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News An art trail through Marrakech, Africa’s Capital of Culture 2020

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An art trail through Marrakech, Africa’s Capital of Culture 2020

Morocco’s iconic red city has been crowned the first African Capital of Culture for 2020, thanks to its architectural and artistic significance. Considering its two UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites – the buzzing Djemaa El Fna square, where snake charmers rub shoulders with food vendors; and the labyrinthine medina, crammed full of Aladdin’s cave-style shops selling everything from gold lanterns to piles of spices – it’s no wonder.

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Throw in its serene walled gardens, tiled hammams and plans to restore the old city’s architecture by 2022 in a multi-million dollar project, and it’s also no surprise that the city experienced a 15% increase in visitor numbers between 2017 and 2018 – a statistic that’s only expected to rise.

1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair

But while the city has long been a historical goldmine, it’s increasingly staking its claim as a contemporary art hub, too – which the Capital of Culture accolade nods to. 2017 saw the opening of the long-anticipated Yves Saint Laurent Museum, while fashion house Dior hosts its first large-scale event in Marrakech in April.

This new cultural standing is this month echoed by the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which returns to the city for its second edition from 22-23 February. Artwork from over 65 artists and 20 galleries will be on show, selected from all over the globe but with a strong African contingent.

For the organisers of the fair, Marrakech was an obvious choice to kick-off the event, which then travels to London and New York, and a “homecoming” for the fair, according to its founding director Touria El Glaoui. If you’re in town over these dates, make sure you check out the fair’s programme of public events.

Yet Marrakech is a treasure trove of contemporary art and traditional handicrafts year-round, with many designers updating traditional crafts with contemporary twists. Here we take a peek at some of the city’s cultural trailblazers.

1. For pop art and tea: Riad Yima

Location: 52 Derb Aajane, near Rahba Kedima (keep an eye out for the signs)

This pattern-filled, rainbow-coloured modern take on a traditional Moroccan riad in the heart of the old city showcases the talent and skills of contemporary artist Hassan Hajjaj. He’s known affectionately as the Moroccan Andy Warhol, a title bestowed on him thanks to his love of pop-art.

Riad Yima was bought, gutted and redesigned by Hajjaj and has become something of a temple of modern contemporary art in Marrakech. It’s a popular cafe as well as a gallery and store (almost everything you see, use or sit on is for sale). It is probably the best selection of Hajjaj’s signature pop-art style, which juxtaposes traditional Middle Eastern symbolism with traditional pop-art features, like Warhol-esque soup cans.

2. For modern twists on a classic: SOME Slow Concept Store

How to get here: Walk for 15 minutes from Riad Yima to the main bus stop at Jamaa El Fna and hop on the L1, 3, 5, 10, 14 or 16 heading north. Get off at Caree Eden and walk along Rue Mauritanie to reach Boulevard el Mansour Eddahbi

This studio and shop’s dusky pink exterior is as attractive as its clean, minimalist interior. Set in a 1930s traditional villa, this concept store stocks some of the best contemporary Moroccan designers specialising in homewares, clothes, textiles and foods.

One of the most popular parts of the shop is its Basket Bar. Traditionally, baskets are woven by Berber women in the Atlas Mountains using the many varieties of palm leaf, and have a strong place in Moroccan culture. Here, you can personalise a new woven basket by selecting the shape, handles and accessories, such as tassels. 

3. For a fashion legend tribute: The YSL Museum

How to get there: Take a 10-minute taxi or catch the L23 bus from Caree Eden to Bab Doukkala Cimetière. Walk along the N7 for 15 minutes to the Jardin Majorelle

This museum bursts with modern takes on Moroccan tradition, especially in its use of traditional building materials. Beside the heavenly Jardin Marjorelle (home to a stunning blue villa brought back from disrepair by Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé), it’s a homage to the French designer as well as the country he spent much of his life in. It houses beautiful collections of haute couture designs, plus famous works such as his pea coat and Mondrian dress.

There’s also a busy calendar of temporary exhibitions and talks, such as the Brice Marden Morocco exhibition which coincides with 1-54.

4. For sumptuous Berber rugs: Soufiane Zarib

How to get there: Turn left out of the YSL Museum, and then take the first left again. The shop is a few yards along this road

A family-run boutique that specialises in contemporary rug designs made with traditional Berber methods. The designs have become so popular with local and international shoppers, the business has expanded to 16 stores across the city. This one also sells cushions, sofas and other larger pieces of furniture. Most of the rugs are still made by Berber tribeswomen in the mountains, so the distinctly symmetrical patterns on each rug are unique. Ask about the authentic vintage Berber carpets if you want something with a bit of history.

5. For contemporary homeware: LRNCE Art Studio

How to get there: Ask the staff at Soufaine Zarib to call you a taxi to drive you 15 minutes north along the N7 to Sidi Ghanem.

This art studio and shop is your go-to for contemporary Moroccan homeware. It sells ceramics, clothing and rugs in traditional Moroccan colours – bold blues and warm oranges – but modernised with sleek, contemporary patterns.

The shop is the brainchild of artist Laurence Leenaert, who emigrated from Belgium in 2013. She creates much of the work herself, but also seeks to employ other local artisans from across North Africa. The result? A tempting hoard of individual rugs, ceramics, paintings and slippers.

6. For getting close to the artisans: Sidi Ghanem

How to get there: Walk from LRNCE Art Studio to any of the nearby showrooms. Ask for a map to help you navigate the district

Home to dozens of workshops showcasing some of the best contemporary Moroccan artisans, this area is worth a mention all by itself. Pretty much any gift or trinket you seek, big or small, can be found here – and the best part is watching the artisans at work.

You’ll find a ceramics workshop at AKKAL (322 Sidi Ghanem), traditional kaftans in modern fabrics at Topolina, handmade candles at the Amira candle factory, and embroidered bags at Stellah Marrakech. Many of the showrooms close on Fridays and over the weekends so you’ll be safer visiting during the week. Then it’s back to your riad to admire your purchases over a well-earned mint tea.