Short Insightful Apprenticeship

12 05 2014

Endearing new relationships, spiritual journeys and a deeper insight into the art of traditional Moroccan wood carving are experiences Minah Khalil encountered over her two week, Fez residency.  Organized by Culture Vultures, Minah’s apprenticeship was under the graceful and chuckling guidance of Hassan. His inherited workshop encompasses an thick inner wall of old carved doors, frames, shelves and other crafted  treasures going to, or coming from, the interiors of Fez medina. Pilled high from floor to ceiling it is a museum-worthy installation in itself.

Day one our apprentice was having utilize a sports hand muscle builder as the practice of the chisel proves to strain a unaccustomed hand. Comfortable with a pen, hand gestures and a smile as a common language I left the scene of Mallum and Minah and a pot of tea brewing. By the end of the week she was in full flow, designing from her budding sketch book and filling every minute of her waking day.

Minah’s spring break fortuitously overlapped the Festival of Sufi Culture and her spiritual practice takes that very path. Combining the gentle teachings of Hassan, the practice of a blessed skill, round tables, sufi performances, recycles, (Dikr) and new found acquaintances this open hearted Culture Vulture was full of serendipities and smiles.
For more information on our artist residencies, in particular AiR Artisan follow this LINK>

From Artist to Artisan

29 04 2014

Over the 4 years Culture Vultures (CV) has been fortunate enough to encounter and befriend a range of Fez based artisans who are masters in their trade either working independently or from guilds and cooperatives. Culture Vultures’ mission is to facilitate accessibility to the arts sector in Morocco and therefore promotes fostering relationships and understanding between Fassi art practitioners with those visiting from around the globe especially via its Artisanal Affairs program.  As founder of CV, the opportunity for Artisanal Affairs and Exposé Artisanal, to connect traditional creator with contemporary artist has personally been one of my favorite outcomes out of this copious adventure.

expose-artisanal-abbas     Grandfather's jade tool72

Local photographers Anaas Med El Issmae ( above), Vanessa Bonnin ( above) and Omar Chennafi are playing a part in the tool box. Their predecessors, Holger Gross and and Hollis Bennett, kick-started the bravura portfolio. In addition, a current Fullbright researcher Betsy Bolton is ploughing through a harvest of artisans’ stories shot on film on International Storytelling Day in March 2014.

Mirjam Linschooten, a Dutch graphic and collage artist, was an artist in residence at Cafe Tissardmine in the Sahara this March 2014. Mirjam visited Fez at the end of her residency and launched into the heart of the medina with long time Fez resident Alice Barnsdale to meet the jeweller Said Akessbi.  Mirjam created a few initial collages in response to her meeting with Said and although now back in New York is further developing how Said’s life as a third generation artisan can be represented or reborn within a contemporary art framework. Mirjam says of her experience in Fez:

“The different artisanal practices I saw in Fez greatly impressed me. By borrowing from these existing traditions, such as the timeless patterns, I hope to both continue and transform them into contemporary versions, bringing the past and present together. Likewise, Moroccan history provides a very interesting platform for rethinking ways of recording history and the way meaning is constructed through narrative.”

This April 2014 Minah Khalil, a UK design teacher, currently resident in Dubai, spent two weeks as an apprentice of Hassan the woodcarver. Her Fez residency proved that she could combine technical appreciation with spiritual augmentation. In just two weeks, Minahdeveloped an endearing appreciation and respect for Mallum Hassan, the Sufi Festival and Fez old medina; in addition, some incredible creations from the workshop bench.

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Minah Khalil and Hassan. April 2014.

More opportunities for artists to spend time in the strong and dexterous hands of an artisan are nigh. Kim Simon from Australia will reside in Sefrou and work alongside tailors, tanners and weavers throughout May 2014; the fruitions of which will be presented at this year’s festival pOp Up venue during the Fez sacred music festival in June. An open call for artists wishing to immerse themselves in Fez and its region and work alongside a traditional artisan should be guided to the call-out and details of Artist in residency AiR Artisan.  Indeed, this September 2014 Sefrou will bring host a group of contemporary artists from Fez, Cairo and beyond and facilitate encounters between artists and traditional craftspersons.

