Mohsine Nqadi, 46, looks up from his easel, paintbrush in hand, as my two companions and I enter his studio on the heels of his caramel-colored dog Julie. The space is comfortable, and Nqadi’s paintings cover its walls. Much of his work matches the scenery around him in Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco. Myriad shades of blue are stretched across canvases of every size, accompanied by some work in black and white or purple and white. Nqadi is all smiles and hospitality as he ushers us inside, waving for us to sit in an alcove conveniently surrounded by his pieces.
Nqadi tells us he loves the community of artists in Chefchaouen that he has lived among for more than 10 years, inspired by the surrounding Rif Mountains of the north. Chefchaouen is calmer and less crowded than cities like Marrakech and Fes, perhaps because it is a large producer of hashish and has a considerable population of drug dealers. Bustling around in the adjacent kitchen to prepare some Moroccan mint tea, Nqadi says that he prefers it here to Morocco’s more popular attractions, finding it easier to work in. Looking around the studio it is easy to see why he likes having room to spread out and other artisans next door to convene with. Vendors of natural beauty products and leather goods are tucked into every nook and cranny.
Chefchaouen, however, is not Nqadi’s only muse. The Sahara Desert is featured in many paintings, and he raves about the trips he has taken there. The theme of most of his work, “darkness into light,” is evident in the variations from lightest to darkest purples and blues. Nqadi’s paintings are often only two shades, white and either black, blue or purple. They depict sparse images like a lone figure leading a camel over the sand, or a modest door, but they convey a sense of serene appreciation for simplicity. As he talks, Nqadi walks around gesturing at various canvases. He is in full salesman mode.
He says he gets plenty of business selling his art here— the smallest pieces go for 12 USD and the biggest for 55 USD, which is pricey in a country with an average annual income of 633 USD. For a part of the world known for its ancient Islamic architecture and designs, contemporary art is on the rise. Between sips of tea Nqadi promotes his profession, saying that art is easy to roll up and take home with you. He says it’s an easy and important way to exchange cultures.
Nqadi himself is active in the exchange process, hosting art students from Rabat every few weeks who come to learn from him and experience the culture of Chefchaouen. He plans to start offering cooking classes soon. He adds that his English is good because of another kind of exchange— he lived with an American woman here for seven years.
Nqadi’s strategy of mint tea and interesting conversation is a smart sales ploy— we leave with a wooden cut-out of Africa, a large silhouette of a woman painted on canvas and a smaller desert scene. Nqadi invites us to come back and stay with him, and after too-short a visit to the blue city, we just might.