by Perry Demarche
RABAT, Morocco — In 1995, when she was 25 years old, Asmaa Benachir wandered into an art shop in Rabat, enticed by the smell of oil paints. Even though she had no prior artistic training, she dropped out of school and had created 25 paintings within a month. Her first pieces mostly depicted her hometown, Rabat, and demonstrate her skill in showing how light reflects off structures in old alleyways and abandoned buildings. She sold every single painting in her first exhibition.
Despite her early success, Benachir said it is difficult to be an artist in Morocco. She explained that “with an artistic career, it’s very difficult to have a family because financially, you are not stable”. She added, “It’s dangerous for the children. It’s very dangerous, so you have to make a choice: children or art.” Benachir, who is single with no kids, said she chose art.
Determined to help other female artisans, she partnered with the United Nations REVIS project to launch a monthly “Eco-Bio” market. The market— which will have been running for a full year this May— sells artisanal products made from environmentally-friendly and recycled materials. Benachir hopes the market will continue to be successful due to the enthusiasm surrounding Morocco’s environmental efforts and the COP 22 hosted in Marrakesh last November.
She said “We think that creating this African eco-bio market will maybe be a reference for designers all over the world to work with artists and artisans from Africa.”
The REVIS project, a program from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, aims to empower rural Moroccan artisans through ecological design training. Women attend 3-month-long workshops to learn new crafts and create products in higher quantities. They make embroidered fabrics, purses, moccasins, and baskets made from doum, natural fiber. Benachir helps market and sell the products via the Eco-Bio Market. The market is held in the gallery space of Au Grain De Sésame, a small business Benachir launched in 2008 to train local artisans.
Benachir explained that the women who seek training are already talented. She said artisans mainly struggle because some handmade crafts are no longer in high demand, and even if they can sell their products, they sell them for almost nothing.
In addition, Benachir said the families of the women are often skeptical of the program. They are doubtful until they see the products the women create and realize the women can be breadwinners for the family.
Benachir’s own family was skeptical of her artistic career. “In the beginning they were very afraid, afraid for me” she explained. “They didn’t understand in the beginning.”
When she first started to paint, Benachir mixed her paints with olive oil from her family’s kitchen and used cotton swabs in place of brushes. As she began to stay up every night to paint, her father— a military man who always showed good taste in selecting art for the house—gave her a simple choice: she could continue with school or she could pursue an art career. She chose art, but refused to have any formal instruction.
“I don’t want someone to teach me how to paint” she explained. “It’s something I want to do without thinking about a career”.
Benachir instead focused on helping other artisans in Morocco. “As an artist, I want to create a space where different artists can show their work” she said. With Au Grain de Sésame, Benachir developed a training program for women in the local medina and provided artisans with gallery space.
Inspired by a purse made from recycled paper that she received as a 30th birthday gift, Benachir soon began to teach women how to make furniture and accessories from recycled scraps. She said simply, “I am very independent. I do what I want, I decide what I want.”
The REVIS project gave Benachir a bigger outlet for this work. With 25 workshops completed,
Benachir said that art changes the lives of women. She said the women are more open-minded, creative, and confident after participating in the program.
“When the woman is emancipated, independent, and living better, she can then give a better education and environment to her child,” Benachir said.