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This article appears in Volume 17: Myths and Legends.
The light is different in Morocco. The blinding midday sun fractures the air and causes you to squint, even under the cover of shade. The ripened glow of the evening transforms the most ordinary objects into things of beauty. And at night, the streetlights are a diluted hue of amber, tinting each alleyway and shuttered stall. Stepping off the plane at midnight is how I would imagine being smuggled into an unknown country must feel: our location concealed by night; held hostage until morning. Our blindfolds were lifted at the crack of dawn as we awoke to the fingertips of sunrise and the lyrical hum of morning prayer – each tower a few seconds before the next – creating a man-made echo, as hypnotic as it is unfamiliar.
Tangier is an edge city. It is caught between worlds – at the border between east and west, between north and south. If you stand at the top of the medina you are at the northernmost tip of Africa: you overlook both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and can see the hazy silhouette of the Strait of Gibraltar. With so many borders come layers of history, aesthetics and language – here you may take your pick of French, Arabic, English or, if watching the football with the locals, Spanish.
The city has always been a crossroad of cultures, and this mix has drawn a notable collection of artists, writers and eccentrics over the years. American expat composer and author Paul Bowles settled in Morocco and spent the final days of his life in a rented apartment here, and the Rolling Stones were inspired by the city’s sounds during a visit in the late Sixties. But of the many artists who have passed through Tangier, French painter Henri Matisse is perhaps the most well known. In search of a new direction and surrounded by bright light and vivid colours, here the Fauvist master found inspiration for some of his greatest works.
As a photographer, I too strive to capture colour and light, and I have always been enticed by Morocco’s rich hues and variegated sunshine. I wanted to seek out the initial creative spark – in landscapes and down alleyways – that Matisse would have experienced before dedicating himself to a blank canvas. I had come to Tangier with the aim of following in the footsteps, or rather, tracing the brushstrokes of Matisse.
La Tangerina is a privately owned riad located at the highest point of Tangier’s hilltop kasbah. With an airy roof terrace which looks out across the harbour to the sea, the place is spread over ten rooms and five floors, all bedecked with Berber carpets and wall-mounted birdcages. After surfacing on the first morning, I left to explore my surrounding with James, my partner (both romantically and creatively).
It was hot – a pleasant greeting after leaving an autumnal England. But when Henri Matisse first arrived on a Monday in January 1912, after a 60-hour boat ride from Marseilles, he was received by torrential, inexhaustible showers. He wrote that same day to his daughter Marguerite: “Shall we ever see the sun in Morocco?” Later in his stay he described the light as only as “bright as in a cellar”.
We can be thankful that the weather did, eventually, cheer up. And Matisse found in Tangier a new light that he hadn’t experienced elsewhere. The artist absorbed his sunlit surroundings eagerly, stating: “The weather is good at last. What mellow light.” This is in fact an observation I found only to be true in the evenings; at other times of day the light was simply too strong. Perhaps Matisse only painted in the morning and during the golden hour (whereas I, being English, insisted upon exploring the streets at high noon).
Indeed, the play of sunlight and shadows is so subtle and unexpected here that one can easily lose sight of the person you are following in the streets. I read before I left that the Pinkerton Agency sent its fledgling detectives to Tangier to perfect the art of tailing people. And James lost me a number of times – partly due to the light, and partly due my insistence on running o to take photographs when they beckoned.
We spent our first morning wandering, allowing our eyes to slowly adjust to the African sun, and quickly found ourselves led by thirst to the old courtyard of the acclaimed restaurant El Morocco Club, where we were to eat later that evening. We sipped on fresh coffee, sheltered by toothpaste-blue walls and a thick-trunked tree wrapped up in its own root system.
It was at this courtyard that we stumbled upon Mohammed (or did he stumble upon us?) Our saviour was my age (24) and a trainee tour guide with impeccable English, a kind sensibility and inky eyelashes. After visiting Marrakech twice I was certain that I knew the drill – encounters with “guides” had often ended in a sour farewell when it emerged that their efforts were not simply acts of kindness. Mohammed, however, was honest, fiercely knowledgeable and a credit to his city.
I explained to Mohammed that Matisse was the true tour guide of our trip, and he quickly led me to a doorway in the kasbah that was immortalised by the artist in his painting The Marabout (a site that I surely would have passed by). Mohammed pointed out the exact position in which Matisse sat, now a humble corner of rubble outshone by an imposing door of green and brilliant white.
