American artist creates home for henna in Marrakech café

By Regan Reeck

MARRAKECH, Morocco – A short walk from Marrakech’s landmark Jemaa el Fna square, a blue door, painted with sandy browns and yellows marks the entrance to the Marrakech Henna Art Café. Upon entering, the melancholic blues of the Dire Straits fills a bright entryway and the café’s owner Lori K. Gordon, 58, born and raised in the plains of South Dakota, appears with a cheery hello.

The eye-catching entrance to the Marrakech Henna Art Cafe. Photo by Regan Reeck.
The eye-catching entrance to the Marrakech Henna Art Cafe. Photo by Regan Reeck.

A man and woman wander up the blue stairs, they inquire with heavy accented English about getting henna done. Realizing that there would be a wait they get ready to leave, disappointed, but as Gordon deftly interjects they stop. She suggests that they get a bite to eat while one of the henna artists finishes with another customer. Handing them a thick book filled with various henna designs she ushers the tourists to a table assuring them the wait won’t be long.

In Marrakech, street vendors are dependent on tourists for their income, this includes the many henna artists who work throughout the city and the three women who work at the henna café. According to Morocco’s Tourism Observatory, Morocco welcomed 10.18 million visitors in 2015 which is down 5.3% from 2014. Gordon estimates that 98 percent of her customer base is tourists and, like other vendors, is affected by the fluctuations of tourism. However, the café provides opportunities to the artists not available to others.

“I didn’t want to do art that looked pretty over someone’s sofa,” Gordon said. “I’ve always wanted to do socially significant work and it’s really hard to sell that to people.”

An artist herself, Gordon opened her café two years ago, where she began her second NGO, El Fenn Maroc, or “The Arts of Morocco”. El Fenn was founded to help support artists, generally women and their families, while also trying to connect cultures through art. It also aims to help ensure the continuation of traditional Moroccan art techniques.

Lori K.Gordon, who uses her middle initial to differentiate between her and a paranormal artist by the same name, is widely known in the U.S., particularly for the work she did after Hurricane Katrina  Her home in Bay St. Louis, off the Mississippi Gulf Coast was destroyed during the storm.

“I lost my home and my studio,” Gordon said. “I couldn’t afford to rebuild on the Coast. I had to get back to work. Psychologically I needed it.”

 Lori K. Gordon, co-owner of the henna art café, as she describes the impact Hurricane Katrina had on her life. Photo by Regan Reeck.
Lori K. Gordon, co-owner of the henna art café, as she describes the impact Hurricane Katrina had on her life. Photo by Regan Reeck.

The result of this tragedy was The Katrina Collection. Using debris from the hurricane, Gordon  created multimedia art that she then  displayed and sold as a collection across the United States. The sale of this collection, notably in the private collections of former President Carter and President Obama, helped rebuild Gordon’s life.

Not long after, Gordon began her global adventure with a ticket to Cyprus in her hand. Traveling across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean, inspired her to start her first NGO. Six Degrees Consortium is focused on creating art that is both socially relevant, addressing problems faced by humans across the globe, and also aims to help with cross-cultural understanding.

 With the support of Six Degrees Consortium, a grant from The Mississippi Humanities Council and the support of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Katrina Research Center, Gordon produced The Labat Project, multi-part in-depth look at Creole history and the life of Celestine Labat. The first part of the work a large quilt depicting Labat’s life was acquired by the Smithsonian Museum as a part of their permanent collection, while the second part is a traveling collection of Labat’s oral history and images from her family collection.

She first traveled to Morocco three years ago. Initially, it was just another stop on her list, but she said that it became the first place where she truly felt like more than just a passerby. She befriended a group of young artists and came back three more times in the next nine months before finally deciding to move to Marrakech.

The café, opened by Gordon and Rachid Karkouch, her friend and business partner, is an integral part of El Fenn’s operation. It provides both a place for artwork to be displayed and sold and a place for the three henna artists to work.  Gordon said she is helping these women find new applications for their art form that are not only more profitable, but more dependable as well. In a city that has recently seen a decline in profit from their tourism sector this is a crucial endeavor.

El Fenn is currently supporting two Amazigh women, the indigenous people of Northern Africa, who weave rugs as well as the henna artists who work at the café. It has also partnered with a Canadian based NGO, The Giving Lens, who organize tours for professional and amateur photographers across the globe. These partnerships, while still being developed, are allowing the surrounding community to continue their relationships with art.

One of the many things the henna artists apply their craft to, these hand-carved camels are the best selling items in the cafe's boutique. Photo by Regan Reeck.
One of the many things the henna artists apply their craft to, these hand-carved camels are the best selling items in the cafe’s boutique. Photo by Regan Reeck.

Most of the money being brought in by the artists comes from traditional henna done on the skin. Henna at the café ranges anywhere from 50 MAD to 300 MAD ($5 to $30) depending on the complexity and size of the piece, almost twice the typical rate found on the streets.  Though as tourism slows, Gordon commissions the women to apply their talent to new mediums.

“These women work for us on commission.” Gordon said. “During high season, when we’re really busy, they can make more than five or six times what everyone else is making here.”

Between 10 and 70 percent of all the canvas art sold at the henna café goes back to El Fenn. The work collaborated on by Gordon and the henna artists puts back ten percent and the work done solely by the henna artists (camels, leather, bijouxs and other projects), puts back seventy percent. This money goes to buy supplies for the henna artists and also pays for the piecework that they do.

Gordon intends to stay in Marrakech for the foreseeable future, continuing her work at the café and within the Moroccan art community.  

“I have been so fortunate, after Katrina we had people all over the country coming to help us, it was the most incredible thing,” Gordon said. “After these experiences, I just needed to do this. I need to find ways I can do for people like they did for me.”

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