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>


Connecting artist to artisan – globally and locally

25 02 2014

Culture Vultures (C.V.) is an arts and cultural initiative coming out of the Fez region in North Morocco, that now celebrates its 5 year of being. One of C.V.’s main objectives is to facilitate artists experiences and to bridge the local and the global. Culture Vultures designs and hosts  artist-in-residency  ( AiRs ) projects annually featuring rich programs, insightful social engagement and quality presentation.  Artists from all mediums are invited to take part in the residencies with given application deadlines.


Photo by Anaas Med El Ismaeli

The new residency AiR Artisan in now open for submissions. Artist from all practices are encourage to apply for this rich and insightful residency. Spend 4 weeks alongside a Fassi artisan and discover the skills and approaches involved in traditional Moroccan crafts.  Exchange thoughts and concepts on a personal, artistic, and cultural level.

For more information see

Contact –  Jess at for an application form.

Get to know the artisans of Fez.

23 01 2014

Start with the ancient North African city of Fez.  Add the often hidden, traditional artisans who tenuously preserve the old craft techniques.  Spice it up with local and international contemporary visual artists,. The result: – Exposé Artisanal –an exciting project emerging out of Fez’ old medina to inspire creativity, expand portfolios of design and celebrate the treasured yet dwindling number of Fassi artisans.  Exposé Artisanal offers a unique opportunity to foster a new appreciation of the talent and traditions behind the crafts people of Fez and celebrate the influence of their unique heritage on the wider world.

Probably you would like to be part of this project, give yourself the opportunity to be among those artisans thousands of stories ,legends, popular wise sayings. Be the person who can help the process of appreciation. Here’s how

Artist in Residency Program – AiR Artisan

16 11 2013

Artists Call Out 

Residency 7th April – 6th May 2014.

Application deadline –  3rd January 2014.

Fez. Morocco.

Artists and designers are invited to apply for a one month artist residency with an attribute of working alongside a Fassi artisan. Culture Vultures invites designers, visual artists, installation artists, writers, musicians, performers, researchers or conceptual artists to spend a month investigating and practicing the techniques,  materials and personalities of the traditional crafts masters in Fez. The definition of artist is broad.  C.V. has a preference to unexpected collaborations that combine both approaches and an in-depth exchange.


AiR Artist – Artisan – Spend a month residing in a house in the ancient city of Fez, the world’s largest car-free urban metropolis and Moroccan capitol of crafts. Recognized by UNESCO and many national and international development organizations as a valued heritage of Fez, the crafts and their makers play an important role in the cast of this magical North African city. Artists will be housed together in a traditional house in the medina of Fez and spend extensive  time in the workshops of the artisans.


When – This residency will take place from 7th April to 6th May 2014.

Culture Vultures is an arts and cultural organization based in the Fez region. Founded in 2009 by visual artists Jess Stephens, C.V. has a rich and active portfolio of activities that encourage cross culture encounters through an arts agenda. With Jess’ experience in facilitating artist’s visits, projects and presentations in Morocco and good relations with a network of artisans based in the medina and beyond this residency promises food for thought, material for creativity and insightful exchanges.


Artisans portfolio  – Local artisans that are in C.V.s netwrok and welcome an artist into their working environment include traditional plaster carvers, potters, metal workers, weavers, mosaic ( zeliig) artists, carpet knitters, wood carvers, tailors  and tanners.


The program includes

  • Orientation of Fez medina. A half tour of the labyrinth-like old city of Fez with a historical guide.
  • An artisanal tour – an introduction to some of the artisans of the medina and the new artisanal centre for training.
  • Artists dinners. Informal dinners where visiting artists are introduced to the  Fez arts community.
  • Weekly lectures, round tables and presentations.
  • 2 excursions out of Fez to get a fresh perspective of the surrounding area.

Price   950 €


Half board, comfortable accommodation in the medina of Fez.

Extensive workshop time with the artisans and skills exchange.

Professional facilitation between visiting artists and artisans.

The rich program of activities mentioned above.

Does not include

Travel to or from Fez at either side of the residency.


One meal a day.

Application deadline January 3rd 2014.

Note – Full residency places are limited to 8 people. Places are secured after confirmation from the organization and a deposit is paid.

