New Partnership Centers on Moroccan Craft
Master plaster artisan Abderrazak Bahij (left) and designer Bouchra Boudoua get a closer look at student work during the Clay-in-Context crit.
Artists and designers (not to mention travelers and collectors) the world over have long been drawn to the vibrant geometry and precise detail of Moroccan crafts and decorative arts. But the preservation of an aesthetic tradition is not ensured by outside admiration and reinterpretation alone. Essential to the survival of artisan practices in any country is the transfer of knowledge to younger generations and the ability of practitioners to adapt to changing economic and cultural conditions.
Recognizing these needs, RISD has forged a 16-month partnership with Morocco’s Ministry of Tourism, Air Transport, Handicrafts and Social Economy, Maison de l’Artisan and the multi-industry Moroccan organization Holmarcom. The program connects RISD faculty and students with Moroccan craftspeople, designers and academics, creating a platform for learning that elevates experiential cultural exchange and reinforces a shared commitment to preserving artisan practices.
The collaboration launched in January with Crafting the City, a Wintersession travel course led by Associate Professor of Interior Architecture Eduardo Benamor Duarte, Associate Professor of the History of Art and Visual Culture Leora Maltz-Leca and Assistant Professor of Ceramics David Katz. At the start of spring semester, students enrolled in Clay-in-Context toured artisan centers and heritage sites throughout Morocco for one week, researching and developing plans for site-specific projects they modeled after returning to RISD.
“Our primary communication was through observation and action,” notes Architecture Critic Laura Briggs BArch 82, who is teaching the interdisciplinary studio with Associate Professor Katy Schimert and Professor Larry Bush, both of the Ceramics department. “We would observe the elegant hand movements of the masters, try the techniques ourselves, watch again and try again, creating new forms and cultural understanding through this dialogue.”
In late April, Moroccan designer Bouchra Boudoua, Asmaa Benachir (founder of AuAu Grain de Sésame, an organization dedicated to empowering Moroccan women through design) and Abderrazak Bahij, a master plaster artist at the Albatha Handicraft Training Center in Fez, visited RISD. Coinciding with mid-semester critiques for Clay-in-Context, their visit included a whirlwind series of tours, demonstrations and presentations, along with a panel discussion that delved into the heritage of Moroccan arts and crafts and its intersections with technology and innovation.
“Our guests engaged in dialogue about pedagogy with Experimental and Foundation Studies faculty, about plaster and ceramic works with students across many academic departments, and about women’s empowerment through craft with an audience of RISD community members,” says Executive Director of RISD Global Gwen Farrelly. “This type of reciprocity is key to the success of the pilot program and a core value of RISD’s academic global engagements.”
During the Clay-in-Context crit, students presented detailed maquettes, each incorporating an aspect of Moroccan craft discovered during their travels and showing insights gleaned from their rewarding experiences in the country.
For some, these experiences have led to a new perspective on a current course of study. Reflecting on her travels, for example, Interior Architecture graduate student Ewa Podgorska MDes 19 says, “So much care is given to the interior spaces of Moroccan architecture—it’s where the famous zelij (mosaic tilework), jali (wooden lattice screens) and carved plaster take center stage. I found these techniques to be so beautiful and inspiring.”
Even as a Moroccan national, Benachir shares Podgorska’s fascination with the interior spaces of her home country. During the crit she admired a student group’s unique plan for half public/half private wall structures and recognized the clear influence of her culture in their work: “In Moroccan architecture there is always something secretive…something that makes people want to know more—to know the story of this place. I see that here,” she said.
Several months after his Wintersession experience Duarte continues to marvel at the telescopic effect of the country’s application of craft. “I am constantly impressed by how it is both a form of heritage and a transmission of knowledge,” he says. “Students were immersed in an environment where craft has been carefully and systematically considered—from the scale of the artifact to that of the built environment, from pedagogy to—ultimately—a form of social cohesion.”
When asked during the panel discussion about how cultural exchange of this nature might help preserve artisan practices, Boudoua shared her perspective as a young Moroccan designer. Educated at Central Saint Martins in London, the Casablanca native recently set up her practice in the cultural hub of Marrakesh, where she collaborates with local artisans on an unconventional ceramics line inspired by traditional Moroccan designs. “We’re interested in preserving craft,” she explains, “so that it isn’t seen as a last option but remains an important part of our heritage.”
—Lauren Maas / photos by Laura Briggs BArch 82 and Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH
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