By Robert Dozier
RABAT, Morocco – Jackie Zappa, is an artist from the Ivory Coast — one of an estimated 30 thousand migrants from Sub Saharan Africa. A painter and sculptor, Zappa says he lived in Tunisia and Algeria but his art was not appreciated in those countries. Communities of migrant artists, musicians and performers are flourishing in Rabat and Casablanca.
“Morocco is the only place in Africa where I can improve my talent,” said Zappa.
Last year alone, more than one million people migrated to Europe, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, according to the International Organization for Migration. For many coming from Africa, Morocco is the last stop on their voyage to Europe, but some have chosen to avoid the dangerous and sometimes deadly trip, and remain in Morocco. According to Human Rights Watch, approximately 30,000 Sub-Saharan African migrants are currently living in Morocco. They have brought their cultures with them.
“My father and my mother were both artists,” said Zappa. “So art has always been the most important thing in my life.”
Still migrants in Morocco, face discrimination and police brutality in Morocco, according to activists working with them. The lack of employment is also a pervasive issue, along with access to medical care, housing, and schooling.
Zappa grabs a chair and sets it in front of an easel that holds one of his works in progress. He grabs a brush from the small table on his left and dips it in one of the several cans on the table. The painting, depicts a woman with a child strapped to her back, their bodies outlined in blue and white. Their forms are being pulled back to a point just at the corner of the canvas. Much of Zappa’s work, like this piece, represent the experience or leaving one’s home and remaining in touch with one’s roots.
“I paint what I know,” said Zappa
About 15 feet away in the courtyard of the African Culture Center, a repurposed house, two of his friends start playing drums and are joined by several others who begin dancing.
The entire exterior of the building is dotted with sculptures and other objects made by Zappa, and inside is a gallery featuring more of his paintings, the subjects of which are mostly African women. Zappa describes himself as a “master of the African female form.”
“Art allows us to gain a unique vision of life and things from all over the word,” said Zappa. His goal is to be an internationally known artist.
The Moroccan government has made efforts to make lives easier for migrants, including a process which has allowed over 17,000 migrants to gain legal status. The Moroccan Council on Human Rights announced in October that they are looking at the 9,000 applications that were denied during the last regularization process in order to give more migrants legal recognition.
These changes have made living in Morocco a more attractive option.
Ousmane Ba, president of Collectif des Communautés Subsahariennes au Maroc, an organization that helps migrants navigate the legal system and gain access to medical care and schooling, feels that Morocco is changing. According to Ba, Morocco has gone from being a place migrants only came on their way to Europe to place where migrants are beginning to settle permanently.
“I know men that have gone to Europe and now they have no jobs,” said Ba. “They wish they stayed in Morocco, where they could make a little money.”
Not to mention the danger of attempting to cross into Europe. The UN Refugee Agency says as many as 2,500 migrants have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in 2016 alone. According to Human Rights Watch migrants are routinely attacked by Spanish, Moroccan, and Algerian border guards.
“I would never encourage anyone to try to go to Europe,” said Reuben Yemoh Odoi, an advocate for migrants in Morocco, himself a migrant from Ghana.
On a rainy, cold afternoon in a small park in Casablanca, Morocco’s economic capital, the cries of a woman catch the attention of passersby. The woman, 39 year old Sylvie Ogou, is an actress originally from the Ivory Coast and she’s performing a play in the park. Ogou stands with her arms stretched out, begging for money and food. Another performer shoves her to the ground. Her cries are drowned out by the sound of a trumpet crooning a sad tune, marking the end of the scene.
“I am an artist,” says Ogou. “All I want to do is act.”
Ogou performs with a theater group called Mix City which features Sub-Saharan African migrants and Moroccan performers. In their performances, which involve skits with singing and dancing, they explore problems like racism, xenophobia and women’s issues.
“It’s theater that is asking questions,” said Sanae Assif, a Masters candidate at Hassan II University, studying cultural engineering, in reference to the style of Mix City’s performances. “The barriers between actors, artists, and the public are demolished.”
Mix City utilizes a style of performance named Theatre of the Oppressed, developed by Brazilian theater practitioner, Augusto Boal. During the performance spectators affect how the story unfolds based on their reactions and thoughts.
They regularly invite audience members to join the performance, becoming actors, singing and making decisions about what the other performers should do.
For this reason, Mix City holds most of their performances in public areas, like parks or city streets, to reach as many people as possible. Their goal is to bring issues that affect migrants, women, and other oppressed groups into public discourse.
“It is a democratic form of doing theater,” said Assif. “The performers must implicate the viewers and make them active and involved.”
“I realized that Morocco has really something special in the arts,” said Ogou. “I just wanted to… explore the place.” She left the Ivory Coast during the economic crisis of 2010. Much like Zappa, Ogou settled in Morocco in order to pursue her artistic passion.
“Maybe one day I can act in movies” said Ogou.
Reuben Yemoh Odoi, a lifelong musician, arrived in Morocco 8 years ago, and after working for several organizations that serve migrants he recognized a need for more creative outlets for displaced people. He started a non-profit organization called the Minority Globe. The Minority Globe sponsors cultural initiatives, like Mix City, to encourage migrants to express themselves, and advocate for migrant issues through music, art, and performance.
“We are trying to change everything through art,” said Odoi. “…give [migrants] a voice, draw awareness about migration.”
Odoi along with Khadija Souary, the intercultural program director at GADEM, (Group Antiracist for Accompaniment and Defense of Migrants) organized a program that mentored migrant teenagers to become storytellers and actors. The program culminated in a performance at the Migrant en Scene Festival last year.
The play they performed told the story of a village that shuns a traveller because of the color of his skin.
Souary saw a change in the teens. “I saw them become more confident,” she said. “They weren’t afraid to express themselves anymore.”
Souary and Odoi hope that the teens will use creative outlets to express themselves, and educate other about the issues that affect them.
“Everything is possible today, but through art,” said Odoi. “Art is the solution, culture is the solution. With culture, we have communication, and with culture we can negotiate.”
Boutaina Guemra contributed to reporting.