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Royal Mansour lights up Marrakech

August 11, 2014
Royal Mansour lights up Marrakech

Invisible Light exhibition at the Royal Mansour is yet another artistic turn for Marrakech's five-star hotels
By Claire Wrathall

As competition among five-stars in Marrakech intensifies, so they’re increasingly turning themselves into art galleries. First the Sofitel partnered with the yet-to-open Marrakech Museum of Photography. Then Palais Namaskar hosted a show of work by modern European, US and North African artists. Earlier this year La Mamounia exhibited works by the Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui and his unlikely artistic mentor, Winston Churchill, eight of whose watercolours it had borrowed.

But this summer the Royal Mansour is trumping them all with Invisible Light (until 15 September), a revelatory exhibition staged at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris last year, of work by the Rabat-born painter and calligrapher Mehdi Qotbi (whose work can be found in the British Museum, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and collections across the Middle East) and the London-born, Marrakech-based master metalworker and creator of rarefied sculptural lanterns Yahya Rouach.

There are 17 calligraphy-based panels and installations, displayed throughout the public areas of the hotel, all of which play with words and with light, either by reflecting or exuding it in a way that is both dramatic and thrillingly mysterious, even mystical. (Though, as the artists point out, “There is no explicit message.”) Look out in particular for Three Pillars, on your left as you enter via the main entrance: three, two-metre high light-emitting cylinders of intricately cut, filigree-like bronzed brass.

Originally these pieces were shown against the shiny white surfaces of a Zaha Hadid pavilion. Here the intricacy of the shadow they cast is infinitely magnified by the rich interior decoration: the acres of tadelakt (plaster polished to a satin-like sheen), the countless panels of intricate moucharabieh (cedar fretwork), the carved stucco known as gebs, the marquetry, stained glass and lace-like metalwork, much of it – the giant birdcage in the lobby, the copper chandelier in the entrance to Le Bar, the silver doors to the Blue Courtyard that divides the French from the Moroccan restaurants – were forged in Yahya’s workshop. (He also has a showroom in Guéliz, the prime shopping area of Marrakech’s Ville Nouvelle.)

Indeed, as the former French culture and education minister Jack Lang, now president of the Institut du Monde Arabe, puts it in the accompanying catalogue, “There is no more fitting setting than this illustrious hotel,” which is palatial to the extent that it belongs to and was commissioned by the king.

When she came to Marrakech in 1918, Edith Wharton stayed at another royal residence, the Bahia, built by a sultan’s vizier determined “to recreate a Palace of Beauty such as the moors had built in the prime of Arab art”, and which she described as “the loveliest and most fantastic of Moroccan palaces”, a place created by “the last surviving masters of the mystery of chiselled plaster and ceramic mosaics and the honeycombing of gilded cedar”. You can visit it still, but to my eye, the craftsmanship pales beside what you find at the Royal Mansour, which is surely as fantastical and as sensuous a hotel as exists anywhere.

The show is open to the public daily, 10am till 6pm, though there’s a lot to be said for combining a visit with a meal at the hotel’s Grande Table Marocaine, where the almond-studded, subtly honeyed pastille de pigeon is exceptionally good. One-bedroom riads (no mere rooms here) start at £1,350 a night