AiR Artisan poster sml

Let’s not forget the open minds, souls and flowing pens of the Exposé Artisanal citizen reporters;  Sue Bail and Alice Barnsdale especially, who have presented to the electronic audience warm personalities, insights and descriptive portraits.  CV will continue to make deeper connections recording the personalities behind the Fez crafts. Both new and current citizen reporters are encouraged to drink tea with a crafts person, document interesting moments and submit material in the format of choice. See a new side to Fez, come a little closer.

zakiSaidAliceZaki ‘The investigator’, Said and Alice Barnsdale.

This art-tickle comes with chokrane, baralakaoufik and ‘liber’fikum bezeef for all artisans and artists involved in this project thus far.

Keep connected for more news on crowdfunding developments, events and activities around the artisanship of Fez and Expose Artisanal.


Jess Stephens

Director of Culture Vultures and Exposé Artisanal.


Inside a weaver’s mind: where technical prowess is the warp of the darting imaginative weft.

21 04 2014

As a student, Mohammed loved mathematics and IT. Today, he uses all of these skills in the complicated techniques required for preparing a loom. For example, his current frame has 150 strands of 26 threads, 13 lines of ‘up’ alternating with 13 lines of ‘down’. He has to focus and concentrate hard when preparing as one mistake can undo hours of work. It is incredibly intricate and systematic the act of threading a loom – some steps require eight people working simultaneously to create the correct tensions and placement of threads. Once the loom is prepared, they can weave for a few weeks then the process starts again.



There used to be njars (carpenters) in the medina who were specialist loom makers. You could just give them a set of dimensions and they would build a wooden loom for you. There are none left now, only carpenters who will copy an existing loom or make repairs. In one generation, all the specialist vocabulary describing the different parts of the loom, has been lost. We hope Mohammed will document all these terms from his aged father before it is too late.

Here are a few Moroccan proverbs and sayings related to weaving:

Kay tayr knzuk

Flying like a weaver’s shuttle (i.e. someone who moves fast)

T’hat duf

Under the flying shuttle canal (i.e. to give someone something under the table/on the sly)

Hadeet u mrazal

 Like a bobbin spinner (i.e. someone who speaks and works at the same time)

Written By Aisha,  a Fassia resident and beloved Artisans of Morocco Citizen Reporter.

Exposé Artisanal Crowdfunding Update

16 04 2014

This update, at the closure of the Exposé Artisanal crowd funding campaign, comes with much gratitude to the many supporters and artisan community that has grown with ease. We have all shared and indulged in many a magic moment.

By highlighting the crafts people, their personalities, tales and skills, these new companions  are at ease and pleased to share a piece of their daily lives, pinches of contemplation, strike a pose, quote a script,  proverb, or poem. Through Exposé Artisanal’s citizen reporters, the traditional crafts people and characters are being captured through relationship building and curiosity.  We have gathered the first phase of documentation, in written, visual and audio form.

A fortuitous collaboration between Fullbright researcher Betsy Bolton and ExposéArtisanal saw a day of storytelling and sharing, couscous and curiosity, tea, pastries and tales.  Videos of the stories told to us by some of the artisan community are soon to be released. This provides delectable and valuable content for the proposed On-line Museum, and Fez based pOpUp Museum. *

Discussions are underway with a study-abroad program to construct an online virtual map of Now we hope to bring in the harvest of Exposé Artisanal’s crowd funding campaign, to boost the amount of research material, fulfill a give-back vow to the artisans and post produce recorded material for presentation. the medina. This will enable the world at large to click, read, see and listen to the craftspeople.

 Artisans 2048 Shot 2-1

Hassan by Anaas Med el Issameli

The crowdfunding platform, Zoomaal, are open to negotiate a revised target for Exposé Artisanal collecting 5.000 dollars (half of the aimed target). We are close to 3.000 dollars with a few days left to boost, advance and share this project. Please lend a hand to us again and push this along towards the new target.   For instance, select five people from your contact list, who carry a souvenir in the heart of Morocco. Sending them a short mail with a link on the project can be a valuable gesture.  We, the ever-growing team,  are fervently committed to this project, enriched with new discoveries and old tales each time we plunge into the depths of Fez. 


