Arts and Styles

An Islamic fantasia by authentic craftsmen

By Randy Kennedy (New York Times)
Updated: 2011-03-27 07:29
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 An Islamic fantasia by authentic craftsmen

As part of the Met's ambitious overhaul of its Islamic galleries, a Moroccan crew has been creating a medieval Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard. Below, artisans use designs that have been preserved for generations. Photographs by Ruth Fremson / The New York Times

An Islamic fantasia by authentic craftsmen

In the spring of 2009, in a basement workshop in Fez, Morocco, a young curator from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art sat among a group of artisans �?workers in traditional North African tile, plaster and wood ornament whose roots in the trade stretched back seven generations. She asked the company's chief executive why the museum should enlist them for an unusual mission.

The executive, Adil Naji, took hold of the wrist of one of his younger brothers, Hisham. He hoisted the brother's callused fingers in front of the curator, Navina Haidar, and exclaimed, "Look, this is my brother's hand!"

Ms. Haidar recalled recently: "It was a very powerful moment. It made up our minds because we could see how close he was to the tradition. And we wanted to see that hand on our walls."

She and her colleagues had gone to Morocco in search of help for a kind of project that the Metropolitan, which generally concerns itself with the work of dead artists, has rarely undertaken: to install a group of living artists inside the museum for the purpose of creating a permanent new part of its collection.

The museum has embarked on a $50 million rethinking and rebuilding of its Islamic art galleries. At the heart of those galleries, which will open in autumn after being closed six years, will be a medieval Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard.

A group of highly regarded Moroccan craftsmen came essentially to take up residence at the Met. Beginning last December, they worked some days in their jabador tunics and crimson fezzes (known as tarbooshes in Morocco) to build that 14th-century Islamic fantasia, a courtyard with tile patterns based on those in the Alhambra palace in Granada. Above the courtyard rise walls of fantastically filigreed plaster, leading to a carved cedar molding based on the renowned woodwork in the 14th-century Attarin madrasa, or Islamic school, in Fez.

The courtyard has taken on an unforeseen importance for the museum; for the Kingdom of Morocco itself; and for a constituency of Muslim scholars and supporters of the Met. They hope it will function as a symbol of the fact that aesthetic and intellectual commerce remains alive between Islam and the West.

"Every one of these guys here knows what this means, what's riding on this," said Mr. Naji, 35, the chief executive of Arabesque, a company of craftsmen founded in Fez in 1928 by his great-grandfather.

Mr. Naji's brother Hisham, 33, of the callused and persuasive hand, stood atop a scaffold covered in plaster dust. Below him, covering a swath of the floor, lay tens of thousands of pieces of clay tile, many not much bigger than grains of rice, fitted together face down in a big rectangle that looked like a shallow sandbox scored with impossibly intricate lines. The tiles had been shipped from Fez, where large pieces had been fired in ovens fueled with olive pits and sawdust and then hand cut into individual shapes by 35 workers over a period of four months. An Arabesque specialist in this kind of painstaking mosaic work, known as zellij, placed the final pieces into the arrangement with tweezers.

An Islamic fantasia by authentic craftsmen

Over the course of two months the men from Morocco, 14 in all, came in waves, and despite suffering through their first New York winter, they settled comfortably into two large condominiums in Jackson Heights, Queens.

The Moroccans are in essence living historians who have carried on patterns and designs preserved in practice for generations. But they have never attempted a job requiring this level of historical attention or artistry.

"We have been very difficult clients, sending drawings back over and over again," said Sheila R. Canby, who heads the Met's Islamic department. "We didn't want any intrusions of modern interpretation."

Ms. Haidar added, "They'd say to us, 'But our great-grandfathers did it this way,' and we would tell them, 'We're taking you even further back into your history."

By late February inside the courtyard the wall tile work had been completed, and the woodwork, as redolent as a cedar closet, had been mostly installed. Still to come before the opening would be a specially designed self-circulating fountain and benches.

Mohammed Naji and seven other plaster carvers had just set to work on the most painstaking part of the job, incising interlaced patterns into the still-soft wall, arabesques and other forms so tiny and complex that each man can sometimes complete only a 10-centimeter square over the course of a day.

Adil Naji beamed, but he conceded, as he watched the company's greatest work taking shape, that one thing worried him.

"Two of my guys told me that they wanted to retire after this, because they couldn't see a way to top it," he said. "I wake up at night with this fear that when we're done, they're all going to stand back and look at it and hang up their tools for good."

The New York Times

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