather tanneries, the largest being the Chouara Tannery, which has been washing, treating, smoothing, and coloring animal skins into soft, leather goods for over a thousand years.

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Ground level at the liming process – Chouara Tanneries, Fez. 2012

The start of the tanning process begins with the collection and sorting of the raw animal skins. The types of animal skins used are sheep skin, goat skin, camel skin, and cow skin with the best quality leather coming from goat and camel skins.  These skins are soaked for two to three days in large specialty vats that contain a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt. This mixture will loosen excess fat, flesh, and hair that remain on the skins. Once the soaking duration is done, tanners then scrap away excess hair fibers and fat in order to prepare the skins for dyeing.

Once the skins have been cleaned, they are laid out to dry on the surrounding rooftop terraces. Dried, the skins are taken to a different set of vats where they are washed and soaked in a mixture of water and pigeon poop in order to make the skins supple and soft. Pigeon poop contains ammonia that acts as softening agents that allows for the skins to become so malleable and to some exten the animal hair loosens. The tanner then uses his bare feet to knead the skins for up to three hours to achieve the desired softness.

At this point, once the leather has reached its desired softness, the skins are moved to a select set of vats for the tanning (or dyeing) process. Within the Old Medina, the tanneries continue to use natural vegetable dyes, such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed on the skins to turn them yellow, and olive oil, which will make them shiny. However it is not stated by tanners or tannery shop workers but one suspects that chemical products are also used today for a better quality and longer lasting color, along with a less pungent odor.

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Tanners softening tools.

 When fully dried, the edges of the finished skins are cut and used as fillers for other products. The leather is then sold to other craftsmen who make the famous Moroccan slippers, known as babouches, as well as wallets, handbags, furniture and other leather accessories. Many of these products are making their way into the European markets are suddenly becoming a sought after commodity.

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The life of a tanner is not an easy one. Not only is it considered to be one of the hardest and dirtiest professions within  Fez, it is also incredible labor intensive. The art of tanning is run and carried out by men. Many of the families and workers live around the tanneries and their skills are passed down from generation to generation through the male lineage though a tradition less and less evident as schooling becomes obligatory and horizons broaden. In response to this and to keep traditional skills alive a new artisanal school has been set up on the edge of Fez medina to see traditional handicrafts through to the future via Morocco s youth.

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Since the tanneries are one of the main perpetrators contributing to river pollution, Aziza Chaouni and LA-based urban planner Takako Tajima, are proposing to move the tanneries that exist in the Old Medina closer to the newer ones in the industrial parts of Fez. The goal of rehabilitated the tanning facilities are to create a green space within the Medina. Aziza Chaouni proposes that the vats be transformed into botanical gardens, workshops and studios, community center, education center, and other communal facilities shared by leather workers and visitors to the leather district.

However there is quite a bit of backlash in regards to removing the tanneries to a different location and installing a botanical garden. Many feel as though that is Western “beautification” concept would be imposed on Fez and wouldn’t speak true to the organic nature of the Medina. Many are concerned with the replacement of an economic infrastructure with one that may not be as economically viable.  When speaking to workers at the tanneries there is much skepticism as to how much of the tanneries will actually be moves. Watch this space.

Many thanks to Chouara Tannery and http://www.ouche.org for much of the insights for this article.

Images by Jess Stephens

To visit the tanneries at ground level and meet the tanners book at tour at http://culturevulturesfez.org/artsianalaffairs/

Browse jewelry inspired by the Moroccan tanneries http://www.etsy.com/shop/Jessiculture

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Artisanal Affairs in Fez.

Sefrou-based artist Jess Stephens has created a new, up close and personal tour of the medina, which bridges the divide between tourists and local craftspeople, writes Vanessa Bonin.

Called Artisanal Affairs and offered by Culture Vultures, the new tour gives you the chance to meet and talk to the artisans of Fes, pick up their tools, have a try at the potter’s wheel or feel the weight of a wood carver’s hammer.

We set off from R’Cif and plunged in, starting at the street of the dyers. I was accompanied by a friend, Kirsty McBeath, who was a first-time visitor to Fez – so our experiences were quite different but equally astounding. For me, having lived in the Fez Medina for two years and seen the sights with many visiting friends and relatives, the opportunity to take it slowly and chat at length with the true artisans of the medina was a revelation.

Weavers, duckers and divers

Kirsty said she was amazed to meet people who have had their skills passed down through generations of workers, using methods that remain unchanged for centuries. “It was incredible to interact with the local artisans and to gain a more in-depth insight into their craft,” she said. “The experience allowed me to be a participator rather than a spectator.”

With a local guide, Hakima, as our translator and go-between, we met and interacted with these proud and talented craftspeople, who, once given the chance to be more than just a passing photo opportunity, were only too pleased to tell us their stories. Old photos came out, problems and worries were shared along with achievements, traditional working songs were sung and histories related.

