Sub-Saharan African migrants in Morocco find hope in art and performance

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.

Artist Jackie Zappa brought his lifelong passion for art with him when he came to Morocco from the Cote D’Ivoire a year ago. He has worked with the African Cultural Center (ACC) in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, for ten months. Before the ACC, he was selling handmade necklaces on the street; now, his paintings are on display in the Center’s gallery, and his sculptures greet visitors at the gate. Photo by Allegra Thomas.
Artist Jackie Zappa brought his lifelong passion for art with him when he came to Morocco from the Cote D’Ivoire a year ago. He has worked with the African Cultural Center (ACC) in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, for ten months. Before the ACC, he was selling handmade necklaces on the street; now, his paintings are on display in the Center’s gallery, and his sculptures greet visitors at the gate. Photo by Allegra Thomas.

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 uses oil paints on an in-progress painting of African woman on his easel at the ACC. The ACC gives Zappa space to express himself creatively. When he first migrated to Tunisia and Algeria, he said it was nearly impossible for migrants to create art, so he traveled to Morocco to find a culture that would welcome his artistic passion. Photo by Allegra Thomas.
Zappa uses oil paints on an in-progress painting of African woman on his easel at the ACC. The ACC gives Zappa space to express himself creatively. When he first migrated to Tunisia and Algeria, he said it was nearly impossible for migrants to create art, so he traveled to Morocco to find a culture that would welcome his artistic passion. Photo by Allegra Thomas.

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

Zappa poses with three of his paintings that hang in the ACC’s indoor art gallery. He calls himself a master of the African female form. His work is imbued with the spirit of Africa, and he often inserts symbols, like the outline of Africa, into his paintings. Photo by Allegra Thomas.
Zappa poses with three of his paintings that hang in the ACC’s indoor art gallery. He calls himself a master of the African female form. His work is imbued with the spirit of Africa, and he often inserts symbols, like the outline of Africa, into his paintings. Photo by Allegra Thomas.

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.

An unfinished painting by Zappa leans against the wall of a small room at the ACC housing traditional clothing and djembe drums. His paintings have become icons for the many sub-Saharan people who make up the community at the ACC. Photo by Allegra Thomas.
An unfinished painting by Zappa leans against the wall of a small room at the ACC housing traditional clothing and djembe drums. His paintings have become icons for the many sub-Saharan people who make up the community at the ACC. Photo by Allegra Thomas.

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.

Ayoub Achik of Mix City closes the street performance by falling to his knees and casting a reverent look to the sky. Many of the Sub-Saharan people who perform with Mix City had intentions to travel to Europe, but found community and solace in Morocco. Photo by Allegra Thomas.
Ayoub Achik, a performer with the Théâtre de l’Opprimé falls to his knees during a collaborative performance with Mix city. Many of the Sub-Saharan people who perform with Mix City had intentions to travel to Europe, but found community and solace in Morocco. Photo by Allegra Thomas.

“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.

Sylvie Ogou, 39, performed with Mix City, a theater group comprised of Sub-Saharan migrants and Moroccan performers on November 1, 2015, in Casablanca. She migrated to Morocco from the Cote d’Ivoire. During the performance, she begged other performers and audience members for food and money, exploring issues of poverty. Photo by Allegra Thomas.
Sylvie Ogou, 39, performs with Mix City, a theatre group comprised of Sub-Saharan migrants and Moroccan performers. She migrated to Morocco from the Cote d’Ivoire. During the performance, she begged other performers and audience members for food and money, exploring issues of poverty. On November 15, 2015 Mix City performed alongside two other groups theater troupes: Théâtre de l’Opprimé of Casablanca and visiting group from Egypt. Photo by Allegra Thomas.

“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.

Mix City’s performances happen in public – parks, city spaces, and streets – so they can reach a diverse audience. They bring few props, and perform to a soundtrack created by a trumpet player and a bassist, seated off to the side on a portable amplifier. The music helps to convey mood and meaning during scenes of silence, or if audience members do not understand the languages spoken by the performers. Photo by Allegra Thomas.
Mix City’s performances happen in public – parks, city spaces, and streets – so they can reach a diverse audience. On this day they were accompanied by a music group called Zaaz Band.  The music helps to convey mood and meaning during scenes of silence, or if audience members do not understand the languages spoken by the performers. Photo by Allegra Thomas.

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.”

Reuben Yemoh Odoi, 38, founded an NGO called Minority Globe after being homeless for several months. Minority Globe sponsors Mix City, amongst other cultural initiatives, to drive Sub-Saharan people to channel their struggles and experiences into artistic outlets. He performs with Mix City, singing and acting. Here he is seen pretending to clean the windshields of performers driving in cars and asking for money. Photo by Allegra Thomas.
Reuben Yemoh Odoi, 38, founded an NGO called Minority Globe after working for several organizations that serve migrants. Minority Globe sponsors Mix City, amongst other cultural initiatives, to drive Sub-Saharan people to channel their struggles and experiences into artistic outlets. He performs with Mix City, singing and acting. Here he is seen pretending to clean the windshields of performers driving in cars and asking for money. Photo by Allegra Thomas.

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.

Young migrants from Senegal, The Ivory Coast, and The Democratic Republic of the Congo perform a play at the Migrant en Scene festival in Rabat on November 18, 2015. The play, written by Moroccan school students, told the story of a group of villagers that reject a man because of the color of his skin. Photo by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank.
Young migrants from Senegal, The Ivory Coast, and The Democratic Republic of the Congo perform a play at the Migrant en Scene festival in Rabat on November 18, 2015. The play, written by Moroccan school students, told the story of a group of villagers that reject a man because of the color of his skin. Photo by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank.

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.”

“Since I was a child I was interested in art, because my father and my mother were both artists,” said Zappa. “So I couldn’t help not being as talented as them.” With the help of the ACC, his passion for art has flourished in Morocco. Photo by Allegra Thomas.
“Since I was a child I was interested in art, because my father and my mother were both artists,” said Zappa. “So I couldn’t help not being as talented as them.” With the help of the ACC, his passion for art has flourished in Morocco. Photo by Allegra Thomas.

 

Boutaina Guemra contributed to reporting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *