Pin It
Mbari House at Jajjah
Courtesy of Mbari House

The artists breaking new ground in Marrakesh’s industrial quarter

Photographer Hassan Hajjaj collaborates with Marjana Jaidi’s Mbari House to forge the Red City’s creative future

Away from the frenetic hustle and bustle of Marrakesh’s Medina, energy is bubbling among the Red City. Located about 5km from the city’s centre, is Sidi Ghanem, an industrial quarter where artisans and creatives are breaking new ground by opening boutiques, restaurants, galleries, and more.

Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj – famed for his colourful portraits capturing the spirit of the Moroccan people and their culture – is one of them. “Fifteen years ago, Sidi Ghanem was considered outside of Marrakech,” Hajjaj says. Most areas like this become east London, Downtown LA – they become the main areas. I felt this could have that. I could see the blueprint, and there’s already a furniture shop, some restaurants – so, it’s the beginning.”

Hajjaj’s Riad Yima – a boutique, tea room, and gallery located amid the labyrinth-like streets of the Medina – has long been a must-visit when traipsing through the city (Hajjaj also has an outpost in Shoreditch, London, called Larache Shop). But Jajjah (Hajjaj backwards) expands his vision, not just in scale but in ambition. 

“I don’t want it to be about me, it’s from me to the people” – Hassan Hajjaj

Like Riad Yima and Larache Shop, Jajjah has been designed as a living artwork by Hajjaj himself – whose bright colours, geometric patterned backdrops, and the food tins as borders that distinguish his photographs – jump from his frames into real life. Aside from Jajjah’s aesthetics, it’s a place to eat – tagine on Friday is a city-wide custom – to listen to live music, take in, or buy, the work of local artists and photographers, and drink tea. In fact, Hajjaj explains, it was a cup of tea where this all started.

“My partner (with Jajjah) is Amine El Baroudi, a tea maker for Harrods and Fortnum & Mason. He’s probably one of the top tea manufacturers around the globe. He’s an art collector, and I’d met him at some openings,” Hajjaj says. “I knew he was packaging the (tea) cans in a factory, and I asked him if it was possible to design my own because I use them for my frames in my work. So I came, and we met. Then one day, he asked if I wanted to do a tea brand. I thought he was joking. But, he kept pushing it, so I wondered what I could bring to the table.”

Hajjaj started to brew his own tea brand, and, alongside the leaves, blended in the elements of culture now found in Jajjah’s four corners, specifically music and art. “I added a QR code on the (tea) packaging, so you can listen to music while you have tea, and there are Moroccan photographers’ works on the packaging,” says Hajjaj. The mint tea I purchase features a pastel-hued photograph by young Moroccan photographer Ismail Zaidy on the reverse side of its packaging – which also hangs amongst an expanded series on Jajjah’s nearby walls.

In the gallery space, Hasnae El Ouraga’s Fragments of an Anonymous Memory is exhibited, a stark exhibition of black-and-white images that merge time and space to tell a story of family estrangement. Hajjaj has already lined up future shows with Moroccan artists and photographers Yassine Alaoui Ismaili and Karim Chater.

For Jajjah’s official launch – on hold for two years due to the impact and restrictions of Covid – Hajjaj partnered with Marjana Jaidi’s Oasis Festival and its conceptual stage, Mbari House. Since 2015, Oasis Festival has steadily become a sanctuary for underground electronic music lovers and is set to return in September after a two-year hiatus to Dakhla, a slice of paradise south of Marrakesh between the Atlantic and the Sahara.

The festival’s Mbari House is “a pop-up concept space that aims to create a cultural meeting point between Morocco, Africa, and the world”. It gives Jaidi and her team more fluidity, the ability to be nimble and shapeshift into new spaces and collaborations that don’t need a major operation. In this case, it’s a curated afternoon of talks, followed by an evening of high-energy performances at Jajjah by local rappers, many of who have gone global, like ElGrandeToto, Dizzy DROS, and Draganov, on a stage designed by Hajjaj.  

The seed for Oasis Festival, Jaidi – whose father was born in Morocco – recalls, was planted post-9/11 when she was bullied for her Arab heritage as a child. “I thought, these people have never travelled, they have probably never left their town, which is where their ignorance comes from,” she says. “That was the first time I really had that line of thinking. So when I started going to festivals, and I went to my first international one in Oslo, which wasn’t on my list to travel to normally, I returned to Marrakesh and it just clicked – the power music has to inspire people to travel.” 

Conceived more than a decade ago, during the Arab Spring, Oasis Festival was founded as a way to shake the west of its harmful stereotypes of Arab nations. “One of the ideas was to try and get people to come here and change their mindset – like, not all Arab countries are the same,” explains Jaidi. “Oasis was conceived with foreigners in mind, and then I think that the music caught on (locally), and it just became a thing people put in their calendars.”

Perhaps unintentionally, Oasis Festival has tapped into a growing collective consciousness for young Moroccans, acting as a liminal space between the past and the future, of tradition and modern ways of living. “People always say Oasis is a place where they can be themselves, and I didn’t really understand that until I moved here,” says Jaidi. “I take it for granted because I’m from New York, things that are so normal outside of here, like holding hands or wearing what you want to wear without judgment. A lot of people have that mentality here, but they can’t really fully express it publicly. So, these events, not just Oasis, but those which have popped up in its wake, are creating a community of very, very cool people, and it’s very exciting living here and experiencing this culture in this community.”

The Mbari House at Jajjah introduces the next year of events, Jaidi explains, which nods to Austin’s South by Southwest’s format of roving around a city and its different spaces, and, eventually, having a “proper street festival” in Marrakesh. “People know the Medina, people know the various, well-known areas”, continues Jaidi, “but here (in Sidi Ghanem), it’s really special and underground. So the idea would be to bring attention to this area and involve the creatives already here.”

As for Jajjah, “I don't want it to be about me, it's from me to the people,admits Hajjaj, who hopes people will come to the space and make discoveries. In terms of Sidi Ghanem, Hajjaj has already drawn up plans for its future. “I want the neighbourhood to change,”  he says. “There's a $17 million dollar that the government has to spend on the neighbourhood. As an artist, I’ve already got a proposal for them.” He wants to commission international artists to create sculptures and murals alongside the Moroccan community, with the intention of visitors learning of the area’s history from local guides while witnessing its present-day in full swing.

“People always say Oasis is a place where they can be themselves, and I didn’t really understand that until I moved here” – Marjana Jaidi

In the last few years, Africa and its diasporas have unleashed a floodgate of talent – from fashion and design to music, art, and more – that has global industries in a chokehold. “It’s the dream for everybody when you’re trying to make it,” says Hajjaj. “Now it’s changing and things are happening in Morocco, or a Morroco community internationally. There’s also Lagos, Ghana... It’s a new generation. There’s a whole new wave. Photography is just one example, or the music scene, especially hip hop and traditional music (from Morocco), it’s leaking into Europe, places like France, Belgium, places with a north African community.”

The potential of music and art to transcend differences and bring us closer is at the heart of both Oasis Festival and Jajjah. In a country looking to the future, a meeting point of east and West, spaces like Jajjah, Oasis Festival, and its Mbari House, are not simply providing but building a platform side-by-side for a new generation to have their visions and voices seen and heard. It’s a stage looking outward, and the rest of the world is finally turning towards it.

The Mbari House is scheduled to return in 2023 to coincide with 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in Marrakesh, whereas Oasis Festival is planned for September 2022. Follow @theoasisfest to keep up to date