An old metal worker in Place Seffarine showed us a picture of himself as an apprentice aged fourteen (below). He related the time he was invited to a conference of artisans in Germany and his amazement at meeting a female metalworker from Austria who used the same tools as he did. He left us with some sage advice: “Handicrafts – if it doesn’t make you rich, it makes you good,” he said.

Another metalworker proudly showed us a photograph of a giant hammam water heater he had made after three weeks of labour. He also confided that some of the workers suffered from hearing difficulties after a lifetime of working amongst the repetitive banging sounds of hammers on metal.

A proud copper worker at Seffarine Sq

Another highlight was visiting the tanneries – and this was no ‘elevated viewing platform clutching a sprig of mint’ experience! We entered from the river side, behind the giant wooden wheels that churn the water for washing the skins. The smell, initially overwhelming, was quickly forgotten while we concentrated on negotiating our way between the gullies of lime and sludge and workers carrying piles of dripping skins.

Fez Tannery,… same as it ever was…..

Men in work-worn shorts with wiry legs nimbly scurried along the edges of the dye pits, while we cautiously edged our way in, having visions of ourselves ending up half submerged in a pool of red, yellow or brown liquid.

The extent of the backbreaking labour involved is only apparent when you get this close. The sight of a man using his full body-weight to flay skins with a giant blade will stay with me for some time.

Shortly after getting our feet dirty, it was time for our hands to follow suit. This was during an out-of-the ordinary visit to the potteries where we got to handle the clay and try our pot throwing skills. Alas, despite being tutored by a ‘mallam’ (master craftsman) my efforts were unlikely to see the inside of a kiln.

Omar Woodcarver and Jsss Culture Vulture

The tour finished at the modern Artisanal Centre in Batha, which gives an opportunity to see how these ancient techniques are being carried into the future in an environment that is better for the wellbeing of the craftspeople. Master wood-workers, embroiderers, saddle makers, painters, rug-weavers and cobblers fashioning babouches are all here passing their expert knowledge on to the next generation of artisans.

Part of that knowledge is the songs that are traditionally sung to pass the time while working, and we finished our visit with an impromptu rendition of some of these folk songs by a roomful of babouche makers. We learned about poetry called Ghalnassi and heard a recitation from the poet Gnoun.

Jess Stephens (or another Culture Vultures representative) accompanies the tours as a facilitator, to bridge relations between artisan and visitor. “The Fes-based experience is the first of two Artisanal Affairs tours – I will also be starting one in Sefrou,” Jess said. “In shaking hands with the craftspeople I hope that the visitor will also discover the experiences, lives and traditions such as the songs poetry and tales of their trade.”

So, for those who prefer wellies to stilettos, and are keen to get down and dirty with the real people of the medina, this experience is for you. It did leave me wondering however, how many more generations will continue these traditions? Will the time capsule that the medina artisans inhabit last? Here’s hoping the amazing skills, songs and histories of the master craftspeople of Fez is not lost.

Thanks to Vanessa Bonin.

Click here to book a morning or full day for an Artisnal Affair.

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MaRocko! Rocks, fossils and minerals….

Along the roadside in the High and Anti Atlas and down to the south east of Morocco boys bound into the paths of on coming cars to offer crystalline mementos of Morocco and rocks, fossils and minerals are staples of most tourist shops in the south. Before purchasing you might want to read these notes:

Geode

Geode – Tennis ball size specimens of crystals in a hollow geode costs around ₤12/24$ in theUKor theUS, on the Moroccan hard shoulder they may cost you more. Brilliant orange and red geodes and slices of rock crystal (quartz) look attractive but are unknown to natural science as are the quartz geodes given an iridescent metal coating by vendors.

Ammonites

Ammonites – Attractive spirals of ammonites (from Carboniferous to Jurassic) in Morocco they can be bought sliced and polished as well as raw. Check the center of the spiral of the ammonites and at the ridge around its shell to check how far natural features have been ‘enhanced’ by a chisel.

Tribulites

Trilobites – Slightly older ammonites, trilobites often appear in shops as identical beige-colored fossils on grey slate. In nature they are rarely so perfect – beware plaster casts. The early trilobite paradoxis is about the size of a hand, with long whisker like spines. A deep-sea inhabitant, it is often found looking rather squashed sideways, where the silts on which it lived have been sheared by pressure. The Calymene and Phacops types of trilobites are about 200 million years younger Paradoxides . They measure about 2 inches long, with crab like outer skeleton. The half rounded shield-like skull, often found separated from the exo-skeleton, can appear in a shop with the rest of the skeleton carved around it as a tribute to the Moroccan craftsmanship.

Nautilus

In the back limestone regions near Erfoud, the white crystalline shapes of belemnites, ammonites and nautilus are cross sectioned and polished to emphasize the internal structure.

Information from Lonely Planet.  www.lonelyplanet.com

See our shop inspired by Moroccan Materials.

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