Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Writing’s On the Wall

"I’m an artist. When you tell people that they usually say, what's your medium? I always say, 'Extra large.'"

-Jean Michel Basquiat

Nobody as far as I know has written about the cultural significance of walls and that may be too bad, for though their subject may be pedestrian at first glance, their prominence within history and art is undeniable. Jerusalem has a Wailing Wall where wishes are wedged into the stone by faithful worshippers. Israel has another wall built recently, used as a border to filter Palestinian people through security checkpoints in and out of Gaza and the West Bank. Berlin once had a wall utilized for similar reasons and Pink Floyd has a depressing album about one. China’s wall you can see from the moon and Jean-Paul Sartre’s most readable short story is called The Wall.

Walls have been with us ever since man has sought shelter from his environment. They have various necessary and symbolic functions, the most obvious of which is providing structural support for homes and business. While accommodating privacy they also separate us, shutting people away from each other. Walls are boundaries; they suggest limits, establishing private property, telling us where we can and cannot go. They can be white, padded, and locked if one is deemed insane. Should they be covered with squiggly marks done in aerosol paint, they jeopardize real estate values. Walls are intended to protect us yet too often in these terrifying times they are adorned with barbed wire, their symbolism taking a ghastly, violent poise. We forget this but walls are also potential canvases. Huge, inspiring, storytelling space.

While the kingdom of Morocco may be famous for its deserts, bazaars, and couscous, it may be the vividness of color that strikes the visitor on a level that might be described as ecstatic. Psychologists have long pointed out the connection between mood and color and that melancholy can be a consequence of grayness. Throughout the large cities and small towns of Morocco, windows, gates, and doors are gilded with reds, pinks, and orange. Although it can feel slapdash and improvised, if not whimsical, the effect of urban color on the spirit is deliberate and powerful.

Asilah, a small Atlantic seaside town just south of Tangier, annually commissions international artists to create large, painted murals. Some are representational while others are abstract: visible are elements of cave paintings, cubism, and Cy Twombly. Like most inner-city medinas in Morocco, Asilah's central layout is a complex maze of plazas, streets, and alleys that takes some time to orient oneself. Throughout the medina these huge murals can be found, though the best ones are located by the main elementary school, which hopefully, is an inspiration to the passing children.

This is a wonderful thing. To keep art in museums-- as opposed to the streets-- is to suggest that art is 'historical,' and thus has little relevance to contemporary culture. Worse, secluding its appreciation to privileged circles within the museum complex, society withholds art's everyday effect from the ordinary citizen. To do this in Morocco, a country with double-digit unemployment would be spiteful and absurd. The streets of Moroccan towns are never silent. In cafes men smoke and talk. Women converge to gossip on doorways and park benches. Home for many is a cramped, dark place so it makes sense the street would be a viable contrast in brightness.

Chefchaouen is another city remarkable for its color. Most of the town center has been painted a rich knockout blue and has been since the 15th century. This bold use of a uniform color has a tremendous effect. It gives the city a visible personality. Moreover, it welcomes the visitor into its space effortlessly, so that old men in djellaba cloaks, children playing with water guns, cats lazy from the sun and you, yourself, have all become characters within this rich and beautiful canvas.

If one walks long enough (and in such surroundings one is inclined to walk all day), a person will eventually witness cracks in the walls, exposed brick and wood, childishly scrawled graffiti. Rather than imperfections, these marks seem to define character and age: not all dilapidation is bad just as not all shiny surfaces are beautiful. In fact, the flaws insinuate the aura of collaboration between time, nature and human creativity as on evidence is the work of the stonemason, the carpenter, the journeyman laborer, and the eleven-year-old boy.

As the world moves closer in globalized sameness it becomes imperative that we adopt a flair for color so appreciable within the towns of Asilah and Chefchaouen. Doing so would bring people out of their techno-cocoons and into the street for games, talk, and friendship. There is no excuse. After all, we have plenty of wall space to fill.

1 comment:

  1. Just a little note to say i thought your article was truly wonderful. Such beautiful examples of the creativity of the human soul and our need to fill our lives with the marks of it.