Friday, April 10, 2015

What Now For the Artisans of Fez?

While master artisans in Fez are battling increased competition from imported goods, and the loss of the traditional apprenticeship system, they still create work of exquisite quality 

On Tuesday April 7, a group discussion was held in the Craft Draft studio at Khrachiyen fondouk at R'Cif, on Fez artisans and their past and future roles. Organised by Culture Vultures, and facilitated by social entrepreneur, musician, and budding copper-smith Hamza El Fasiki, the Artisan Forum was attended by three grand 'malams', or master-craftsmen in the field of copper etching. Also participating where several curious locals, two visiting artists, and a Canadian journalist.

The group who attended the Artisan Forum included master-craftsmen, locals and visitors

Master-craftsmen Mohamed Ben Jebara; Makhtar El Fasiki and Idriss Sakhi shared their perspectives of how they had begun training as children and how their vocation had changed over the decades.

Makhtar El Fasiki, the father of Hamza, said, "I was born in 1951, and started practising in 1959. In 1968, I became a master-craftsman, and in 1993, everybody voted for me to run the Guild."

"I used to only do the most difficult part of the work, and then pass it on to the artisan who worked with me, and then the apprentices," he said. "By this method, I could make five trays a day. Now, I can make only one tray, because I have to do everything myself."

L-R Mohamed Ben Jebara; Kahlil Lazar from Culture Vultures; Makhtar El Fasiki, Idriss Sakhi

In 1997, Morocco signed up to a UNICEF convention on the rights of the child. Overnight, young apprentices were removed from their places of work and sent to school. "We called what they were doing learning a trade: they called it child labour," said Mohamed Ben Jebara.

Now, young would-be-artisans attend a school for handicrafts that was set up by the Moroccan government. Hamza El Fasiki explains, "But the Copper-smiths Guild didn't join, because they didn't agree that it was a trade you could learn in two years, and then call yourself a copper-smith." So the number of new people taking up the trade is small.

Makhtar El Fasiki demonstrates his master-craftsman skills

The guild system, too, has changed considerably in the past few decades. Once all powerful, the guild controlled the quality of what was produced, resolved disputes between craftsmen, and checked for the presence of dangerous chemicals, such as lead. Now individuals set up their own businesses, without necessarily belonging to the guild, and there is less ability to control quality. Artisans may work from templates, rather than being able to draw their own designs using a compass. "You have someone who is known as a mul shekkara, one who owns the bag (of money), without knowing the trade," said Hamza. "Now they operate as businessmen, employing several copper-smiths and re-selling what they produce."

Rather than the old techniques being "frozen in time", the types of products have also had to change, to follow demand. "For example, the French introduced an oval tea-tray that became very popular," said Idriss Sakhi. "So we started to make them." He produced several examples of different kinds of tea trays to demonstrate the evolution of their design. "Every new design has a life of about 10 - 12 years, and then it dies," he said.

Facilitator of the Artisan Forum, Hamza El Fasiki

Hamza said that it was arguable as to whether the necessary adaptation was innovation, or invasion, particularly given the effect of colonialism. Another significant influence has been tourism, where small products are created, specifically so tourists can take them on planes.

"From the 1950s to the 1990s, we made only functional things that were used in houses. Now there are new types of businesses, such as wedding and party caterers, who have created more demand," said Idriss Sakhi.

A growing problem is the increase in plagiarism of original designs. "Every piece used to have the mark of the person who had made it. Nowadays, work is being churned out, which doesn't even have a mark, or they copy the mark from another artisan."

The master-craftsmen continue to produce their wonderful designs, which are much in demand, but they fear that there are few to follow in their footsteps. Makhtar El Fasiki is proud that his son Hamza has chosen to learn his craft, and that he is helping to spread the word about the importance of the artisans of Fez.

Hamza El Fasiki in his father's chair
Words and photos by Suzanna Clarke

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Unknown said...

Thanks Suzanna for the great text :)
Much appreciated - and i feel i have to carry on a heavy legacy of family :)
wish me good luck. Hamza El Fasiki

Unknown said...

Sad to see Morocco's wonderful traditional crafts in danger of extinction.

Kathy (Aled's mum) said...

Very interesting, and inspiring. Can you combine thinking about your music as you work on the copper?

Unknown said...

@Sojourner Trut, Oops, it is not in extinction for me - we are here to make it live for another 40 yeas ;)