Moroccan Ceramics and the Geography of Invented Traditions

By Housefield, James E. | The Geographical Review, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Moroccan Ceramics and the Geography of Invented Traditions


Housefield, James E., The Geographical Review


The central role played by ceramics in most considerations of Moroccan arts extends to travelers' and geographers' descriptions of Moroccan space. The city of Fes, for example, is immediately distinguishable from atop any of the surrounding hills (Burckhardt 1992). From above, one recognizes the green, ceramic-tiled roofs of mosques and shrines [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Within certain public spaces and many private homes, the tile decorations known as zillij are a sign of luxury that distinguishes such special places as rooms reserved for receiving guests.

These different ceramics are all associated with a distinctly Moroccan sense of place. In the popular view, ceramics are inherently traditional (Jereb 1996), yet they offer a sense of national self-image that is viable and contemporary in the late twentieth century. One of the goals of my study of the geography of Moroccan ceramic production is to critically examine the role of ceramics in the ongoing creation of a tradition in which these objects participate (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). Although many scholars - Moroccans as well as foreigners - view these traditions of ceramic production and consumption as age-old and authentic, my research suggests that this sense of tradition and heritage has resulted from social and economic manipulation before, during, and since the French Protectorate (1912-1956).

Traditional arts and handicrafts have historically been used to represent the Maghreb of North Africa in global approaches to the history of art. Ceramics, in particular, have been studied in relation to geography; distinct styles and modes of production are associated with certain places. Periodically styles diffuse from key points of origin. Stylistically oriented approaches dominate art historical studies of Moroccan ceramics. Yet ceramics merit fresh consideration as the technological artifacts of social and economic change. By focusing on ceramics, I investigate the historical circumstances surrounding the development and organization of the arts-and-crafts industry in Morocco during the French Protectorate.

In the late nineteenth century the colonial French regime encouraged the development of a ceramic craft center in Sail, southwest of Casablanca, which continues to produce objects for local use, the tourist trade, and export.(1) A new Moroccan ceramic heritage was thereby inaugurated, the technical and economic ramifications of which persist. New technologies and modern concepts of labor organization affected the establishment of the new ceramics center at Safi. Additionally, the rebirth of this industry on a more ambitious scale ultimately allowed the Sail potters to overshadow smaller-scale village production and gain an increasing share of regional and national sales within Morocco. Early in the twentieth century, Safi's colline des potiers (potters' hill) gave the French a source of ceramics for use within the expanding villes nouvelles, the new cities that were built by and for the colonists arriving from Europe (Ouazzani and Triki 1993).

French colonial interest in Safi was no doubt increased by its location on the Atlantic coast, where it functioned as a secondary port backing up the premier port city of Casablanca. Under the leadership of Resident General Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey a new harbor was dug at Casablanca, and the small village was transformed into the major international port that it continues to be today? Gwendolyn Wright has chronicled this transformation of a landscape that the French replicated in their colonies, not only in Morocco but also in Indochina and Madagascar (Wright 1991). When a ville nouvelle was built in Morocco, the traditional medina was, physically, left virtually untouched by the new and separate colonial construction.

Lyautey's significant impact on Morocco during the Protectorate transformed both the physical landscape and the cultural landscape of Morocco. A new city growing alongside or around a medina made visible the distinctions between precolonial and colonial spaces. …

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