Road Trip: Morocco on my Mind

Road Trip: Morocco on my Mind

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Media - 1983.95.196A - SAAM-1983.95.196A_2 - 128225
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Street Scene, Tangier (Man Leading Calf), ca. 1910, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum

At SAAM, we’ve often asked, Where Will American Art Take You? In response, we’ve put together an occasional series of artful road trips based on staff experiences and artworks in SAAM’s collection.

Everyone has memories of places that they have visited that stayed with them throughout the years. I’m no different. I find myself daydreaming of far-off lands that I haven’t been to in a while, but still remember quite clearly. As I was looking through SAAM’s collection, I did a keyword search for “Morocco” and smiled at the results as I was taken back in time through artworks, like Palace of Justice, Tangier by Henry Ossawa Tanner and Pink Gate, Tangiers, Morocco by Grace Ravlin.

I’m sitting in a small outdoor café in a square with an old kasbah to my left and many shops selling odds and ends to my right. Directly in front of me on my table is a chicken tagine and mint tea. I spent the morning wandering through small winding alleyways of the old city of Chefchaouen. I can revisit the whole city in my mind. If I take the first left up a small incline, I find the soap shop. It’s two stories and filled with handmade soap of any combination you can dream up. They also sell argan shampoo that makes your hair silky smooth. If I choose to go straight, I eventually end up at the Artisan Center. It’s filled with many shops, but the first shop on the right has an extremely kind and skilled artist that makes handmade carpets. Directly to the left of the café is a leather shop. The shop owner is a bit pushy, but he has the most beautiful bags you’ve ever seen. I take a sip of my tea and think about my morning of exploring this city.

When Palace of Justice, Tangier popped up in the search results, I was brought back to Morocco. Tangier wasn’t my first thought when I saw this painting, but all the memories above of Chefchaouen were. The blue hues Tanner uses reminded me of all my memories exploring the city on a hill where the medina (the old city) has been painted blue for many years. A simple, quick glance at an artwork and I was transported back into my memories of Morocco. Henry Ossawa Tanner traveled to Tangier in 1912, but we’re not sure if he painted this tranquil scene there or in his Paris studio, using postcards from his trip. So, even the artist may have woken up in Paris one morning dreaming of Tangier and started to paint.

I can hear the waves splashing off at a distance. I’m walking along a path towards the medina that has a big entryway in the shape of an arch up ahead. As I enter, the scene changes. The streets get smaller and more crowded. There are restaurants and popup stands selling all kinds of snacks. I go to my favorite vender and buy a coconut flavored cookie. As I walk throughout the medina, and get closer to the ocean, there’s a wall to my left with little cut-outs where I can see children playing soccer in the sand below. In the distance the sun is setting into the Atlantic Ocean. I walk along the main path exploring the old city in whatever light is left before darkness falls. 

I’m brought back to my computer screen and the image of Pink Gate, Tangier, Morocco. I stepped out of my memory of Asilah, Morocco and back back into the pink painting of Tangier. Known for capturing her journeys on canvas, Grace Ravlin painted Pink Gate one hundred years ago, in 1920. 

I encourage everyone stuck at home to take a break from your day and look at art. In these unique times in the world, while battling multiple pandemics, I look to art to lead the way. Some days I look to art to escape the world I live in, and other days I let my imagination and memories take me on road trips back in time. Type in a keyword and go down the rabbit hole of possibilities. Search artworks by emoji. Visit classics in our collection you haven’t been able to see in a while. Walk around the museum virtually with Google Arts and Culture.

I believe art has many important roles to play in our lives and the world. Art can be used as a catalyst for change, it can be a topic of discussion, or capture a point in time. It can be understood and misunderstood by everyone and no one. It can have meaning or not. It can be tied to memories. The beauty of art is that it can be deeply personal and make a different connection with each audience that views it. There is no right answer.

So, I pass the question on to you. Where will American Art take you?

Continue your travels with SAAM staff as we take you to Iceland to experience the Aurora Borealis, to Frederic Church’s homestead Olana in the Hudson Valley, and even to the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man.


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