In this post, Jeremy Davies writes about two upcoming exhibitions in Morocco featuring the work of self-taught ‘junk market artist’ Ben Ali.
“It is rare to find an artistic genius; still rarer to find two in the same family. But leading Italian art critic Corrado Levi believes he has done just that, in a junk market in Morocco.
The geniuses in question are Ben Ali (Abdelghani Didouh, born 1966) and his late father Ali; the junk market is in Essaouira, a fishing port and seaside resort on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, around 200km west of Marrakech.
Ben Ali has been painting in his tiny, one-room studio in the junk market since the mid-2000s. This is a humble place, one of around 30 semi-derelict fishermen’s huts sandwiched between the abandoned sardine canning factories of Essaouira’s former industrial quarter and the vast wilderness of the Atlantic Ocean.
A gentle, soft-spoken man, Ben Ali is a self-taught painter, who turned to art after his previous career as a fisherman came to an abrupt end when the sea stole his boat, his friends and one of his brothers.
He paints from tiny pots of enamel, mixing the colours on cardboard and brushing straight onto canvas, wooden panels and objects bought or found in the joteya (junk market): old TVs, boat oars, wooden washboards, doors, cupboards and gas canisters. His emphasis is on shape and colour, with little in the way of perspective.
The results are bold, thoughtful, and often quietly disturbing. His characters are ethereal and amorphous; some are human, some animal and some both. There are skull-like faces; dark, sharp-eyed figures, both male and female; shadowy wraiths with thin, elongated legs; horned goats, donkeys and huge, legless cows. We see tiny details too, like recurring motifs: guns, flowers, a key, a dentist’s pliers.
As viewers we sense strongly that Ben Ali is painting to exorcise his demons. Indeed, while reticent about explaining his art, he almost admits as much: “In my paintings there are all the ghosts, that little by little appear on the canvas like the memories of a childhood dream.”
From an early age Ben Ali watched and learned from his father Ali, a former Vietnam veteran who effectively founded a ‘school’ of artists in the joteya during the 1970s.
Ali’s art, which broke all the rules of Muslim culture by presenting graphic depictions of human sexuality, remains largely hidden from public view but is highly prized by collectors, who believe Ali warrants international recognition as a major artist.
Ben Ali’s imagined worlds undoubtedly draw inspiration from the work of his father.
“When I saw the work of my father I loved it,” he says. “More than anything else, his work was simple, it made me laugh or hurt me, and this is the reason I loved his work. Every time I passed by to see him, it inspired me more and more. I chose the name Ben Ali (the son of Ali) because I am my father’s son. I work in my father’s studio and I continue the work of my father.”
But Corrado Levi – an architect, artist, teacher, theorist, curator, freethinker and intellectual, who is one of Italy’s most respected art critics – says Ben Ali has built on his heritage and transcended it to find his own style.
“The father Ali paints a humanity possessed of sexuality: men display their sex provocatively, and women show theirs without shame. The son Ben Ali, meanwhile, paints figures that don’t show their sex, and so the male/female identity remains nuanced.
“The father Ali spreads out the paint with repeated brush strokes, creating a delicacy and vibrancy that contrasts with the violence of his representation. The son Ben Ali, on the other hand, uses dense and glossy paint, and so his ghostly subjects seem to wander in an unlimited space.
“The bodies of the father Ali push themselves into bold, distorted shapes (think of the later Matisse gouache cut-outs). The bodies of the son Ben Ali have threadlike legs, accentuating their formlessness.
“To simplify: Ali: the body and substance. Ben Ali: the spirit and transparency. Two geniuses.”
This summer Essaouira is hosting two exhibitions of Ben Ali’s works, curated by two local galleries, Elizir and Mashi Mushki: a retrospective at the swanky Sofitel Essaouira Mogador Golf and Spa (15 July to 4 September), and a collection of new works at Dar Souiri, a cultural centre in the walled old town (26 August to 4 September).
The exhibitions are being held to raise money for Project 91, a local charity which is setting up a fund for the widows of fishermen lost at sea.