From the crumbling splendor of the 13th-century Alhambra in Granada, Spain, to the 14th-century Madrasa Bou Inania in Fez, Morocco, spectacular examples of Moorish plaster-carving, tilework, and intricately carved painted wood have blown the minds of millions of visitors over the centuries. Today, many of the same skills used to decorate those architectural gems can still be found all over Morocco in dusty craftsmen’s shops, often sprinkled throughout the old medinas of Morocco, where artisans use traditional tools and methods to create gorgeous, geometrically intricate works that are both functional and artistic. Often these skills are passed down from parent to child, but in Tetouan children have a unique opportunity to learn from true masters.
A Visit to Green Olive Arts
The Royal Artisan School – known as Dar Senaa in Arabic and Ecole des arts et métiers nationaux de Tétouanin French – is the only program in Morocco to offer a comprehensive education in craftsmanship and some of Morocco’s best-known artisans studied there. Some students come because they’re struggling with traditional education, while others simply have a strong desire to learn a craft. Founded in 1919 during the Spanish occupation, by Spanish and Moroccan artists who wanted to make sure that the ancient arts and techniques were preserved, Dar Senaa has been at its current location since 1928, where it can serve up to 150 students in 10 different crafts. The school is free to attend and now has the support of Morocco’s Ministry of Culture.
For a 10 dirham admission fee, anyone can visit the school on weekdays and see students at work, but what you’ll get out of that visit will be limited, since there’s no official tour to explain what’s going on – that’s where Green Olive Arts comes in.
Launched by American expats Jeff McRobbie, Rachel Pearsey and Peter Herron, Green Olive Arts is an artist residency program and collaborative art space. Tetouan’s best-kept secret is that it is an important center for the arts, both traditional and modern. Green Olive Arts builds on that by supporting artistic cultural exchange. Residencies conclude with an open studio exhibition for the community and local artists to attend.
One of the programs Green Olive Arts runs to help fund their primary mission of hosting artists is a private visit to the Royal Artisan School. The advantages of this can’t be overstated if you want to truly learn about Moroccan crafts and techniques. Jeff and Rachel, who lead the visits, have lived in Morocco for years and speak Arabic fluently. And as artists themselves, they understand the processes being taught at Dar Senaa. While another couple I saw ducked their heads into classrooms and then moved on, we were getting detailed explanations of what the kids were learning and asking questions of the instructors.
Our exploration of Tetouan’s artisans begins in the art studios of Green Olive Arts with Jeff. He tells us about the artists-in-residence at the studios who work on projects across the range of arts, from painting to filmmaking. The entry hall is festooned with 5-inch squares of cork, each one decorated by an artist who has sat in residence there. As we leave the studios and walk a short distance to Dar Senaa, Jeff tells us about how Tetouan’s medina is organized and a little about its history. When we arrive at the school, he points out the wood details and plasterwork in the lobby, which is as beautiful as can be found anywhere in Morocco.
In the decorative-painting (zouaqin in Arabic) workshop, the teacher, Mohammed, is a man in his 60s. When he was 12, his father brought him to the Royal Artisan School to learn carpentry. When Mohammed looked up at the lobby ceiling and saw the beautifully-carved and painted wood above his head, he pulled on his father’s sleeve and said, “I want to do that!” It’s been his life’s work ever since and examples of his incredibly detailed artistry are in the classroom to inspire current students. Mohammed demonstrates for us how beginners apply stencils and damp plaster dust to wood and then paint the transferred pattern using brushes Mohammed makes himself from a horse’s mane.
In another classroom, students learn carpentry – the decorative kind full of impossible geometry. Some students are working on pieces chock-full of hand-carved arabesques – they will be handed off to Mohammed’s shop to be painted and used in ceilings or privacy screens – while others make inlaid boxes as beautiful as those for sale in the medina galleries.
In the ceramics workspace, as a young woman in the corner spins a potter’s wheel, Jeff explains how there are two distinct styles of zellij– or “tile work.” In the Tetouan-style, he says, partially-dried slabs of clay are cut with simple knives. We see a huge bowl of wooden or plastic pieces with a wide variety of shapes, many of which have cute identifying names such as “frog” or “candle.” They are the patterns used to cut the clay. The cut pieces are then fired and glazed, producing tiles with soft, rounded edges. In Fez, glazed, square tiles are cut into shapes with a chisel, producing tiles with sharp, clean edges and smooth, flat, finished pieces. The difference between Fez and Tetouan zellij styles are obvious when you look at finished work side by side.
Every student begins with learning how to hand-draw the complicated geometries for which Moroccan art is famous. They’re taught how to create any pattern, from a simple square to the most complex design, using only a compass and a straightedge. Some students try to take shortcuts, Jeff says, such as using a ruler to mark off measurements, but they soon find that this ancient method with a compass is the only one that produces absolute accuracy.
Most of the workshops have male students, but one is all female: the embroidery class. About a dozen young women sit working on various pieces with patterns drawn on fabric, as complex as those in the male-dominated crafts. There are three main styles in Morocco, each hailing from a different city: Rabat, Fez and Tetouan. All of the styles are taught here. Jeff points out the style differences in the work the women were doing. Like the zellij, once we understand what to look for, the differences are obvious.
After we leave the Royal Artisan School, we visit several working craftsmen who have learned their skills there. With our newly-educated eyes, we can recognize and understand the techniques these artisans use to create their beautiful handiwork today. Not only that, but we are now able to see for ourselves the intensity of work and craftsmanship that was put into those centuries-old palaces, like the Alhambra, or the schools, like the Bou Inania. That is the real best-kept secret about Tetouan – it not only keeps these arts alive, but it keeps alive the possibility for you to learn for yourself all about these arts to better see the world around you as you travel the rest of Morocco!
Green Olive Arts “Artisans of Tetouan” visits are scheduled upon request and limited to 6 people. Each visit takes about 3 hours, of which about half of that time you can count on being spent at the Royal Artisan School. For more information, checkout: http://greenolivearts.com and click on “Explore.” And if you’re an artist interested in a unique residency program, please contact them.
About the Author
Since retiring in late 2016 from a career in IT, Mike Bernhardt has been visiting other cultures and writing about what he finds. When he’s not traveling he cooks international cuisine, plays his guitar, and on rainy days assists itinerant earthworms to cross the road.
You can read about his adventures at travelingwithmikeandyvonne.com.