Tangiers, this glittering little spec on the map, where Africa can almost reach out and touch Europe, where Paul Bowles, David Herbert, and even Truman Capote and his literary rival Gore Vidal once came looking to extract the last drops of the sweet nectar of life – this is Moroccan artist Mouad Aboulhana’s canvas.
Unlike Tangiers’ former blue-blooded resident artists, Aboulhana’s blood runs cerulean, the colour of Chefchaouen’s illustrious buildings. To the world’s literati, Tangiers was a tryst with afflatus, a retreat; to him, Tangiers is home. “Tangiers has always been a place of inspiration, a place where artists feel at ease to create,” he says.
A self-described street pop artist, Aboulhana delivers rapturous depictions of daily life in his native Tangiers, a city where the past and the present from a space-time continuum. He relies on different mediums and techniques, such as stencil, graffiti, illustration, photography, and even video installations. The 29-year-old artist is part of a growing art movement taking its message to the streets in Morocco, seeking to liberate the country of the last vestiges of colonialism, which has long subdued the nation’s own character and heritage. Aboulhana, who has been active since 2007, made his mark last year, when he was among a constellation of young artists to represent North African pop art in London’s P21 Gallery.
Tangiers has always been a place of inspiration, a place where artists feel at ease to create.
In a city impregnated with so much history, Aboulhana refuses to wistfully look to the past for inspiration. Instead he seeks to tell the story of contemporary Tangiers, where the past has left its indelible mark no doubt, but also where postcolonial Morocco forges its own. “My inspiration comes from what I hear, what I see, what I feel,” he says. “The daily life of a Moroccan is filled with emotions; I’m inspired by my daily life, my walks in the quarters of Medina, listening to Tuareg music.”
After the process of creation, Moroccan artists can’t find the cultured audience that can admire the different types of modern art presented. There are no collectors, no local modern gallerists interested in contemporary [Moroccan] art.
Aboulhana first felt that evasive tick when his eyes fell on Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych. The complexity of the sex symbol’s portrait spoke to another complexity he is all too familiar with: Tangiers’ storied history. His work is but an attempt to offer his visual musings on the city’s vast history and fascinating present. “I totally focus on painting, with the aim of making my culture more colourful and joyous,” he says.
And, like many aspiring artists, the applied arts major graduated 2 years ago to the harsh realities and the hard work of figuring out one’s place in the world. Luckily for the world, he chose to teach art at a local school in Taza to fund his artistic endeavours.
Try as it might, Morocco hasn’t been able to fully rid itself of differential privilege and cultural cringe, colonialism’s equally ugly cousins. Six decades since the country’s independence, Moroccan artists still struggle to reclaim their rightful place in a society that is otherwise receptive of Western culture. “After the process of creation, Moroccan artists can’t find the cultured audience that can admire the different types of modern art presented,” he laments. “There are no collectors, no local modern gallerists interested in contemporary [Moroccan] art."
In a bid to take his brand of interdisciplinary art from the underground to the mainstream in Tangiers, Aboulhana founded OCTAART, an organisation dedicated to cultivating a local following for art. “I founded OCTAART with a group of close friends and art aficionados. … We organised the Tangiers Street Art Festival, where we invited visual and music artists, both up-and-coming and established ones from around the world to share with the public here,” he explains. But the initiative fizzled out after just 3 editions of the Tangiers Street Art Festival due to lack of funding opportunities.
Every piece Aboulhana produces is an act of reclamation, of appropriating what was expropriated and made available for others to exploit as fuel to their ‘exotic art’. His latest attempt to snatch a piece of consumerist globalisation and replace with Moroccan art was his collaboration with Coca-Cola. His art now occupies an entire floor of the corporation’s factory in Tangiers. “I received a call form Coca-Cola for a meeting, I went and voila! They asked me to exhibit at the factory. They gave me a whole floor,” he says.
While global conglomerates and international art galleries and collectors scramble to get their hands on Aboulhana’s work to commercialize it and assign it their own interpretations, Morocco still struggles to provide its burgeoning artists with spaces to exhibit or the conditions they require for their art to prosper. “I’ve been working on my 2018 series in order to exhibit in Casablanca or Marrakesh, I’ve been sending solo exhibition requests, but no answer,” he laments. “At the same time, I’m receiving opportunities from abroad, which, again, tells you that Morocco isn’t keeping up with the times.”
Follow Mouad Aboulhana on Facebook and Instagram @mouadaboulhana.