Closed for business..en mass

14 04 2014

Start at S’Bariin ( the dyers street) inside RCif,  with the river on your right. Turn a sharp right down toward the woodworkers and weave through the auction of vintage metal home ware. Right, and right again, at the Bissara ( soup) One Stop you are entering Huddadine, the Iron mongers street. Three of these tiny textural and lively workshop spaces host a family tree of FIllali Razzouki metalworkers. Sharpening, firing, carving, engraving and fine tuning blades and utensils for the surrounding artisanship of the ancient medina. Here tailors, tanners, hairdressers, butchers, chiefs and belt makers frequent the sparkling caverns on this narrow working street.

Azzedine neighbors the Bissara stall; scissors and big smiles seem to be his thing.  Second along you come upon his uncle, dear Ba Driss, M.A.S. ( Fez medina football team) fanatic, 60 years as master metal smith and an important member in the local community. Of the last few years I have been bridging relations between visitors and the local craftspeople and hense hold a few dozen places in my heart for these people.  I have learnt an abundance of grace and spirit from this popular figure of the craft community, a factor of the pulse and bustle of the old medina. This guild and its people are a fundamental element of the engine of the old town, curling around the river.


  Driss ‘Wafawi’ Filali – Photo by Holger Gross

When you meet the rusty colored roster in one of left hand workshops you are at third workspace in the Huddadine Fillali  family, Meet Nourredine, studied law at university and returned to be an iron monger to keep the long family and craft tradition alive, sharpened and shiny.  Ba Driss and his rellies rightfully have firm roots in the core of the workmanship that keeps Fez a bustling, hospitable and living Museum.

???????????????????????????????Nourredine, Driss and Azzedine Filali with Haj the slipper maker.

With the reasoning and sad reality that much of Morocco crime involves blades, in early April, the Fillalis, as many other metal smiths, were visited by the police and their stock of knives seized.  King Mohammed VI has requested a cleanup of crime in all major cities and medinas and accordingly the government is implementing the sale of knives only to go through supermarkets and big establishments.

What are the consequences of the innocent and unheard folk; their livelihoods swept under one criminal carpet?

Strike. An empty ethereal scene of closed metal doors.  A few days after the incident this is what you come cross if you are a tanner or embosser, or maybe a tailor in need of your usual maintenance and tool source. It will be like this a few days more was the word on Huddadine today. If in need go to Carrefor is the supposed proposal.

We asked Nourredin to comment. “We have a great problem. With no solution.”

The spirit has gone from ‘ Huddadine’ . It s a disgrace” states Ba Driss

A royal commandment implemented, much stock taken, the handcrafting of knifes ceased and a family tradition on strike. The furnace’s ember in the core of the artisanship of ancient Fez is turning to cold ash. What should they do?  What would you do?


J. Stephens.

April 2014


Artist and cultural coordinator

Director Culture Vultures Fez and  Expose Artisanal



Like grandfather, like father, like son

11 04 2014

“I’ve brought him inside today,” Said  tells me as I turn my head towards a soft chirping sound and discover a little bird in his cage set on the floor tucked behind the counter. “So he doesn’t catch a cold”, he adds.

Situated just off the Najarine square on Derb Seqqaiene, I have stepped into the last workshop in Fez that fuses ironmongery with silversmithing. An array of earrings dangle on a pole like percussion chimes, the plates and urns sheen like the cheeks of someone who has just come out of the hammam, the animals are collectively pinned on a board like a mass cross continental safari, the bracelets overlap each other in domino effect. Even the unfinished hand of Fattema has been carefully propped up in the corner. A carefully executed mise-en-scene. When Said tells me he has 3 daughters and no sons, with 3 fingers raised and a smile on his face, I smile too. “My youngest, she’s 12, (or 13?), and loves pigeons, like me,” Said explains. “Although her mother has stopped her from going up to the rooftop until she’s finished her homework and anything else that needs doing downstairs. Otherwise she’s up there all afternoon! She knows all 30 of them. I mean, if someone else’s ends up among ours, she will catch it and put it to one side until I get home and then show it to me, “Is this ours, Baba?” They’re not like the ones my father used to have though. His were as big as chickens. They would come up and peck the food right out of his hands.”

