Street art beyond folklore
Rim Mathlouthi - 13/07/2010
Lahssen L’Mssih is one of those who perpetuate acrobatics as a family tradition. Lahssen has always lived in a riad behind the Jemaâ el Fna Square in Marrakech close to the narrow streets teaming with tourists. There in no bell at his door, one has to call him from outside. In this narrow street, children play with a deflated ball. We expect to see someone well built but when he appears, we are surprised to see a tall but thin and frail fifty year old man. Behind his djellaba lies a Maâlem, a master from the family of the followers of the Sidi Moussa H’mad brotherhood, a great Sufi born in 1450. These ancestors are from the region of Souss where they conveyed street art by diffusing poetry and stories. They travelled from village to village and animated local feasts. But above all that, the men of the Oulad H’mad or Moussa brotherhood were known as warriors possessing exceptional acrobatic prowess. Among other things, they realised human pyramids to watch for the arrival of the enemy. When this tradition disappeared, acrobatics became a street art.
Lahssen started acrobatics at the age of 6. According to him, “it’s the right age”. “You must work physical strength and suppleness when you’re young. Since they are light, we put the youngest children at the peak of human pyramids. Here, we are not afraid to fall because we learn how to fall without getting injured. The Oulad H’mad or Moussa’s brotherhood are the best Moroccan acrobats,” he proudly explains.
“Acrobats train on the beach in Tangiers and in Agadir. It’s easier and less dangerous. But when not on the beach, carpets and nets are needed. We ourselves train on Marrakech’s hard ground. No beach, no sand and we have no carpets. We are capable of realising acrobatic figures on glass and pebbles without getting injured or feeling ill at ease”.
Moroccan acrobats are known all over the world for the realisation of certain figures like the human pyramid or the wheel. They perform circle acrobatics that represent an important signature for the rest of the world.
Sanae El Kamoun has identified this characteristic in 2004 and she proposed to Aurelien Bory to stage the first show of Moroccan acrobatics with a troupe from Tangiers. This is how Taoub was born, a worldwide success that encourages the group to continue, to get organised and to become more professional. The new performance entitled Chouf Ouchouf , staged by Zimmermann and de Perrot transports the troupe from Tangiers in a new artistic dimension.
In Salé, the circus school Shems’y, accompanied by the National Circus School Annie Fratellini enters a program to help children living in precarious conditions. A course of professional circus arts enables the students to reach an international level. Thus, the school Shems’y, founded in 1999 is the only place in Morocco created as a school that provides accredited training. Very often, the artists are then recruited abroad.
“This art is only respected abroad”, regrets Youssef. He did not go to Shems’y but many of his friends did. Youssef is a member of the Marrakech brotherhood and he has learned acrobatics in the street with his father and Maâlem Lahssen. “Acrobatics are part of me, of my history but unfortunately it doesn’t earn me a living. My five brothers have been identified in the street and today they are acrobats in the United States. I have chosen to stay here to take care of my mother.” Youssef is well built but his muscles and his agility only serve him to squeeze oranges in a stand in Jemaâ El Fna Square. Like the others, he has tried to present acrobatics in the Square. “I only used to earn 30 dirhams a day, hardly enough to buy something to eat in this same Square” he adds. “I know how to juggle, breathe fire, I know all the acrobatic figures and I even learnt how to perform figures on a rope but I don’t know how to stage and create a performance”. Like the majority of street acrobats, Youssef left school at the age of 10 he tells us angrily. “We have no support in our country. We are only offered animations in hotels. To whom can you explain that you perform an ancestral art?” In spite of this affirmation, Youssef, like Lahssen insists that their children perpetuate tradition.
The fact that this art is considered as a mere vulgar animation is the great regret of Khalid Tamer. In order to counteract this thought, four years ago, the stage director created and organises the annual street art festival in Marrakech called Awaln’art . The festival drew 30 000 spectators this year. It is original as the performances take place in several villages and present 14 companies of 7 nationalities. “I want to appropriate public space. This is part of a reflection on art in public space in Morocco.” Thus, villagers who have no opportunity to attend professional performances can discover them. Khalid Tamer seeks to show scripts coming from elsewhere, a way to open minds and come out of the “folklorisation” of street art. “Street acrobats are not entertainers but full-fledged artists. Those of Marrakech are part of the intangible heritage of the Jemaâ El Fna Square but they are not officially represented. Japanese Theatre is an excellent example of an ancestral art that has managed to win its contemporaneity. Moroccan street art has to follow the same way. The demand exists, the public is there each year and expects quality.” The festival originates from a simple statement. According to Khalid Tamer, in Morocco, the public rarely goes to auditoriums and theatres. “We have to reach the public and bring him performances to get him used to seeing them. We can then try to invite him to a theatre and pay his ticket”. Following the same logic, the “Théâtre Nomad” company goes on tour around the country in underprivileged areas.
“My aim is to professionalise street art as Taoub has done by imagining a centre for creativity for example,” concludes Khalid Tamer.
In the meantime, even without professionalization, acrobatic tradition remains intact and the fathers’ desire is still unwavering.
Link to Chouf Ouchouf’s tour
Translated into English by Elizabeth Grech