Morocco: Anonymous Mosaic Masterpieces

20 08 2013

Geometric patterns made by Moroccan zillij, mosaic masterpieces, capture attention and mesmerize. For me, the fascination with zillij is so overwhelming that it makes me love Moroccan artistic traditions.

Zillij is an incredibly impractical art form. It requires the understanding and execution of complex geometric patterns. The production process involves multiple artisans and various skill-sets; such as planning and drafting and producing (mining, firing, pigments, glazing, and cutting) clay tiles. For all the training, discipline, and practice required, it results in a piece of art that is nameless and unattributable. Many zillij masterpieces are public water fountains in the medina of Fes. They are city assets, public utilities, and works of art. Tiles are broken, come lose, or otherwise need repair.

The artisans who maintain or restore traditional zillij installations are inspired by the work of the “masters” who came before them. It is a form of inspiration that requires self-discipline because it requires restoring someone else’s unattributable work. They will be another nameless artist in a long line of artists that contributed public art, an expression of the collective. I think this aspect of art for public use and consumption is most beautifully expressed by the many wonderful water fountains used in Morocco’s old cities. The Art is not only anonymous, but useful, lending beauty, wonder and awe to the mundane yet privileged act of collecting water.
For zillij artists, there is no one “master” to worship or admire. There is only the art and the ideas it contains, which, I believe, cannot be accurate expressed in any other form, written, auditory, or visual.
Zillij has been actively practiced in Morocco for over 10 centuries. Despite the current poor economic conditions of the country, Moroccan families continue to commission zillij installations for living rooms. Zillij installations are expensive. Artisans are respected for their craft, but don’t necessarily make much of a living doing their life’s work. Zillij is a truly Moroccan art form and a source of cultural pride.
I had a chance to visit architectural masterpieces in Istanbul: the Blue Mosque, Haigia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace. I was disappointed that I didn’t see anything the mimicked the feeling or style of Moroccan zillij. I realized how unique Moroccan mosaics are; they can’t be mistaken or replaced by mosaics of other cultures or styles. Most cultures create tile patterns by painting tessellating patterns on square tiles. The individual pieces of zillij used in Moroccan geometric designs are unique. The result is a mash-up of Phoenician and Roman mosaics, which were forms of representational art, and the abstract geometric patterns of Islam. Yet, they contain none of the arabesque forms of middle-eastern ornamentation and none of the representational depictions used in Roman mosaics.
 Author: Sarah Tricha  Writes about Moroccan Design and Culture.
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