I ask him if he lives close by. “Oh yes, near Sidi Ahmed Tijani” and he points south east to where he’s standing as though we are suddenly at a bird’s-eye view of the medina and can map out the path directly to his home. Instead we can see little else than the decorated walls enclosing us. But I know where he means; I’ve weaved my way past that mosque many a time over the years with my husband Ali and our dogs as we return to our house from a walk on the Jbel Zalagh hillside reentering the medina via the hotel Palais Jamaii entrance. So I nod to confirm we’re on the same page. Said tells me that he lives in the house where he was born, where he got married, and now where he and his wife and 3 daughters live. They share the house with his brother and family. “We have the first floor and they have the ground floor” he states matter of factly. He goes back home everyday to lunch with his wife and daughters. He closes up just before the evening prayer. He opens in the mornings on Fridays to tie up loose ends before heading off to the main Friday prayer. His daily routine ticks along like clockwork.


Said Akessbi at work

Photo by Anaas Med El Issmaeli.

Hidden inside the only cupboard in his shop, are Said’s father’ s and grandfather’s tools. “I haven’t been inside this cupboard for 10 years; not since my father died.” He raises his eyebrows as he says this and waves his hand back and forth to denote the years flying by like salt over his shoulder. He brings out a small newspaper bundle, hardly crumpled, (hardly touched), and unfolds blades that more resemble excavated arrow heads I remember from the Roman museum of my hometown after they found remnants under our local Somerfield supermarket. “A quick polish with wire wool will clean these up” he chirps,”they are all ready to use”. He repeats their usability to us again as he unfolds another blade and presses his finger tip against the point. I do the same. No blood but I do think of the knife sharpeners down in Bab Sinsila and the sparks that fly when a dull blade hits the mill stone they pedal into rotation. The family blades return to the cupboard.

There is one last piece remaining made by Said’s father; a huge urn sits on the top shelf on the right as you enter. Above head height, it would take a very curious customer to spot it. I imagine Said casting his eyes up from time to time to admire his father’s work as he sits on his stool rubbing the jade stone wand across another finished piece. “My father was a teacher, you know. He left Fez, his workshop and his family to go and train apprentices in Meknes. A rich Meknessi offered him a good deal. But he reached a point where he missed Fez, so he came home, back to this workshop. His dad, my grandfather, had the workshop next door although we sold that years ago. People now think this craft is from Meknes because there are still a number of maalems, or master craftsmen, in Meknes who do the craft but it was my father who taught their fathers and my grandfather who taught my father.” His tone is honest and soft. We all study the faded picture of his father.

The hook in the door frame of the shop hangs empty today but Spring is on its way and soon Said’s chirping companion will resume his elevated position and sing out, as we all like to do, when the sun shines upon our backs.


By Alice Barnsdale, 9 years in Fez and married into a family of artisans.

[Aside] Look on and take note; let his silence play a part in the story

8 04 2014
Sometimes artisans are tired of talking. They just want to get on, quite contently, with their work. Fair enough. Like this dear man, the last wooden bucket maker in Fez, who attracts many a spectator with his workshop being situated on the main thoroughfare in the medina. Who will carry on this craft once he retires? Is he concerned that he has no apprentices to keep the craft alive? Did he learn this craft from his father or another mentor? We don’t know these answers. Yet. I guess it’s up to us be like detectives and map out his story; or let this man’s life be swept away along with the buckets and saw dust that surrounds him …
For the 3rd “Shakespeare in Fez: all the medina’s a stage”, a quote from Iago in Othello comes to mind to match this week’s photograph.
Iago: Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: 

From this time forth I never will speak word.”

photo (1)


Alice Barnsdale.

