Monday, March 21, 2011

Moroccan courtyard at New York's Metropolitan Museum

The Metropolitan Museum in New York is installing a new Moroccan courtyard, handcrafted by Moroccan artisans.

photo: New York Times

Navina Haidar of the museum's Islamic Department explained to the New York Times that the institution was embarking on the most ambitious rethinking and rebuilding of its Islamic art galleries in its history, a $50 million endeavor. At the heart of those galleries, which will open this autumn after being closed six years, it dreamed of showcasing the defining feature of Moroccan and southern Spanish Islamic architecture: a medieval Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard, which would function in much the same way such courtyards still do in the traditional houses and mosques of Marrakesh or Fez, as their physical and spiritual center.

A group of highly regarded Moroccan craftsmen, most of whom had never set foot in New York, took up residence at the Met last December, to build the 14th-century-inspired courtyard.

With world attention focused on the Middle East, the courtyard has taken on an unforeseen importance for the museum; for the Kingdom of Morocco itself, which has followed the project closely; and for a constituency of Muslim scholars and supporters of the Met. They hope it will be seen as a symbol, amid potent anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States and Europe, that aesthetic and intellectual commerce remains alive between Islam and the West.

The work is being undertaken by a company of craftsmen, Arabesque, founded in Fez in 1928 and now run by Adil Naji and three of his brothers, who are great-grandsons of the founder.

Over the course of two months a reporter and photographer were invited to watch as the space began to transform slowly from a 21-by-23-foot drywall box — illuminated by an LED panel in the ceiling cleverly mimicking daylight — to a courtyard with zellij (mosaic tile) patterns based on those in the Alhambra palace in Granada, above which rise walls of fantastically filigreed plaster, leading to a carved cedar molding based on the renowned woodwork in the Attarine Medersa in Fez.

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