Discovering the ancient city of Marrakesh (Part II) Marrakesh to Ouarzazate by Aaron C. Greenman

For Part I of Marrakesh to Ouarzazate, please see here.

“Little by little, the camel goes into the couscous.”

— Moroccan proverb

During the first half of the 20th century in Morocco, an era of the French protectorate and the political intrigue that associates itself with any colonization, two figures on each side of the cultural divide stand out in history, at least to the modern day, European visitor looking for an entry point into the country’s recent history.

Jacques Majorelle (1886 – 1962) was the son of Louis Majorelle, who co-founded the School of Nancy with Emile Gallé in the late 19th century, a school pivotal for its role in the Art Nouveau decorative movement. After studying architecture, Jacques committed himself to painting, though it was not the Art Nouveau that interested him, but instead the light, color and exoticism of North Africa’s Arab world. After several years in Egypt, Jacques moved to Morocco in 1917, invited by a close friend of his father’s, and gravitated toward the desert oasis of Marrakesh, settling there permanently in 1919 and marrying his first wife.

For the next 40 years, Jacques painted the people, streets, and landscapes of southern Morocco, and travelled in the Atlas to paint Berber communities, as well as the oases beyond that sit on the Sahara’s edge. While his style has its highs and lows, there is undoubted commitment, and his canvases convey the white, harsh desert light of midday; the evening’s turning point to the cool, dry nights; and the sinewy shapes of dress and turban that animate the villages.

Perhaps the most visible part of his legacy – thanks to the investment and preservation work of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé over the past 30 years – is the garden that Jacques purchased in 1923, and where he later built a cubist villa in the early 1930s. The Majorelle Garden, open to the public, is a beautiful riot of color, most strikingly the Majorelle Blue that graces the villa, where the beautiful Berber Museum is housed.

Another character that looms large over 20th century Morocco is T’hami El Glaoui, the Pasha of Marrakesh between 1912 and 1956. Based at the Kaskab of Telouet between Marrakesh and Ouarzazate, he became head of the Glaoua after the death of his brother, Si el Madani, and as an ally of the French conspired to overthrow Mohammed V.

From the mid-1930s, T’hami’s influence and personal wealth expanded, while his personal style and charm gained him audiences with the European jet set and graced him with visits in Morocco from Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, and others. His confidence in his collaboration with the French began to wane in the early 1950s, when the French began to work to consolidate their hold on power. Despite T’hami flying to France and kneeling for forgiveness before Mohammed V in November 1955, there has been a continued ambivalence about his legacy amongst the Moroccan population, and the Kasbah of Telouet now sits in ruins.

Interestingly, one of El Glaoui’s sons became a well-known figurative painter, with aesthetic hints of Majorelle, and one of his grandsons starred in a program known well to middle aged French television watchers, Belle et Sébastien.

– Aaron C. Greenman

Aaron C. Greenman has been a photographer for more than 25 years and has lived and worked on four continents. He has previously been profiled on The Leica Camera Blog for his work in the Far East, the Indian Subcontinent, East Africa, Israel, Turkey, Russia, and Europe. More of his portfolio images can be viewed on his website, and he has several books available for the iPad. Custom prints of his work are available for purchase on request.

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