The Rebirth of Moroccan Zellige Art
Updated: Jan 4
Zineb Bennani is a remarkable, self-taught artist who set out to reinvent the ancient craft of Zellige Tiles
Like a caterpillar in constant metamorphosis, Zineb Benanni (38) continuously reinvents herself and evolves as an artist. She is a painter, a gifted floral designer, and most recently the founder and creative force behind Zelart, a Tangier based Zellige design studio. Zellige, for those unfamiliar with the term, is artisanal mosaic tilework, one of the most dominant characteristics of Moroccan architecture.
“Change is a driving force for me, a reviving energy. I am blessed by lack of fear of failure or judgment, so I can truly spread my wings and let them take me in new directions.” Her signature name is ‘Zinab Ben Ben’ which literally means ‘Zinab daughter of, daughter of’, symbolizing perpetual rebirth.
Zineb grew up in Casablanca in a large family where meals for twenty people were a daily occasion, with cousins regularly gathering together around the same table. Hers was a conservative family, imbued in French culture. “I grew up in a constant state of duality” she says, “a delicate balance of tradition and western liberalism that needed to be managed sensitively. As a woman, it was more complex, I was expected to meet certain standards to be regarded as a ‘good girl’. We were not equal to men in many areas. Today, I am happy to see more and more women speaking out, and I feel we are changing things. In my youth, I was quite the rebel, but motherhood has somewhat calmed my fiery spirit, in a good way. I find there is an energy unique to women, a creative force that only another woman can feel. Maybe that is because only a woman can give life?”
Zineb started her professional career as a floral designer, a childhood dream of hers, inspired by her nanny. She started as an intern and ended up managing a workshop of eight florists. “I am a perfectionist, and I put my whole heart into it. Over time I was able to develop new techniques and create my own unique signature. The highlight of my career was when I got a huge flower arrangement contract for a Moroccan celebrity wedding. Inspired by the work of Preston Baily, I ended up presenting my work to his right arm in San Francisco. She couldn't believe it. Apparently, they were using fake flowers for the ceiling décor installation, but not knowing that, I pushed my limits and the limits of the whole team, and had accomplished something they didn’t even dare attempt! After that I realized that anything is possible with enough perseverance and passion.”
Zineb has been pushing her limits ever since, successfully exploring different artistic realms. An accidental encounter with a master Zellige artisan inspired her to found Zelart in November 2019. “I didn't know anything about Zellige before I began” Zineb declares, “but I was captivated by this beautiful form of art.” She strongly believes that the best way to learn is on the job: “make your mistakes you teacher, then improve and excel.”
When it came to Zellige art, Zineb didn’t really have a choice. “There are no schools that offer this kind of training. These are trades that are passed from father to son. And as far as I know, there is no woman who practices this discipline. I learned by carefully observing the craftsmen at work, then I tested it on my own, and ultimately developed my own technique combining traditional wisdom with the knowledge I gathered through trial and error and other disciplines I was exposed to.”
Zineb set out to reinvent Zellige, and broaden its applications beyond its traditional purpose. The outcome of her learning is extremely well-made Zellige tiles that are super-chic, playful and clever. Many of the designs were birthed in creative collaboration with fellow Moroccan artists and designers. One example is a collaboration with Moroccan artist, Salaheddine Bouanani, with whom she created the tile ‘Teaching the sea’, depicting the bond between father and child, inspired by Salaheddine’s own story.
Another beautiful design is the one titled: ‘Lala Zouina’. This one is entirely her own creation. “I wanted to represent the Moroccan, African woman with all the workload and obligations that she bears. She is an elegant woman with beautiful jewels but on her head is a spectacular turban which symbolizes the weight of her responsibilities.
I think that our origins, our heritage, are fundamental elements in the writing of our own stories. These pearls of wisdom are transferred from parent to child, generation after generation, until they reached us, transcending the boundaries of time almost like magic. With Zelart, I feel I am participating, in my own way of course, in the transference of this art and its tradition. I love the idea of actively contributing to ‘Ben Ben Ben’, the eternal rebirth of Zellige.”
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