For an application form and proposal outline write to Jess at

All images courtesy of The Art of Islamic Pattern 

culture vultures

Moroccan Mosaic – Zeliig

3 08 2013

Putting the Pieces Together in Fez


For centuries, in the Imperial Moroccan city of Fes, mosaic craftsmen have chipped away at ceramic tiles, shaping the tiny pieces that comprise zellij, the art of glazed-and-cut tile pieces arranged in complex geometric patterns.  The fruits of their labors can be found everywhere within the 1,200 year old Fes medina: gracing the walled city’s countless water fountains, adorning the tomb of Moulay Idriss II (the founder of Fes) and decorating the Karaouiyine Mosque and University, which vies with Al-Azhar in Cairo for the title of world’s oldest university.  About a mile outside the stone walls of the medina is the Poterie De Fes factory, where pottery and mosaic craftsmen continue their work, one small piece at a time.

karaouine mosque fez

Karaouine mosque fez

Late in the 8th century, Fes was founded by Moulay Idriss II, who carried out the wishes of his dying father by moving from the small ancient Roman capital of Volubilis.  The new city started as a modest Berber town and grew with the influx of thousands of exiled families from Al-Andalus (southern Spain) and later from Arab families fleeing Kairouan in modern-day Tunisia.  The town rose to prominence with the construction of the Karaouiyine University and it emerged as the pre-eminent city in the Maghreb, the North African region comprised by the present day countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania.  Within Fes is the walled medina, known as the “the city of ten thousand alleys.”  It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is believed to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area.

Just outside those ancient city walls is the Poterie De Fes cooperative.  The factory is easy to find; look for the kilns producing black smoke fueled by olive pomace.  This recycled fuel — pulpy residue from the olive oil process–is what allows the furnaces to get hot enough to fire the clay.  Our tour is led by Abdellah Idrissi, who points out that his name is derivative of Fes founder Moulay Idriss II.  Abdellah is one of many craftsmen in the cooperative and he starts his tour by showing us large mounds of clay, all with fresh footprints from workers using their feet to work the clay to the desired consistency.  We then move to the pottery wheel and watch a craftsman spin out about 7 or 8 pieces in 15 minutes.  While the pottery is interesting, it is the mosaic process that is really unique.  We walked over to the furmah tiles, the raw materials for the mosaic pieces and Abdellah explains that these tiles are molded from a hardy clay from nearby Jebel Ben Jelliq.


Once the tiles are fired they can be scored and chiseled to break cleanly along straight lines.  From here we move over to the furnaces, two large bi-level clay kilns.  “The first floor is hotter–about 1,200 degrees–because that’s what terra cotta tiles need,” says Abdellah.  “The second floor is about 980 degrees because that’s what the coloring and glazing require.”  The tiles are fired twice; the first time in the hotter, lower furnace after being glazed and a second time in the upper level furnace after one side has been colored.  The principal colors are blue from cobalt, green from copper, yellow from cadmium and red from iron oxide.  The temperature is increased by feeding the kiln with more olive pomace.


From the furnace we move over to the craftsmen cutting the furmah pieces.  Islamic mosaic work is characterized by geometric multiple-point star, medallion and polygonal figures.  Start in the center of a multiple-point star pattern and follow one of the lines radiating outward until your eyes land upon a satellite star figure.  From there follow any of its lines and you’ll find yourself in the center of yet another multiple-point star pattern and on and on.  This subliminal sensation of movement is what gives the geometric designs their sense of life.  Islamic art forbids figures or likenesses, so its artisans have focused on creating stunning graphic and geometric shapes and patterns.  We watch craftsmen carefully chip away with hammers at tiles pieces, against an iron anvil and occasionally a terra cotta surface for the more delicate and detailed work.  The men working are paid by the shape and in a good day they can churn out over a hundred mosaic pieces.  Once the tiny pieces are cut and arranged into beautiful geometric patterns, they are placed face down on the ground.  The flat surface keeps the faces of fountains and the tops of tables flat as the patterns are held together with a sand-lime or cement mixture and allowed to dry upside down.

zeliig reversedZeliig pieces placed upside-down ready to be set.

The cycles of creation and destruction and re-creation of zellij are time consuming and therefore make it a relatively expensive art form.  From the elements of earth, water, and fire furmah tiles are created, only for craftsmen to slowly and skillfully destroy each one.  From here it is the zellij designers who re-create, putting the pieces together upside down in brilliant geometric patterns.  It is only when the entire process is finished –creating, destroying, re-creating –and the surface has been dried and turned over, can one appreciate the stunning work.

zeliig tiles

Original article on HandEye Magazine here

To book an artisanal tour in Fez which includes the potteries please contact

Moroccan Crafts at The Met, N.Y.

