Arts Feature: Our Dream was to Rescue

Preserving the Past and Preparing the Future in Tétouan’s Centro de Arte Moderno

By: Tina Barouti

The Tétouan Railway Station, currently the Center of Modern Art, 20th century

The Tétouan Railway Station, currently the Center of Modern Art, 20th century

Between 1912 and 1956 Tétouan served as the capital of the Spanish protectorate in Morocco. In May of 1918, Prince Don Carlos de Borbón y Borbón, representing King Alfonso XIII, inaugurated a new railway station connecting the city to the contentious Spanish enclave of Ceuta (Mgara 15). Designed by the Spanish engineer Julio Rodríguez Roda with the support of Carlos Ovilo Castelo, who served as municipal architect for Tétouan from 1913 to 1918, the train station was initially intended for commercial purposes (Mgara 15). After Morocco’s independence from France and Spain, the railway ceased operations on the 1st of July 1958 due to frontier and customs issues (Mgara 15). Today the train station houses Tétouan’s Center of Modern Art, referred to as CAMT or Centro, which was officially inaugurated on the 20th of November 2013 in the presence of Mohamed Amine Sbihi, Morocco’s former Minister of Culture, Elvira Saint-Gerons, director general of the Three Cultures of the Mediterranean Foundation, and Enrique Pablo Centella, director of the Andalucian Agency for International Cooperation of the Junta de Andalucia, thereby marking the space as a part of both Morocco and Spain’s cultural patrimony.[i] These various cultural agencies use the museum as an opportunity to promote an image of contemporary convivencia despite the socio-political issues that plague the two countries.[ii]

According to the Center’s catalogue and visitor brochure, the institution serves as a “symbol of friendship and cooperation” between Spain and Morocco and “Tétouan and Andalucia” because of both countries’ profound “common memory,” which refers to medieval al-Andalus of the eighth century (Bouzaid 77). The former director of the Center, Bouabid Bouzaid, goes even further to call Tétouan not only a “Moroccan city,” but also an “Andalucian” one (77). The building itself is also a remarkable symbol of Spanish colonialism and Hispano-Arab culture. The structure’s “neo-Arab” or “neo-Mudéjar” architectural style, used frequently during the Spanish Protectorate, incorporates design elements such as tilework, arches, and crenellations found in the Andalucian architecture of Spain (Calderwood 205). The train station in Tétouan is one of the most exquisite examples of this type of architecture and has been regarded as “Granadan-Andalusi architecture,” a marriage of “the East and the West,” and likened to “the Alhambra” and “al-Zahra” (Al-Rihani 300-301). This idea of a cultural link and shared heritage between Spain and Morocco is symbolized and emphasized by the Center of Modern Art, not only in its mission, catalogue texts, and funding sources, but also with the physical space it occupies.

For Tétouan

The development of the Center of Modern Art was a grass-roots, local initiative created by Tétouan’s artists to showcase the fine arts of the city. Additionally, the Spanish continued their personal investment in the project by providing Bouzaid with a scholarship for museological training. His formation consisted of two years studying museology, particularly theory at the Andalusia Contemporary Art Center in Seville. This initial training was followed by a year of internships at various Spanish institutions such as the National Museum of Catalonian Art in Barcelona, The Museum of Fine Arts in Bilbao, the Museum of Pobo Galego in Santiago de Compostela, the Museum of Asturias Pueblo in Gijón, the Sorolla Museum in Madrid, the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville, the Museum of Fine Arts in Granada, the Museum of the Alhambra in Granada, the Picasso Museum in Malaga, the Provincial Museum of Ciudad Real, and the Museum of Manuel Lopez Villaseñor in Ciudad Real to name a few. His internship year was followed by one year of training in art restoration at the Andalucian Historical Heritage Institute in Seville in 2006. According to Bouzaid, students were given practical as well as theoretical courses on restoration, primarily for artworks from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. This high level of training by a museum professional is unprecedented in Morocco, where museums and highly adept museum practitioners are scarce.[iii]

