Through Zineb's Eyes
Updated: Aug 9
An Interview with Moroccan Painter Zineb El Kohen
Zineb El-Kohen, is a captivating young Moroccan painter. She is the type of person you can spend hours talking to, glass of wine in hand, passionately discussing life, until morning hits you by surprise. She is clever and witty, deep and insightful - and has a perspective on things that makes you want to hear everything she has to say. The fact that she is a 33 years old artist with a visual disability, makes what she has to say about the way she sees things all the more compelling.
El-Kohen grew up in the ancient and traditional city of Fez. Her last name suggests ancestry in the Jewish community of Morocco, but Zineb grew up as a Muslim in what she calls a French-educated micro-cosmos, a remnant of the colonialist era in the first half of the 20th c Morocco. "As a child I was completely unaware of socio-cultural dynamics. Today, I deplore this social segregation but I am undoubtedly part of it. The problem with different educational systems in Morocco is not only a question of preference of who you like to hang out with; rather, it is a deeper cultural and identity issue creating deep schisms within the Moroccan community."
No doubt it was stepping outside this community that helped shape her perspective on it. In 2005 Zineb moved to France to study Business and later Graphic Design. But then was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative retinal disease, and thinking she would eventually go blind, changed course and decided to study media, psychology and philosophy at the American University of Paris. In 2012, Zineb moved to New York for an MA in Humanities at NYU. During her last semester there, she discovered realistic painting as a practive and took classes at the National Academy Museum School. Recalling her experience there, Zineb describes a sensation of immediate and deep gratification, a feeling of completely being present in the moment. "I had been painting since I can remember myself. But this was my first encounter with painting from life, and I loved it. To this day I feel that it is more than just an art but also a meditative practice to be reminded to pause and really look at that which is before my eyes."
One of our favorite series of Zineb’s paintings is titled: Argenton Flowers. This series started as a thank you to her neighbor who placed a flower on her doorstep every morning in surprising little glass bottles. In response to these poetic messages, she began painting these flowers every day from 6:45 am to 9:00 am before going to her art classes. “This courtesy exercise became a source of immense pleasure and joy for me. The hours I spent painting these flowers filled me with a sense of a new appreciation of nature’s evanescence ”.
Another great series is that of her human portraits. ”I love to paint portraits but here in Rabat I didn’t know a professional model; so I turned to my circle of friends”. This turned out to be an amazing and teaching experience. While painting friends is more economical, Zineb couldn’t ask her friends to sit without moving for hours and hours, as expected from a professional model. This constraint forced her to undertake a new style and bring in more fluidity into her paintings. “We paint, we talk, we smoke, we drink ... all at the same time. The result is never programmed and often surprising. During these painting sessions, I have the impression that the person posing for me has an inevitable impact on the end result. The person’s energy, the subject of discussion, the silences, all lead my brushes in different directions. It’s an ongoing project that celebrates life and highlights the beauty and complexity of human interaction”.
Zineb’s uniquely Moroccan series is titled “Common Memory” which portrays nostalgic products and objects from her childhood in Morocco and brings those memories to life. "My art is necessarily Moroccan because I create it, and I am Moroccan. I don't necessarily identify with the cliché cultural aspects that are part of my culture. But Morocco is a perfect example of a culture with an underlying conflict/confrontation/enmeshment of tradition and western influences."
"I think it's time to consider Moroccan art outside of the Orientalist gaze. Before it was nude women with tons of traditional jewelry under multicolored drapery and now it's all the traditional design. That has definitely a place and needs to exist to show Morocco's exceptional traditional craftsmanship and long tradition of beautiful creation. But I'm not sure I am part of that. I am a Moroccan artist from the Morocco of today, a hybrid, collage-like cultural identity neither entirely grounded here nor completely detached from there.
Zineb's paintings are not only the expression of her passion, they are also a constant statement against given conditions. However Zineb’s visual condition progresses, her art will remain an inspiration to all those fortunate enough to view it, and, through it, develop a deeper appreciation for the essential beauty Zineb has found in this world, and the distinctive way in which she depicts it.
Contact Zineb by Instagram @zinebk_art to purchase her paintings