Why you should care
It’s Moroccan art from the edge — and the soul.
In the labyrinthine heart of Tangier’s old city, you’ll find countless vendors selling Moroccan tchotchkes, paintings of camels, dunes and bedouin men drinking tea. But in a country where tourist art is king, Galerie Conil dares to champion Moroccan fine art.
The gallery specializes in art brut, pieces made by those with no formal artistic education who create their work completely outside the fine art establishment: ghostly animal sculptures and paintings of the “junk market artist” Ben Ali, the aboriginal-looking argan totems of Ali Maimoun and the paintings of the self-taught abstract painter Saïd Ouarzaz.
Not many gallery owners can say they have a spiritual connection with an artist they represent, but Olivier and Intha Conil and Ouarzaz have just such a link. Although Olivier grew up in metropolitan Paris and Ouarzaz in Hanchane, a small Moroccan village outside Essaouira, when they first met in 2006, Olivier says he felt “we’d known each other for many years.” He became enthralled by Ouarzaz’s large, abstract expressionist-style works, which often resemble those of Jackson Pollack but are populated with elements of rural Moroccan life: dogs, crows, livestock, even scorpions.
For me, Ouarzaz’s paintings have a certain gravity to them. The longer you look at one, the more you like it. When Olivier gave one of Ouarzaz’s pieces as a gift to a Parisian friend, Armelle Massin, she says she first thought, “I can’t have this hanging in my apartment.” But now, “I wouldn’t give it to anyone,” she says.
It was Ouarzaz who suggested that Olivier open a gallery in Tangier, predicting the city would once again become an international and artistic crossroads — like it had been in the mid-20th century. Moving meant a leap of faith, closing their Parisian gallery and relocating to Morocco, where they had no friends, family or artistic connections. Intha, his wife and business partner, leaped with him. After arriving in 2009 with their 2-year-old son and Olivier’s parents in tow, surviving partly on gusts of karma, it took three years before Galerie Conil opened its doors.
The Conils seek to bring contemporary artists from Morocco out of obscurity and into the light of the international art scene.
The Conils now play an integral role in the city’s art scene, and Galerie Conil, which is free to enter, has become an artistic institution in Tangier. Using their connections in the fine art world, the Conils seek to bring contemporary artists from Morocco out of obscurity and into the light of the international art scene. They’ve showcased Moroccan artists in galleries as far-flung as Paris and Singapore. With their recommendation, Ouarzaz was chosen as one of 14 Moroccan artists to have work displayed in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe. The Conils’ clout also helped artist Omar Mahfoudi get a visa from the French consulate to go to Paris, where he now lives and paints.
For Olivier and Intha, Ouarzaz is a “spiritual guide” — though more a lodestar than a captain. “He shows me the way,” Intha says, “but he himself does not know it.”
Ironically, after 11 years of knowing Ouarzaz the Conils have yet to have an unmediated conversation with him: The Conils don’t speak Berber, and Ouarzaz does not speak French. According to them, their communication runs much deeper than the verbal. And, after all, in the world of visual art words are, if not unnecessary, besides the point.