This piece came out of my time in Casablanca. I really enjoyed getting to know the city's contemporary art galleries and their dynamic owners.
ON the industrial outskirts of Casablanca, Morocco, feral dogs roam the grounds of an abandoned meatpacking plant. Today, the sprawling factory, still replete with dangling meat hooks and blood-stained floors, is the unlikely venue for Casablanca’s largest independent art exhibition space, Les Transculturelles des Abattoirs, or the Transcultural Slaughterhouse, which has featured unusual site-specific pieces: sets of sculptured feet placed side by side on the ground, for instance, and faces pasted directly on the white tiles lining the space’s walls.
The transformation was made possible in 2009 when Casablanca’s mayor, Mohamed Sajid, warded off eager commercial developers and placed the 215,000-square-foot complex (rue Jaafar el Barmaki Avenue, Aïn-Sebaa Hay Mohammedi; 212-526-51-58-29; casamemoire.org) in the hands of Casamémoire a nonprofit architectural preservation society with help from the city’s nascent arts community. The move was a testament to the emerging importance of Casablanca’s cultural sector, as were the openings, over the last two years, of a stable of contemporary art galleries across the city.
Nestled amid the street peddlers and roaring diesel engines that clog Casablanca’s boulevards is the nearly two-year-old Galerie Atelier 21 (21 rue Abou Mahassine Arrouyani; 212-522-98-17-85; atelier21.ma). For Aziz Daki, the gallery’s co-owner and an art historian, the city’s mushrooming art scene is a reflection of the cultural interests of King Mohammed VI, an enthusiastic collector. “His passion for the arts has been one of the inspirations for what is now a growing group of Morocco-based collectors,” said Mr. Daki, whose gallery represents 14 Moroccan contemporary artists. “He really is one of our art world’s most important role models.”
The years since the 1999 transition from the relatively repressive reign of King Hassan II to the more tolerant and economically savvy regime of his son, King Mohammed VI, have meant big business for entrepreneurs like Youssef Falaky, a co-owner of the six-month-old Matisse Gallery (2 rue de la Convention, Quartier Racine; 212-522-94-49-99), a spinoff of a location in Marrakesh. “Before the death of Hassan II, people were living in the dark,” he said. “No one wanted to look rich. But now people are spending, and that has meant more investments in the art market.”
Hassan Hajjaj, an artist who splits his time between his native Morocco and London, was one of the first artists featured in Matisse’s Casablanca space. “Casablanca has its own special flavor,” said Mr. Hajjaj, whose work updates stereotypical Orientalist imagery with an almost Andy Warhol Pop Art flair. “The city is at that stage where there are a lot of hungry people that need spaces to show. It’s a big, chaotic city. But good things are growing out of it.”
Myriem Berrada Sounni, 29, who owns the 11-month-old Loft Art Gallery (13 rue Al Kaissi, Triangle d’Or; 212-522-94-47-65; loftartgallery.net) with her 26-year-old sister, Yasmine, said the city’s art scene has gone mainstream. “At the opening of our last exhibit we had ministers and presidents of banks,” she said. During a recent visit to the gallery, little red dots signaling a sale could be found next to nearly every painting on its pristine white walls. “In Casablanca,” she said, “art galleries are now a place for people to see and be seen.”