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

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