Morocco already has a long history of art and culture, and is now seeing contemporary art reaching a new audience. Beyond the wonder of antiquity, new voices are reflecting the reality of Moroccan society and doing so in unexpected places. Amid optimistic government programmes and a burgeoning gallery scene, collectors and patrons are bringing local art to an international audience – of art-collecting tourists. The riad hotel IZZA, which opened its doors this autumn, is bringing art to a new generation of travellers to Marrakech who are looking to widen their horizons. But are hotels an effective way of presenting art in the context of a country beset by social and ecological challenges?
Using the possibilities of the hotel business, IZZA employs and trains locals in hospitality and connects visitors with socially focussed endeavours. One example is the cycle tour company Pikala Bikes, which employs young people to navigate riders through the streets of Marrakech. As the guide explains, the best way to understand Marrakech is to be amongst the traffic of the city. As young natives of the city, with big dreams and side hustles (photographers, musicians, even journalists) their explanation of the city is unvarnished and welcomingly direct. Pedalling through labyrinthine pink-clay streets, you negotiate the commerce of life. Young and old buying and selling, shops stacked with slippers, rugs, teapots, spices and football shirts. True enough, once moving, the hectic, boisterous nature of the medina becomes an ordered symphony of faces, aromas and smiles. A traffic of lives leading to an instinctual sense of how the city works, or at least grasp enough not to get squashed by a truck. Another reality.
With a similarly syncretic approach, the investor philanthropists Neon Adventures reconditioned several riads to create a boutique hotel, IZZA, that celebrates Marrakech and the bohemian cultural ambassadors who have championed the country since the 1950s. Amongst the three courtyards, roof terrace and in each of the 14 rooms (named after luminaries such as Yves Saint Laurent, Grace Jones, Allen Ginsberg and Brion Gysin) contemporary art mixes with traditional architecture and decorative art. The multi-million dollar collection features over 300 pieces with themes and subjects varying from contemporary Moroccan works, abstract pieces, to photography, moving images and what is one the largest physical collections of printed and moving NFTs in the world. The collection includes an installation of 34 framed prints from Sebastião Salgado ’s ‘Amazônia’ NFT release sold at Sotheby’s, and AI artist Refik Anadol, recently seen at the 2023 Grammy Awards. Amongst the static works are eleven screens showing the Ethiopian artist-collective Yatreda’s photographic loops comprising black and white portrait scenes in which the focus remains on the subjects while breezes tease their hair and the leaves around them. They’re meditative works, showing people in African settings, poised, defiant and alive in their culture. The video’s movement creates a sense of witness, heightening the sense of the people looking back, lifting the veil between your experience and theirs.
Fighting for a life worth living was perhaps the driving force for the iconic misfit Bill Willis (1937-2009), the creative visionary and inspiration for IZZA’s architecture and interiors. While infamous for his quick temper, decadent lifestyle and celebrity address book, it’s his particular brand of interior design that continues to send aesthetes into rapture. Taking cues from modernist minimalism, he led a Moorish design style that became internationally popular, retaining the geometric pleasure of mosaic design but making it bolder and more masculine, less fussy. By muting the superfluous aspects in tiles design, this style allows the details of specific pieces, such as rugs, lanterns and pottery, to be emphasised. It creates an ordered calm to appreciate these cultural artworks as intrinsically special…as opposed to part of a general scene. By decontextualising the works, is this Orientalist? Perhaps, but it is nevertheless understandable. It allows things to breathe and thus to live. This is the approach that the creatives at IZZA have utilised holistically to support not only the aesthetics of the art, the guest experience, but also the wood and mosaic craftsmanship. It’s discoverable in the myriad quiet nooks and secluded corners of the hotel.
Describing IZZA as an oasis of tranquillity within the chaos of the medina would be to undersell the hotel. It is true that, after experiencing the hot streets, the rippling water of the pool certainly enhances the serenity of the surrounding architecture, design and art. But for the visitor, however, it would be more accurate to consider it a doorway to Morocco in general and Marrakech in particular. By having the social, economic and artistic life of Morocco on show, it feeds a hunger to know more about this wonderful country. Art gives you a taste of a certain culture’s perceptions, the narratives they use to describe themselves, their relationship to globalisation, and the consciousness of a place, manifested by its people. IZZA is a prime example of an instance where commerce and soul can align to energise the cultural traveller. One could spend hours looking at the art in the hotel, but the thrilling temptation of the city itself is amplified by the hotel rather than retreated from. You feel compelled to explore, to understand more the connections of land, people and persistence that coexist to create a life worth living, and thus art, amongst arid realities.
Trebuchet was a guest of IZZA, which has B&B doubles from £138, including transfers and massage (izza.com)
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Trebuchet 14 – Ecology
MEE. 2018. ‘Third coal miner death in Morocco sparks mass protest’. Middle East Eye, February 2018. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/third-coal-miner-death-morocco-sparks-mass-protest
Palao, J. 2022. ‘À Marrakech, Mouhcine Rahaoui parle le langage des mineurs’. Diptyk, 19 October 2022. https://www.diptykmag.com/a-marrakech-mouhcine-rahaoui-parle-le-langage-des-mineurs/
Travel by Sarah Barnett
The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. – Aristotle