It was raining in the Sahara. I postponed my desert trip and travelled to Tamegroute instead, 20 kilometers south of Zagora in Morocco’s Draa River valley. The road to Zagora was a long stretch through barren lands. Stones, sand, then stones again; grey, brown, or a mixture of both, resisting the usually scorching sun.
Tamegroute itself was a town with little cheer and a population of about 6,000. It had been known as a religious center since the 11th century. The town’s only tourist attraction was the Quranic library – one of the richest in Northern Africa – that featured a Quran dating back to 1063 and original writings of Avicenna, Ibn Rushd and El Khwarizmi. The library was a great treasure. The treasures’ display however was as cheerless as the town.
Sometimes it is in the saddest places where the sun shines brightest. The real treasure of Tamegroute lay in Zaki Naciri’s unpretentious pottery and paintings shop on the main road back to Zagora. I stopped the car and entered. Walking past the pottery, I stumbled over a painting lying on the floor in the Tamegroute dust. In Zaki’s makeshift studio more of his paintings were hanging on the walls or lay rolled up on tables. This, right here, was a discovery.
What I was missing outside, I found inside this dusty workshop: an abundance of colors and forms, created and arranged by a painter whose brush was close to his heart. Was this naïve? Was this expressionist art? I didn’t care. Attempts at defining art often reduce the creative output to a mere label that only satisfies the non-imaginative.
Zaki Naciri was 53 years old, as he told me, and he had left secondary school at the age of 14. His ancestors had been Marabouts, Sufi Muslim teachers who had headed a religious school in Tamegroute. The school still exists today, in the same building as the library.
“What is your motivation for painting?” I asked him. “How did you start?”
“I always drew,” he replied. “In school, I started with pens and pencils. I was drawing lines. Later I used brushes and mixed my own colors.”
“There is a lot going on in my head,” Zaki continued. “Thoughts, the people of my town, the hope for a better life. Some time ago I saw a program on TV discussing violence against women in Morocco. It inspired me to do a new painting.”
‘The Rape’ is one of Zaki Naciri’s strongest works. On a dark blue background it shows a body, a lap maybe, with a multitude of heads, faces, arms, fingers and eyes, all in the color of the flesh. And right in the middle, crawling over the body, Zaki Naciri painted a big black spider.
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No different than in other countries, violence against women is a problem in Morocco, Human Rights Watch says. A 2010 national survey of women aged 18 to 65 found that 63% of the women had been a victim of physical, psychological, sexual or economic violence in the previous year. 55% of these women reported conjugal violence. Only 3% of those who had experienced conjugal violence had notified the authorities.
On March 17, 2016, Moroccan lawmakers finally passed a bill that had been in limbo for more than ten years, addressing the violence against women. Still, according to an article in Newsweek, the critics are not happy with it. It doesn’t criminalize instances of marital rape nor does it protect victims from their attackers until the investigation phase is complete. It also fails to provide health care and housing to female victims who find themselves with no safe haven.
Zaki Naciri is an artist with a sensory awareness of his environment. Before or after ‘The Rape’ – I didn’t ask him exactly when – he painted ‘Divorced Women’; their number is increasing in all of Morocco, said Zaki, couples break up because of social problems (and probably also because of a law passed in 2004 that for the first time allowed women to file for divorce). And he painted ‘The Kasbah’, the place where people meet, with eyes that express joy, and ladders, a recurring motive in Zaki Naciri’s art, that lead to a higher ground. Then there is ‘Les Femmes Berbères’, celebrating the Berber women of Morocco, their beauty, their perfect skin and their good health, emphasized by the red cheeks.
‘Les Femmes Berbères’
“Did you ever exhibit your paintings?” I asked Zaki.
“Never,” he said. “Well, only here in Tamegroute, four years ago. Nobody bought a piece.”
In the meantime, Noâmane, Zaki’s son, had joined our discussion. My father has an extravagant personality, he said, he is odd and does strange stuff. People here think that he is somewhat crazy.
‘Mahboula’, the mad woman, was the nickname of Morocco’s most famous painter, Chaïbia Tallal. She was born to a peasant family in rural Morocco. A wife at 13, widowed at 15, she was an illiterate single mother who only in her thirties took up painting. Chaïbia’s art and the creations of Zaki Naciri have much in common. Their style is an ‘art brut’, an outsider’s art, free of restrictions from scholarly concepts. They paint as they see it.
Surely, Zaki Naciri must have heard about Chaïbia, his fellow Moroccan. But had he heard about COBRA, a European avant-garde movement founded in the 1940s that drew its inspiration in particular from children’s drawings and other forms of art dubbed ‘primitive’?
“I am self taught,” Zaki said. “I never studied and I never went to art school. I consider my style abstract and everyone can see in my paintings what he wants to see. Is that COBRA?”
I left Tamegroute with the firm conviction that one day this artist must exhibit his art in the big cities. The uniformity of the desert had given way to the beauty of the women, the colors of the earth and the stories of the people. It was raining in the Sahara and I had found a desert flower.