24 September 2015
by Anna Whetstone
Time spent living and working with artisans in the Atlas Mountains offers an extraordinary insight into the lives and work behind the multitude of artisan products on offer in the souks of Marrakech and the boutiques of London. The unique opportunity provided by this residency was the chance to work alongside the artisan leaders of Anou; six people with exceptional drive and commitment to creating a future for their craft and their families that does not depend on middlemen to sell their work.
This opportunity began with a week in the beautiful valley of Ait Bougamez, living and working with six artisans and five other designers. Together we were offered invaluable insights into each other’s practice and working techniques, which lead on to a pairing of artisan and designer. Parting ways as a group, a journey in multiple taxis, through numerous villages, rounds dozens of death defying bends took our newly formed duo to Oued Ifrane, the home of Mustapha Chaouai - a talented metal worker with a truly unique skill set
Life in Oued Ifrane is centred around family and community, and the streets are filled with children shouting and playing. These are the generation that Mustapha and his fellow artisans hope to engage and offer a sustainable future in the world of craft. Mustapha himself spent his early childhood immersed in the weaving co-operative where his mother worked, and through watching her he absorbed an understanding of the craft, and unusually for a man, he taught himself to weave.
While his adult life has been spent in a workshop building stoves, fixing trucks, and creating the beautifully ornate metal doors that grace almost every home in Oued Ifrane, he has retained the unique skills absorbed as a child.
To watch the considered, methodical, yet efficient approach Mustapha takes to his work is to see in action many of the qualities possessed by each artisan we encountered. It is the flexibility with which these qualities and skills are applied to both daily life and craft work that struck me the most. There is an extraordinary level of patience possessed by Mustapha and his contemporaries, arguably instilled through a life where journeys are slow, taxis leave only when all seats are full, and all food is cooked daily from scratch. It is this impressive capacity for giving time and consideration to every stage of a process which leads to a culture of craft with such an exciting future.
The collaboration Mustapha and I undertook was to create lighting products which captured a unique personal heritage; a combination of weaving and metalwork. Through a desire to instil products with inherent sustainability and the potential to become the debut pieces of a wider collection, we settled on the material choice of mild steel and sabra. Sabra is a material unique to Morocco, it is a fine silk spun from the fibres of the Agave cactus and dyed in myriad beautiful colours. In spinning this delicate silk into a thread substantial enough for our purpose, I was witness to the most astonishing mix of ingenuity and the ever present patience. Across thirty five metres of arid land and thorn bushes, we spun the silk on adapted power drills, untangled every tiny knot, and delicately fixed even the finest of broken threads. Mustapha Chaouai does not use scissors! In my experience there is not a tangle in the world that cannot be tackled with his unique combination of swift dexterity and calm patience.
Likewise we encountered no need for 3D drawing packages or complex calculations; every curve and ratio is calculated in the swiftest of sums and formed with nothing more than a handmade hammer. It is this innate knowledge of techniques and materials that leads to a craft approach with such admirable appreciation for the materials themselves. Nothing is wasted, and even the smallest piece of metal or the shortest of threads is kept for future use; it has potential and this is well understood.
As a wider co-operative Anou in turn recognises the potential in each of its artisan members, and what is so vital and exciting is the move to create a platform which fosters the artisans own creativity and allows them freedom to be creative and share their craft directly with the free market. By offering buyers the chance to invest directly in the creativity of these designer makers, it is also fostering an understanding and a link to the heritage that Amazigh artisans like Mustapha are so committed to protecting.
The final forms of the lanterns created were inspired by a single character from the Tifinagh alphabet; Aza, which represents ‘freedom’ and is recognised as the symbol of the Amazigh. Our hope with these products was to capture the aesthetic of this symbol, and incorporate it as a means to present this emblem of an enduring and resilient people far beyond the mountains of North Africa. By embodying a unique and personal artisan heritage within these lantern designs, and collaborating to exchange skills, techniques, and ideas we hope to have sown a seed which may help protect the heritage of an ancient culture, and facilitate steps to an exciting design led future.
Anna Whetstone is one of the three chosen UK residents for our 2015 Common Thread: Anou Residencies program. Read all about our program.
Take a look at the wonderful fanzine to see the outcomes of the project.