The Center is one of the very few public art institutions in Morocco that aims to fulfill several “museum values” such as engaging and preserving local and national culture while simultaneously inviting and educating the public.[iv] This has been difficult, however, in a society that Bouzaid believes is largely not appreciative or understanding of the value of les arts plastiques or fine arts such as oil on canvas paintings or marble figurative sculptures (Bouzaid). According to Bouzaid, fine arts departing from traditional Moroccan craft is viewed as nsarra – a term used to refer to anything “not Muslim,” foreign, imported, or Christian (Bouzaid).[v] To combat this collective disinterest, Bouzaid partnered with a fellow artist to develop a space devoted to fine arts. “Me and Saâd Ben Cheffaj, our idea was to create a museum to safeguard our culture. Our dream was to rescue and save the artwork,” recalls Bouzaid, who served the Center’s director from its inception until April of 2017 (Bouzaid).[vi] In October of 1998, Bouzaid and Ben Cheffaj, laureates of Morocco’s first and only accredited fine arts school, the National Institute of Fine Arts in Tétouan, launched a major cultural campaign.[vii] Together they discussed ways to develop an art history specific to Tétouan, its art school, its professors, its students, and other practicing artists from the city. They referred to various Spanish publications from the Protectorate era and books such as Fernando Valderrama Martínez’s 1956 text La acción cultural de España en Marruecos. In three months, Bouzaid and Ben Cheffaj drafted a petition, which they finished and presented to the Ministry of Culture on the 24th of November 1998, outlining why Tétouan is an important cultural center and why its artistic patrimony, particularly the fine arts, should be preserved (Al-Saghir 96). Fourteen artists from Tétouan signed the petition, demanding to collect artwork and develop a museum for their display (Bouzaid).

Their action garnered major attention from those interested in cultural work, particularly scholar M’hammed Benaboud’s ASMIR Association based in Tétouan, which helped Bouzaid and Ben Cheffaj’s campaign by writing letters to various municipalities and government agencies, diffusion of the project through publications in newspapers, and helping to organize press conferences. After meeting with the Ministry of Culture, presenting their project, and having it accepted, the team had to find a location. ASMIR suggested the abandoned train station, which not only represented the patrimony of the protectorate era, but also was a large and iconic venue in the city.[viii] After negotiations with various governmental agencies, the old train station was granted as a space (Benaboud). With funds provided by the European Union, Ben Cheffaj, Bouzaid, ASMIR, the collaborating artists of Tétouan, and local and Spanish agencies, began rehabilitation and development of the Center, which was constructed by the Andalucian subsidiary of the Madrid-based construction company Sacyr. The involvement of various Andalucian agencies shows that the project to create the Center of Modern Art was an important investment not only for Moroccans, but also the Spanish, who view Tétouan as a part of their own artistic patrimony and cultural heritage.

The Center of Modern Art was initially to be recognized as a museum but months before its inauguration in 2013, Bouzaid and his colleagues strategically changed its name to “Center.” This revision allowed the institution, which is under the jurisdiction of Morocco’s Ministry of Culture, to avoid falling under the supervision of the country’s National Foundation of Museums led by royally-appointed Mehdi Qotbi. Currently there are fourteen museums under the National Foundation of Museums in Morocco, including two in Tétouan, which were created by the Spanish under the Protectorate era – the Museum of Archaeology and the Museum of Ethnography. By changing the name of the institution, Bouzaid and his team were able to maintain the Center as a Tétouani project under the full control of the city and its cultural practitioners without any outside influences and interferences. This quick action allowed the Tétouanis to control their collection, image, and narrative.

Room one of the Center of Modern Art

Room one of the Center of Modern Art

Creating a History

Bouzaid’s museology training and internships helped him articulate the four spaces of the Center chronologically and thematically through its collection, which features work primarily from artists who studied in the city’s National Institute of Fine Arts. Currently, the Center of Modern Art houses roughly one hundred and eighty to two hundred works of art, all of which were donated. According to Bouzaid, after independence, many artworks were taken by the Spanish and others by Moroccans. Some Spanish artists left their artworks in Tétouan, some returned to Spain with them, others donated their artwork to government agencies (Bouzaid). The Center was able to collect twenty paintings from the Music Conservatory in Tétouan, fourteen from the Special Collection of the Ministry, eight from Dar Tighafa in Tétouan, twenty-one from the Ministry of Education, and one artwork from the Ministry of Tourism (Al-Saghir 97). A brief history of the National Institute of Fine Arts is outlined in the catalogue for the Center, which is written in Spanish, French, and Modern Standard Arabic. For each section, Bouzaid has included a summary of major artists who came out of the school, the socio-political events that shaped their training, and the theme and objective of each room in the Center.