I mentioned my love of anything old or, as Matisse once said, “delight in the past”, and Mohammed led us to Bazar Bouchta, an Aladdin’s cave of ornate, antique rugs that made my heart leap and my wallet shrivel. I reminded myself of advice given to Matisse by Gauguin: “Painters who are looking for a colour technique, study rugs. You will find the necessary knowledge there.” Of course, I bought one; I was excited to engulf my London studio in golden light reflected from the safron pigments of the hand-stitched wool. (What’s more, the shop’s owner Saied was patient, unlike some antique dealers I’ve encountered – I was once coerced into buying a £700 waistcoat, and cried all the way home, looking fabulous.) As we meandered through the capillaries of the kasbah, I couldn’t help but notice that we were being enticed by a distinctive scent. I took a photograph of a worn, hand-painted sign and entered Café Baba. Crisp, cold Coke bottles were placed on scattered tables adorned with carved signatures. Above my head there was a faded photograph of Mick Jagger smoking an elaborate pipe at Café Baba, sitting in the very same chair as me, and across the room hung a shrine-like collage of Bob Marley.
The football was in full swing, and heady smoke spirals (from more than just tobacco) filled the room. I’d like to think that Matisse, if he were alive today, would feel as at home here creatively as I did.
As our journey was inspired by a painter, it felt only right to seek out local artists. We ran into a boy of about 12 painting in the street outside a gallery, which had no name. We spoke to the owner, and were told of the warm “character” of the gallery’s work, which pays homage to Matisse. I always try to take home a local painter’s work when I travel and here I bought a loosely painted sketch of a door. I love the sentiment of having them hanging up at home – little windows into that particular painter’s soul.
The second day took us to Chefchaouen. The place has no known relation to Matisse himself, however locals insisted that I pay it a visit, as a photographer and an artist, because of its unique appearance. Every building in the city is coated up to six times a year in thick blue paint – a practice which is said to have been introduced by Jewish refugees in the Thirties, who considered the colour to be a symbol of heaven.
From Tangier we drove for two hours through barren landscapes dotted with the occasional smouldering rubbish heap. The views were cinematic, but not saccharine. There were countless stalls selling tagine pots and ceramic tiles that seemed to appear out of the middle of nowhere, their rust-red goods doing little to prepare my eyes for what was to come.
Upon entering the town of Chefchaouen, a sole thought struck me: who knew there were so many shades of blue? The light here was transformed from a baked yellow to a cool white – a product of refraction from multiple hues of aquamarine and cobalt. I couldn’t help but squeak at the occasional pops of orange plastic and blood-red fabrics, reducing the objects they covered to clotted shapes, concealing their blue underlayers of paint.
We feasted on chicken tagine at Restaurant Darcom and enjoyed the views – uncertain of the horizon, where the blue sky met with the equally blue city. Once fed we slumped up the hills to view the buildings from another angle. It was hotter here than in Tangier – without the sea air we felt far closer to the sun. I missed the tranquillity of the coastal city, and wanted to get back in time to catch sundown at Charf, the highest hilltop of Tangier, and one with awe-inspiring views.
But first, I insisted that we stop on our journey back at room 35 of the Grand Hotel Villa de France, where Matisse stayed and worked, and which he immortalised in the painting Landscape Viewed from a Window. The room was not accessible to sleep in; it is only open to visitors wishing to peer out of the window Matisse recreated over 100 years before. I was a little taken aback by how nonchalantly the hotelier threw me the keys and gave me no time limit, I had almost hoped it would be more difficult, it would have added to the sense of suspense.
A palm brutishly concealed Saint Andrew’s Church, breaking the view from perfectly mimicking the painting. But it was a very special thing to see nevertheless, and I did my best to capture the view over the kasbah on camera, battling the coastal wind trying to slam each shutter closed (perhaps Matisse didn’t approve of my digital recreation) and we left to continue our drive to Charf, hurried on by the fading light.
We made it, and the golden hour was perfect. I asked Mohammed if tourists often visited the hilltop and he said no, which made me feel a little guilty. But the beauty of the view and the apparent purity of reason for people being there – simply to enjoy the last of the day’s sun in good company – combined with the feeling of sheer foreignness reminded me of a sentiment I’ve always enjoyed. Paul Bowles, the writer most identified with Tangier, was obsessed with the idea of defining oneself by travel. And in the 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, he made a distinction between those who travel to confirm what they already know and those who travel to discover something else: “Another important difference between the tourist and the traveller is that the former accepts his own civilisation without question; not so the traveller, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.”
As “travellers” we become internationalist, and in the process of abandoning aspects of our own histories, we evolve new identities that are shaped by the places we visit. Matisse’s interpretation of light shifted after his visit to Tangier. He relished his discovery and used it to alter his established perceptions, what he thought he knew.
After stepping in the footsteps of Matisse – by experiencing the same rays of sunlight that penetrated his paintings and locating the source of the artist’s inspiration through a bedroom window (one so readily available, like a secret held loosely to the chest) – I became immersed in the internationalist culture of Tangier. I can only hope that through photographing and writing about my journey I have, in some small way, added to the rich creative heritage of the city.
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