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Swiri artists - the self-taught "naive" artists of Essaouira
The originality of the Essaouira artists is in the fact that they do not belong to any school or academy. They are almost all self-taught and are inspired by the cultural and natural environment of Essaouira: the sea, the land, the cohabitation between Jewish, Arab, African and Berber cultures and, of course, the color and spirituality of Gnaoua Sufism which infuses this city. In the 1980s, Danish collector Frederic Damgaard was one of the first to bring the work of Swiri artists to international attention. His gallery is still open in Essaouira.
Artist: Mohammed Tabal (1959-)
Genre: mixed media, painting
Biography: Probably the best known of the Swiri artists, Tabal was raised in the gnaoua traditions of West Africans who were originally brought to Morocco as slaves with the camel trains. It is said when he was discovered by Damgaard that he was earning his keep and accommodation by roaming the Essaouira countryside as an itinerant musician (his name, Tabal, means "drummer"), performing spiritual rituals. Tabal's canvasses are large, fantastical and colorful. He says: " "Painting is like a dream, and the dream is an inspiration for painting. When I start to sleep, I just closed my eyes I see that already reeling images that will be my source of creation." He paints not from life, but from memory, dream and his sub-Saharan heritage.
Artist: Abdelmalik Berhiss (1971-)
Genre: painting
Biography: Berhiss still lives and works in his native Essaouira. He comes from a rural farming family and drew his early inspiration from the Chiadma (Arab tribe lands) countryside. He too owes his initial exposure to Damgaard but has since exhibited all over Morocco, as well as in Germany, France, Denmark and Switzerland. His work, often compiled of many dots, is reminiscent both of Australian Aboriginal art and impressionism, and features many fantastical and distorted figures of animals, people and djnoun (spirits).
Artist: Abdelaziz Baki (1955-)
Genre: painting, sculpture, up-cycling
Biography: Little known outside Essaouira, Baki is one of the most accessible Swiri artists, both personally and in terms of his art. He can be found at the weekends in his makeshift studio at the Essaouira flea market (joutiya) or otherwise in his atelier near Ounagha (on the road to Marrakech, around 20km from Essaouira). His work is comical, creative and often functional, featuring human and animal forms as well as repetitive patterns. Using primary colors, his favorite medium is the decoration and up-cycling of everyday objects, driftwood and wooden off cuts. He also carves and decorates mythical and imaginary animal sculptures.
Artist: Fatima Ettalbi (1964-)
Genre: painting
Biography: Without a doubt the best known female Swiri artist, Ettalbi brings a dreamy, feminine aspect to the genre, if it can be called such. Her paintings feature female figures with large, kind eyes, motifs from henna tattoos and animals, often against the backdrop of typical Swiri architecture such as the Skala fortifications. She uses gouaches in a profusion of harmonious and cheerful colors. As well as featuring in frequent exhibitions in her native Essaouira, Ettalbi has exhibited around Morocco and in Germany, Denmark and Switzerland.
Artist: Ali Maimoun (1956-)
Genre: painting
Biography: Often seen around Essaouira in his signature dark glasses, Ali Maimoun has been creating art in his native Essaouira for over 20 years. His work is easily distinguished from that of other Swiri artists by his use of sand mixed with paint to create three-dimensional works which stand out from the canvas. He alternates between toning and clashing colors, always creating forms and figures inspired by nature and animals in his distinctive angular style. He has exhibited several times in France as well as in Portugal and all over Morocco.
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