The first gallery space features the work of artists known as the “founders” and “pioneers” of the “Pictorial School of Tétouan” (Bouzaid 78). The work in this room ranges from the 1940s to independence in 1956. The theme, according to the catalogue, is a celebration of Mariano Bertuchi (1884-1955) in Tétouan and his founding of the Preparatory School of Fine Arts as well as his Moroccan successor Mohamed Sarghini (1923-1991). The objective of the first gallery space is to honor the “common memory between Andalucia and Tétouan” (Bouzaid 78). The second part features the work of Moroccan pioneers and the founding of a specifically Moroccan pictorial identity. According to the catalogue, the artworks in this gallery were realized between 1956 until 1979, when the Preparatory School of Fine Arts was inaugurated as the National School of Fine Arts and adopted into King Mohammed V’s national project. The theme of this room is “the experience of the quest for identity” (Bouzaid 78). The objective of this room is to expose visitors to the principles of Moroccan pictorial identity and the research of artists on this question, which was a major concern for the Casablanca School of artists around the same period (Bouzaid 79). According to Bouzaid, teaching at the National School of Fine Arts was modernized and artists continued to develop a “Tétouani and Moroccan Pictorial identity” (Bouzaid 78).

Third Room of the Center of Modern Art

Third Room of the Center of Modern Art

The third room explores an “artistic opening” and the initiative known as the Spring Exhibitions, which began in 1979 and ended in 1986 in the now non-existent Feddane Square. The artwork in this room spans from 1979 to 1993 and explores new ways of exhibiting, new conceptions and expressions, and the modernizing of artistic pedagogy. The fourth and final room explores new tendencies in art and the variety of contemporary practices from 1993 to the present-day. The objective of this gallery space is to accentuate the contemporary artistic experiences of institute (Bouzaid 78-79). Bouzaid writes that despite the particularities of their conceptual projects, one could consider the work of these contemporary artists who graduated from the Institute as an accumulation of the past. The objective, according to the catalogue, is to emphasize the contemporary artistic experiences of the youngest generation of what Bouzaid calls the “Pictorial School of Tétouan” (Bouzaid 80).

The Center’s Future

The Center of Modern Art in Tétouan, featuring the new additions, 2018

The Center of Modern Art in Tétouan, featuring the new additions, 2018

In April of 2017, the Tétouan Institute of Fine Arts and the Center of Modern Art merged. The Center of Modern Art, along with the Mekki Megara Gallery, became a part of the Fine Arts Institute, thereby serving as a sort of “Museum of Fine Arts” for the art school. Bouabid Bouzaid retired from his position as director and Mehdi Zouak, current director of the National Institute of Fine Arts, took on his post. This change, which Bouzaid sees as positive, allows students at the Tétouan art school to possibly intern and assist exhibition installations, workshops, and potentially exhibit their work in the new second part of the Center (Bouzaid).

2018 marked the centennial of the railway, which was celebrated with an exhibition hosted by the Cervantes Institute of Tétouan at the Center of Modern Art. The exhibition featured thirty-one historic photographs from private collections, the General Archive of Tétouan, the Central Archive of Ceuta, the Museum of Ceuta, and the Railway Museum of Madrid. In the same month, the Tétouani architect Abdelslam Bencrimo, who also aided rehabilitations of the Center between 2005 and 2012, launched his extension of the Center of Modern Art with funding from Morocco’s Ministry of Culture. The modern extension of the second part was originally planned years earlier but was halted in 2008 due to Spain’s financial crisis. The new structure, which extends behind the train station and underground, adds an additional 1280 square meters to the already 1500 square meter Center, making the gallery one of the largest public exhibition spaces in the country. The extension features a modern green glass entrance, the same color found on the white and green train station. The majority of the new structure is underground and features new office spaces, state-of-the-art storage spaces, a soon-to-be cafeteria and bookstore, four large gallery spaces, new bathroom facilities, and a courtyard area. The choice of architecture is sleek and clean and a departure from the popular neo-Moorish architecture seen in remodeled train stations and government buildings around the country. Bencrimo’s design juxtaposes with the Spanish architecture of the Protectorate era, symbolizing a departure both literally and figuratively. The director of visitor affairs, Adil Rabih, hopes that the rehabilitation and new gallery spaces will help the Center maintain public relevance and bring in more people, artists, and exhibitions that are international and global, not just local. The Center of Modern Art in Tétouan not only aims to safeguard the city’s and Morocco’s artistic patrimony, but also envisions a future that is more internationally-oriented, relevant, and developing alongside the city’s National Institute of Fine Arts.

Works Cited

Benaboud, M’hammad. Personal interview. 6 October 2018.

Benaboud, M’hammad, and Bouabid Bouzaid. Peintres de Tétouan. vol. 1 and 2, L’Association Tétouan Asmir, 2009.

Bouzaid, Bouabid. Personal interview. 12 October 2018.

Bouzaid, Bouabid. Catálogo: Centro de arte moderno de Tetuán. CAMT, 2013.

Calderwood, Eric. Colonial al-Andalus: Spain and the Making of Modern Moroccan Culture. Harvard University Press, 2018.

