‘There is a new underground scene in Morocco, but there are no spaces for artists, street dancers and the musicians of this generation,’ says Dounia Benslimane, a project coordinator at The Slaughterhouse. ‘The idea to reconvert the site into an arts space was a reaction to the lack of spaces in Casablanca,’ she explains. This is not the first time Hay Mohammadi has attracted Casablanca’s cultural figures. During the 1970s, the neighbourhood became a centre for artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries. The area was home to the Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane, dubbed ‘the Rolling Stones of Africa’, and various culturally significant landmarks, such as Cinema Es Saada.
However, it is also the notorious site of the former covert detention centre Derb Moulay Cherif. Despite closing in the 1990s, a dark past still looms over the neighbourhood. ‘The area was marginalised and completely neglected, with no infrastructure and no policy for schools or hospitals,’ says Benslimane, who left her job as a doctor to dedicate herself to Morocco’s cultural sector. ‘It’s very poor, very popular and a very strong neighbourhood. Even the people of Casablanca are afraid to come to the area.’
The Slaughterhouse has rejuvenated Hay Mohammadi’s reputation, and has managed to decentralise Casablanca’s cultural scene, away from its core in the west of the city. This has attracted new audiences too, whose only ‘access to arts and culture before was the television.’ With the growth of a more extensive transport network, narrowing the former divides between the city’s suburbs, the now stigmatised area has been reconnected to the city.
‘One of the main points of our vision is to create a space which enables a social mix among different classes from the city,’ Benslimane says. And it’s a crowd they’ve managed to attract, where ‘women in galabias from the neighbourhood come with their children, alongside ambassadors and people from other neighbourhoods with short skirts, smoking cigarettes,’ she laughs.
Walking around its seemingly endless interior, past the occasional animal bone discarded amongst the rubble, the architecture of The Slaughterhouse evokes awe. Built in 1922 by French architects Albert Greslin and Georges-Ernest Desmarest the city’s slaughterhouse was an epic modernist statement and the answer to the country’s growing population. Though advanced for its day, the slaughterhouse closed for business in 2000. With hints of early art nouveau, today the French Neo-Moorish style projects a faded elegance. The buildings are distinguished by their dusty yellow hue while the walls are covered in colourful tags and elaborate graffiti – a rarity in a city where pure white architecture reigns.
Besides the street art, The Slaughterhouse remains largely in the same state as when it was abandoned. Through a graceful green-tiled archway, one dark interior reveals
a now rusty rail framework, fixed to the ceiling with sinister-looking meat hooks – once used to slide carcasses along the assembly line. In another white tiled room, industrial-sized tables previously used to slice organs sit symmetrically. A plan to convert the building into five distinct areas – each one dedicated to a different artistic practice – is in the pipeline. Including a documentation centre and library, the blueprint for the space was developed by La Fabrique Culturelle and uses sustainable design. For the time being though, the cultural activities have found their place among the existing buildings.
The Slaughterhouse programming is divided between artist residency programmes, public concerts and exhibitions, and workshops. It’s hosted a bounty of activities over the past few years, featuring everything from small artist residencies – such as the one currently taking place with theatre director and puppetry artist Brigette Chadilla Fekrane – to large-scale slam poetry nights.
Though The Slaughterhouse has the potential to become one of the strongest cultural centres in the country and provides much-needed studio and exhibition space, government resistance has made moving forward a challenge. Until the green light comes from the municipality, La Fabrique Culturelle is essentially treading water. Even running The Slaughterhouse at ‘zero level’ costs around 5000 euros per month. ‘Right now we’re just hosting residencies and artists to create and perform, because we have no budget,’ Benslimane says.
Morocco’s independent scene has shown its strength through determined projects such as this one, recognising the necessity for certain basic infrastructures for the development of a more expansive cultural sphere. ‘The aim is not to have hundreds of Picassos or Scorseses,’ Benslimane says, ‘but that when these kids are adults they will go to the theatre or to a dance show and appreciate the arts.’
This article appears in issue41 Buy Now