Chief Editor Exposé Artisanal.

Lights On.

14 03 2014

Week 2 of Alice Barnsdale’s Shakespeare in Fez moment featuring Fassi artisans who personify life and create drama before our eyes, possibly without them even knowing.

Because all the medina’s a stage.


Lights On. Macbeth:

Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

Macbeth. William Shakespeare.

A human etch-a-sketch. And more. But will the machine world shake him away?

10 03 2014

Christina Soto, a facilitator on Culture Vultures’ artisanal tours, is continuously surprised at the master craftspeople and their level of expertise in producing something by hand.  Here, Christina recounts a recent conversation she had with a Fassi artisan who specializes in hand etching and has more than 55 years in the trade.

Maybe you’ve seen those beautifully hand etched teapots, copper platters, lamps or other decorative pieces that come from Morocco? Until recently, I had no idea just how difficult and time consuming they are to produce.  Artisans take years to become Maalems, or Masters, of the various ancient crafts. As a program facilitator with Culture Vultures, I’ve had the good fortune to visit and become acquainted with some of these wonderful craftspeople. My appreciation for the reality of handmade products has soared from this experience. Here is a short conversation I had recently with Mohammed a master metal etcher whose talent matches his brilliant smile.

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When did you start hand etching?

I started as a young child, and now I’m 68 years old.  At first I was only allowed to handle one piece with the most basic straight line design.  It took years before I moved to something more complicated like etching in a curved line.

What is the most difficult design to etch?

Well, after so many years nothing is really difficult now. Developing the ability to place things in a balanced way in a small space took me some time. But of all the designs I’ve learned, making a circle and circular shapes took the most practice for me to do really well. It takes so much more then just hammering the piece of metal, it requires the flexibility and control to spin the metal around as it is being hammered. A round shape is important in so many parts of a larger design.

Before you begin a piece do you know which design you will use?

Are the patterns you use standard? Creating the overall design is very spontaneous. The design isn’t always the same;; it develops as I place shapes on the area being worked on. Although there are a number of basic shapes that might be combined in different ways to make the final design. If the project is something sizeable, like a large ceiling lamp for example, it is made up of numerous pieces that will be welded together at the end. The design is planned out on the first section, then I draw it out and use the stencil as many times and on as many sections as needed. This way the whole piece has a uniform look, yet each section is a little different which is the nature of something being handmade.

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What is a memorable experience you have had in your career?

Not everyone in Morocco can get their passport. Because I have been invited to show my skill at various cultural expositions in different countries, I have my passport. I’ve been to New York City, to Germany and other countries demonstrating my work. Here, in my small shop I meet many interesting people from everywhere in the world. There aren’t many jobs that include such a benefit.

Do you think there is much opportunity for young Moroccans to practice this craft today?

That’s difficult to answer. This skill takes a long time to master and, even then, it takes a lot of time and patience to do. Many young people today want to make “fast money”.  Things like the internet and television seem to give them this idea.  Then, even if a young person does take the time needed, there is the problem of competition with machine made products that cost less to produce. Still, the pride one gets from creating a beautiful piece of work is the ultimate reward.

Visit Mohammed in the old medina of Fez.  You’ll find him in his shop in the Fondoq Mshatiin near Seffarine Square.

Photos – Holger Gross

Shakespeare in Fez: All the medina’s a stage

4 03 2014
Behind the masks of their tools and crafts, the artisans of Fez personify life with all its trials and rewards. Shakespeare would have enjoyed living here, a man whose writing from over 400 years ago can still convey what our hearts want to say…
This is the first of a once weekly “Shakespeare in Fez moment” by Expose Artisanal Editor, Alice Barnsdale.
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile;
And in thy harsh world draw thy breath in pain.
To tell my story.
— Hamlet. William Shakespeare
Photo by Holger Gross
Exposé Artisanal – bringing the artisans into centre stage, sharing their stories with the world, and turning up the volume on what makes Fez the city of the artisan.
If you want to join our community, why not volunteer as a Citizen Reporter?