Hopkins, Claudia. “The Politics of Spanish Orientalism: Distance and Proximity in Tapiró and Bertuchi.” Art in Translation, vol. 9, no. 1, 2017, pp. 134-167.

Mgara, Ahmed. Tetuán y su ferrocarril, (1918-2018). Fundación Mgara Rebahi, 2018.

Al-Rihani, Amin. Al Maghrib alaqsa. Dar al-Ma’arif, 1952.

Al-Saghir, Mokhlis. Bouabid Bouzaid: Almotahadad wa almotafard: Hikayat fanan tachkili. Al khalij al arabi, 2017.

[i] The Center of Modern Art is referred to by its Spanish acronym “CAMT” (Centro de Arte Moderno de Tetuán) or as “Centro” by art-loving locals.

[ii] In Eric Calderwood’s recent publication Colonial al-Andalus: The Making of Modern Moroccan Culture, the Spanish viewed Andalucian culture as the essential and authentic core of Moroccan culture and imagined themselves as direct descendants of medieval al-Andalus and therefore as intimately linked to Moroccan culture (220). The Spanish emphasize hermanidad or “brotherhood” between themselves and their Moroccan subjects and promoted a “Hispano-Arab culture” (Calderwood 170). This idea of Hispano-Arab culture was used as a strategy for justifying Spanish colonialism in Morocco by the Francoists since 1936, and was even a mandatory subject in Spanish high schools in Morocco under Francoism (Calderwood 167). Hispano-Arab culture is ultimately grounded in the myth of convivencia or interfaith tolerance in medieval al-Andalus, which Calderwood argues is still used as a discursive strategy today.

[iii] For further reading on modernity and museums within Morocco see Pieprzak, Katarzyna. Imagined Museums: Art and Modernity in Postcolonial Morocco. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

[iv] For more information on museum values see Holo, Selma and Mari-Tere Álvarez. Beyond the Turnstile: Making the Case for Museums and Sustainable Values. AltaMira Press, 2009.

[v] Most taxi drivers in Tétouan do not known what the Center of Modern Art is. To get to the Center by taxi you must ask for the “maḥata dial train qadīma” or “old train station.”

[vi] In 1972 Bouabid Bouzaid (b. 1953) entered Tétouan’s National School of Fine Arts, followed by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1975, where he received his diploma in painting and a certificate of drawing. He is currently a professor of art history and drawing at the National Institute of Fine Arts and served as professor of Moroccan artistic patrimony at the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences at Tétouan’s Abdelmalek Essaâdi University. He has authored several publications on art including two volumes on the painters of Tétouan See, for example, M’hammad Benaboud and Bouabid Bouzaid, Peintres de Tétouan v.I,II (Tétouan: l’Association Tétouan Asmir, 2009). Saâd Ben Cheffaj (b. 1939) is revered as one of Morocco’s major modern artists. He began his studies in his native Tétouan at the National School of Fine Arts from 1955 to 1956 followed by studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Santa Isabel de Hungría in Seville from 1956-1964. He later took courses in art history at the Louvre School in Paris in 1962, received his diploma as an art professor from Santa Isabel de Hungría in 1963, and studied archaeology at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Sevilla from 1964 to 1965. In 1965, Ben Cheffaj began teaching art history at the National School of Fine Arts in Tétouan and from 1985 to 1999 he served as professor of painting and drawing. Now retired from teaching, Ben Cheffaj continues his prolific painting career.

[vii] The colonial cultural agent Mariano Bertuchi Nieto (1884 – 1955), referred to as “Bertuchi,” who, despite being Spanish, is revered by Moroccan artists and scholars as a “Moroccan painter,” was named the Spanish Protectorate’s Chief Inspector of Fine Arts and Indigenous Crafts in 1928. Bertuchi wished to develop an institution that would prepare young people to enter fine art academies in Europe. The General Director of Fine Arts in the Spanish Protectorate, Juan de Contreras y López de Ayala, the Marquis of Lozoya, in contact with Miguel Baena, Director of Education in the Protectorate, and Joaquín de Miguel Cabrero, Delegate of Education and Culture, authorized the creation of the Preparatory School of Fine Arts. The dahir, or decree, of 2 Moharram 1365 officially launched the school. The Preparatory School of Fine Arts was renamed to the National School of Fine Arts post-independence and the National Institute of Fine Arts in the 1990s.

[viii] There was one issue, however, which was the squatters that had occupied the central space of the train station. Approximately four to seven Moroccan families, including one German woman, had been living in the building since its closure in 1958. The squatters were financially compensated by Tétouan’s municipality.