15 07 2013

WHEN the Metropolitan Museum of Art makes a big curatorial decision, it tends to do so with the kind of grave deliberation that goes into a papal bull. Gut feeling is not a prized consideration. But in the spring of 2009, in a dust-covered basement workshop in Fez, Morocco, a young curator in the museum’s Islamic department sat among a group of artisans — workers in traditional North African tile, plaster and wood ornament whose roots stretched back seven generations in the trade — and asked the company’s chief executive yet again why the museum should enlist them for an unusual mission.


The executive, a boyish-looking man named Adil Naji, reached over and took hold of the wrist of one of his younger brothers, Hisham. He hoisted the brother’s rough, callused fingers in front of the curator, Navina Haidar, and, with a climactic intensity that wouldn’t have been out of place in “Lawrence of Arabia,” exclaimed, “Look, this is my brother’s hand!”

As Ms. Haidar recalled recently, back in the much less cinematic confines of a museum construction site: “It was a very powerful moment. It made up our minds because we could see how close he was to the tradition. And we wanted to see that hand on our walls.”

She and her colleagues had gone to Morocco in search of help for a kind of project that the Metropolitan, which generally concerns itself with the work of dead artists, has rarely undertaken in its 140 years: to install a group of living artists inside the museum for the purposes of creating a permanent new part of its collection.

Almost 30 years later the museum was embarking on the most ambitious rethinking and rebuilding of its Islamic art galleries in its history, a $50 million endeavor. At the heart of those galleries, which will open in the fall after being closed six years, it dreamed of showcasing the defining feature of Moroccan and southern Spanish Islamic architecture: a medieval Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard, which would function in much the same way such courtyards still do in the traditional houses and mosques of Marrakesh or Casablanca, as their physical and spiritual center.


The problem was that, while the museum owns entire blocks’ worth of historic architecture, it did not happen to have a medieval Islamic courtyard sitting around in storage anywhere. And so after months of debate about whether it could pull off such a feat in a way that would meet the Met’s standards, it essentially decided to order a courtyard up.

Which is how a group of highly regarded Moroccan craftsmen, many of whom had never set foot in New York, came essentially to take up residence at the Met beginning last December, working some days in their jabador tunics and crimson fezzes (known as tarbooshes in Morocco), to build a 14th-century Islamic fantasia in seclusion high above the Greek and Roman galleries as unknowing museum goers passed below.

With world attention focused on the Middle East, the courtyard has taken on an unforeseen importance for the museum; for the Kingdom of Morocco itself, which has followed the project closely; and for a constituency of Muslim scholars and supporters of the Met. They hope it will function not only as a placid chronological way station for people moving through more than a millennium of Islamic history, but also as a symbol, amid potent anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States and Europe, that aesthetic and intellectual commerce remains alive between Islam and the West.

“Every one of these guys here knows what this means, what’s riding on this,” said Mr. Naji, 35, the president and chief executive of Arabesque, a company of craftsmen founded in Fez in 1928 by his great-grandfather, now run by Mr. Naji and three of his brothers.

It was late December, and he was gesturing across a cluttered, unadorned room that didn’t look like much of a symbol, much less a reimagined medieval courtyard, except for high metal armatures suggesting the forms of arches. Mr. Naji’s brother Hisham, 33, of the callused and persuasive hand, stood atop a scaffold covered in plaster dust. Below him, covering a swath of the floor, lay tens of thousands of pieces of clay tile, many not much bigger than grains of rice, fitted together face down in a big rectangle that looked like a shallow sandbox scored with impossibly intricate lines. The tiles had been shipped from Fez, where large pieces had been fired in ovens fueled with olive pits and sawdust and then hand cut into individual shapes by 35 workers over a period of four months.

Inside the Met that morning an Arabesque specialist in this kind of painstaking mosaic work, known as zellij, sat cross-legged, placing some of the final pieces into the arrangement with tweezers as another scattered dry grout between the tiles. Handfuls of water were then sprinkled like ablutions over these areas to begin to cement the pieces in place. And when it was all dried, the dado panel was hoisted up into its place along one of the courtyard walls, filling the room for the first time with the kind of kaleidoscopic color and tessellated patterning meant to transport visitors from Fifth Avenue to Fez. (The tiles’ traditional function is to soften the solidity of the walls. “The surface is seemingly dissolved,” Jonas Lehrman, an architectural scholar, wrote in “Earthly Paradise: Garden and Courtyard in Islam,” a 1980 study. “Yet throughout the entire organization, even the smallest units are related by the overriding discipline of the geometry.”)

