Internationally recognized contemporary Moroccan artists all make Morocco a leading topic in their artistic pursuits.
Moroccan contemporary artists are diverse and original. They use brushes, lenses, and the printing press. They are abstract, realist, figurative, optical, mixed. They draw from reality, or they disguise in the dream world. Some are daring, some visionary.
All are recognized internationally as exceptional visual talents. And all come back to Morocco, their country of origin, in their artistic endeavors.
Hassan Hajjaj: The rockstar photographer
Hassan Hajjaj received worldwide recognition with his 2010 photo series “Kesh Angels” depicting the street culture of female bikers in Marrakech. The artist’s photographs show a colorful, playful, and undeniably hip side of Moroccan culture.
Hajjaj’s fascination with everyday objects and popular marks made journalists compare him to Andy Warhol, to which comparisons he responds: “Artists from MENA aren’t allowed to be their own thing, have to be like someone from the West … It does not bother me.”
Hajjaj is definitely more street than the father of pop-culture: Self-taught and influenced by London’s hip-hop and reggae scenes, he mixes the raw beauty of his country of heritage with the fast pace of Western art. His recent works center on “rockstars,” and one cannot help feeling that Hajjaj too is a rockstar.
Malika Agueznay, the artist of Independence
The painter, sculptor, and engraver Malika Agueznay shaped the visual language of a free Morocco. Born in 1934, Agueznay came into the art scene while Morocco was undergoing the decolonization process. Her paintings, almost entirely representing Morocco-coloured OpArt, show compositions of plant life combined with Arabic calligraphy.
The words on her artworks include Islamic religious elements but also what she gracefully describes as her “magic words”: Love, peace, humility, affection, and generosity. She hopes the words will become pillars of value to build independent Moroccan society.
Agueznay’s creations respect the Islamic principle of aniconism, not depicting living beings. Instead, her art plays with forms, colors, and compositions, expressing a mastery of the nature-influenced abstraction.
Leila Alaoui, the voice of the silenced
Leila Alaoui’s Moroccan-French descent pushed her into an artistic journey that documented and gave voice to those underrepresented. Her photographic art focused on migration and displacement as well as on cultural identity and diversity.
She believed artists should use photography and art for “reflecting and questioning society” and as such, serve as a means for social activism. The artist prioritized humans, often making the background of her photographs minimal.
Alaoui road-tripped Morocco in a mobile studio to portray its inhabitants in a radically different way than the traditionalist foreign view of Moroccans as “archaic people living in a rudimentary dusty environment.”
The minimalist background of her portraits brings out beautiful faces and sophisticated clothing to pay tribute to the rich cultural tradition behind the subjects. The project expressed what was visible in every work by Alaoui: A rejection of the idea of cultural hierarchy.
Leila Alaoui died in 2016 during a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Her family created a foundation in her name to preserve her legacy and inspire young artists to advocate for social justice.
Zakaria Ramhani, Out of All the Boxes
Zakaria Ramhani specializes in portraits—forceful, and often provocative creations mixing Arabic calligraphy with French and English text on oil. The artist finds the confrontation of cultures and languages in his everyday life fascinating. He is torn between the Moroccan identity he was born into and the French reality he chose upon immigration to Montreal.
“I use the plasticity, symbolism, and aesthetic of writing to reveal and explain the notions of identity, culture, and art that are generated by language.”
Ramhani breaks conventions: The most obvious is the Islamic convention of aniconism, yet his work acquired a political overtone when he depicted the brutality of Egyptian police during the Arab Spring.
Although his paintings are meant to evoke “feelings of idleness and desolation” as described on various websites dedicated to his creations, Ramhani breaks his own code, too, for example, by portraying internet memes in the style of Arab calligraphy.
The painter is the youngest Moroccan to receive an official French-government backed residency from the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, a prestigious art program for global visual talents.
Lalla Essaydi, the queen of a double lens
Lalla Essaydi was born in Morocco, studied in the US, and lived many years in Saudi Arabia. Essaydi moves between the East and the West and refuses to accept that any perspective may be culturally pure.
Her most famous work, titled “Boundaries,” was an artistic provocation to merge the seemingly distant worlds of East and West. The prints, following a convention of Orientalist paintings, combine the arts of calligraphy—traditionally male-dominated—with the female tradition of henna tattooing.
The cultural stir uncovers the complex identity of Arab women in the contemporary world.
“I go to great lengths to make the text illegible,” explained the artist. “I want it to become a language of its own, appreciated in the same way as the figure. It doesn’t necessarily need to have a meaning. The whole work is my story and the story of these women.” Essaydi analyzes the subject of Arab women in her consecutive works.
Abdellatif Ilkem, society’s speculator
Abdellatif Ilkem’s paintings are a masterstroke of expressionism. His works depict animals standing in positions so curious they force the viewer to reflect.
Are these positions of obedient followers of instructions, or rather of authoritative, slightly arrogant bystanders?
The inability to answer the question is upsetting and serves as a basis for a deeper reflection on the relationship between humans and institutions. What makes us different from these obedient creatures?
Which artist’s creation has impressed you the most? Share with us in the comments!