Creative in Marrakesh – The Montresso Foundation

Wherever you are in the World you tend to take your passions with you – mine is creativity and the arts, so being a curious explorer by nature I have found myself digging around to find out where I can go and who I can meet to satisfy my hunger for all things creative.

Marrakesh is constantly surprising me, most people come here and fall in love with Les Jardins Majorelle, but many also think – so what else is there? Historically the arts here have been heavily sponsored by the French, most galleries or residencies are French owned, that’s why I think British people are less aware of what is going on. There is a lot – a lot to see here… I’ve been here for nearly 6 months and I’m still discovering new places to visit, and its so open – people love talking about what they are doing and showing off their art space.

One such French conceived space is The Montresso Foundation and Jardins Rouge, it is a bit of a hike out of Marrakesh but well worth a visit. Montresso houses several studios, accommodation, lounges, a pool and a gallery – the site is peppered with sculpture and works of art. The thing is that land is still affordable here so these places tend to be ‘enorme’ meaning that the artists who work here can create significant and more accurately ‘large’ works.

Montresso accepts up to 8 artists at the same time, and sometimes houses 30 per season. And you are a lucky artist if you’re accepted, all materials are provided, everything you need is at your disposal – you don’t even need to think about food. In return for this generous cocoon for creativity the foundation keeps some of the work that has been created. The owner is a particular sponsor of street artists, reflected in the current exhibition of work by Jonone and other street artists such as Jace (a French street artist with work around the Marrakech Medina), and Henrique Berkirsch whose ‘Aziz’ character can be seen in Marrakesh as you step outside of the train station.

You can find photography, sculpture and painting here, personally I loved the photographic work by Wahib Chehata – an African artist who was inspired to represent the ‘Renaissance of Timbuctoo’ using renaissance techniques such as chiaroscuro while referencing iconic tableaus such as the ‘Pieta’ replayed with black Malian figures. Kouka who is half French and half Congalese also appealed to me, he works in paint on wood, and has created a character a ‘bantu soldier’ who is a recurrent theme in his work, in the les jardins rouge are the windows of an artists squat which Kouka painted with his soldiers, the building was being knocked down for luxury flats and these pieces set in concrete were salvaged – they appear like stone freedom fighters marching in formation through the fields.

If you want to visit the foundation, you can book direct for the 11am tours on a Saturday – if you want a creative tour I can organise this for you with a local travel provider, just drop me a line.

The Children of Tamesloht

It’s hard coming from a privileged society to reconcile the tension between the innate push to realise your own potential as an independent thinker with possibilities, with the knowledge that people just down the road find it almost impossible just to eat and get through each day. This became even more evident to me during a trip with Epic Morocco to learn more about the Children of Tamesloht, a small village just outside of Marrakesh that has many rural attractions, but which was hit by an earthquake which wreaked chaos and created many difficulties for the children that lived there.

Luckily for these children, two Dutch women who were working with the women in the local co-ops on artistic ventures decided they could do something to help – it wasn’t easy they say, you have to be a bit crazy to even try but the rewards are great. Fiers et Forts is a wonderful refuge and development centre, each child here has a story and one which is known intimately by the carers, and any one of these stories will make you cry.

Dorine the director of the centre told us one such story about a small boy;

‘For the first three years of his life he followed his naked foraging mother like a feral animal, trying to avoid the stones she would throw behind her to drive him away’

Its hard not to be jolted into another’s reality when faced with such a tale. However, rather than depress you with other sad stories, Dorine painted us a picture of a gentle, safe place situated in beautiful gardens, a place which is full of light and laughter where children find safety, make friends and develop to be their best selves, in spite of what has happened to them.

There are many success stories; a boy who trained in the Royal Mansour kitchens through a mentoring programme and is now a pastry chef, another who now runs two Riads – both are financially independent and doing well.

I was struck in conversation by a common theme of seeking out and nurturing the talents, passions and strengths of each child whatever they are. It’s this dedication which has helped one of the boys who is extremely bright to focus on a journey to becoming a vet, inspired by the animals around him.

Children selected for help at the centre are the most needy, usually they are a ward of court, and in a life threatening situation. When accepted by the centre, each has an individual development plan, and a ‘teacher/carer’ is responsible for their wellbeing and development. There is a psychologist who provides advice to the staff and even an on-site dentist. A small holding with chickens and farm animals provides opportunities for having a go at nurturing and the lovely ‘Nus’ a loving Labrador who roams the site has, we are told, been privy to many a child’s sorry tale as they start on a journey of trust.

‘This girl is 17’ Dorine tells us pointing to a small girl who looks no older than 13, her brain has not developed to the extent that she can learn in a class room, therefore the centre is teaching her life skill’s, ‘we made her director of chickens with the job of counting the eggs’.

The centre is supported by sponsors such as The Royal Mansour and very soon Epic Morocco, but the bulk of the funding came from a high profile art auction which gained international support and funded the building work. There are many opportunities for hands on team work and getting involved, for instance the Hammam was designed and created for the children by student architects with a passion to get off paper and create something tangible to bring to life the theory they are learning.

There is of course a need for ongoing support, they cook 140 meals a day here and have 94 kids to care for of which 36 are boarders. There is a sponsor a child programme however even if the basic overheads are met, there are always ‘surprises’ which haven’t been accounted for.

‘This boy has just had a second operation 3 weeks ago to remove a brain tumour’ Dorine points to a smiling boy with a baseball hat playing table football with other boys.

‘He’s very brave, obviously we didn’t account for the extra cost, there is another boy who needs a new leg, and another who underwent a lot of surgery following a road accident’.

The children here have a strong bond with each other, they are like family and even those who have left come back to see their ‘brothers and sisters’.

It must be hard to leave such a sanctuary, but Dorine and the team are putting in place plans for a half way house to create a bridge for those older children moving on into the cities and world at large to learn independence while maintaining a connection to their ‘home’.

Fiers et Forts and the village itself are well worth visiting, there is an old Kasbah there and weaving and ceramic workshops which create lovely pieces designed to suit the European taste. Certainly they are not open to bus tours, but families, individuals or small groups will, I know, find the visit inspiring. It helps to contextualise things with visits like this – it’s easy to live in a tourist ‘bubble’ but this is about an aspect of real life here – not dressed up, but gritty and real.

If you want to visit, or to donate you can contact Dorine Eijakman at Fiers et Forts or Carla at Epic Morocco (they can tailor-make a village visit).