Over the course of two months a reporter and photographer were invited to watch as the space began to transform slowly from a 21-by-23-foot drywall box — illuminated by an LED panel in the ceiling cleverly mimicking daylight — to a courtyard with tile patterns based on those in the Alhambra palace in Granada, above which rise walls of fantastically filigreed plaster, leading to a carved cedar molding based on the renowned woodwork in the 14th-century Attarin madrasa, or Islamic school, in Fez.

The men from Morocco, 14 in all, came in waves, and despite suffering through their first New York winter, they settled comfortably into two large condominiums in Jackson Heights, Queens, accommodations that Adil Naji persuaded the owner, a Lebanese man, to lease to them, even though it was a nonrental building, by describing their mission at the Met. The men hired a local Moroccan woman to cook for them, and every morning they carry their kebabs and couscous in lunch boxes to the Met.

Occasionally New York still throws a curve ball or two. After a recent breakfast in Queens with the company’s lawyer, the men made their way to the No. 7 train, and the oldest Naji brother, Mohammed, 40 — the family’s most revered craftsman, a maalem, or master carver — was almost arrested after his monthly Metrocard failed to swipe properly, and he simply walked through an open emergency gate. On the subway later, wearing his customary street clothes — pointy-toed cowboy boots, baseball cap, a baby-blue fur-lined jacket — he seemed unperturbed, smiling broadly.

Adil Naji, who went to college in Washington and speaks perfect English, asked his brother how he could be so calm, and then translated the answer: “He said: ‘I had a lawyer, a reporter and a photographer with me. What was going to happen?’ ”

stuccoSheila R. Canby, who was recruited two years ago from the British Museum to lead the Met’s Islamic department and oversee the renovation of the galleries, said that the back and forth between the craftsmen and the curators had sometimes been tumultuous. The Moroccans, who are known for their restoration work on important mosques and other landmarks in the Middle East, are in essence living historians who have carried on patterns and designs preserved in practice for generations. But they have never attempted a job requiring this level of historical attention or artistry, one whose goal is to look as authentic to Moroccan eyes as to those of scholars.

“We have been very difficult clients, sending drawings back over and over again,” Ms. Canby said recently, watching the men work. “We didn’t want any intrusions of modern interpretation.”

Ms. Haidar added, “They’d say to us, ‘But our great grandfathers did it this way,’ and we would tell them, ‘We’re taking you even further back into your history.’ ”

Adil Naji, listening in, shrugged his shoulders diplomatically. “It was fun to go back and forth,” he said.

Ms. Canby laughed out loud: “You say that now.”

Perhaps almost as remarkable as the presence of the craftsmen inside the Met is that the team of scholars and planners who recruited them and have collaborated closely with them is composed mostly of women, one of them Israeli. Besides Ms. Canby and Ms. Haidar, the group includes Nadia Erzini, an art historian and curator at the Museum of Islamic Life in Tétouan, Morocco; Mahan Khajenoori, from the museum’s construction department; and Achva Benzinberg Stein, an expert on Moroccan courts and gardens and a professor of landscape architecture at City College.

On a recent visit to the museum Ms. Stein became emotional surveying the work under way, describing how she had fallen in love with books about Moroccan architecture as a young woman in Tel Aviv but had been unable to travel there until the mid-1970s because she was Israeli. “This is like the culmination of a life’s work for me,” she said, wiping away tears. “To me it means the possibility of so many things, of peace.”

By late February inside the courtyard the wall tile work had been completed, and the woodwork, as redolent as a cedar closet, had been mostly installed. Still to come before the opening in the fall would be a specially designed self-circulating fountain and benches designed by Ms. Stein.

Mohammed Naji and seven other plaster carvers had just set to work on the most painstaking part of the job, incising interlaced patterns into the still-soft wall, arabesques and other forms so tiny and complex that each man can sometimes complete only a four-inch square over the course of a day.

“This kind of work is really not done anymore in Morocco — it’s too time consuming, too cost prohibitive,” Adil Naji said, watching his eldest brother sitting on a stool, peering over a pair of reading glasses, carving with a thin wood-handled knife and pausing metronomically every few seconds to lean forward and blow the dust from the crevices.

Mr. Naji beamed, but he conceded, as he watched the company’s greatest work taking shape, that one thing worried him.

“Two of my guys told me that they wanted to retire after this, because they couldn’t see a way to top it,” he said. “I wake up at night with this fear that when we’re done, they’re all going to stand back and look at it and hang up their tools for good.”