Monday, June 14, 2010

The Worldy Whale of Mirleft

On the first morning we created the ocean. And on the first afternoon the land. On the second day we painted the sky. And on the third day we said our words.

Creating the ocean

The ocean-creating shop- my roof-top terrace

The cat got sprayed with the ocean

The idea began in October of 2009 when I first visited Mirleft. The main beach in town, Imin Tourga, is a beautiful stretch of sand that expands at low tide to revel smaller coves, all of which are protected on one side by gracefully bold red rock of almost-to-the-Sahara sea cliffs, and on the other side resides the Atlantic Ocean. To descend to this magical place, you must walk down a long flight of concrete stairs that are carved into these cliffs. On the side of the stairs that faces the sea is a large flat concrete face, in which I saw a blank canvass to paint a mural.

The wall before...but look for a hiding whale

Worked hands

Max Baumgarten, a friend from California, spent three weeks with me in Mirleft. I had told him of this mural project, and aside from his deep friendship company I honestly wanted his artistic help. Friends who know me well also know that I am not the most talented of artists, and the prospect of taking the lead artistic position in painting a huge mural was somewhat daunting. Having Max there is really what made the ultimate product so damn beautiful.

Max Baumgarten. I love you. Mirleft also loves you

Billy-goat painters

The obvious theme was ocean related, and the obvious body of the mural was a whale. The lower wall had the natural shape of a whale diving into the water already- its’ slanted back and arching tail could be seen in the stairs’ handrail, and the underbelly extended into the ground. There was even an eye and a blowhole that had been stained into the cement by years of rain and ocean exposure. The inconsistencies in texture and color on the cement were clear barnacles, or scars from battles with giant squid as Max would say. Even the color of the cement itself, a light grey with blotches of lighter or darker tints, is the natural color of a whale. This being said, it was clear that we were going to paint a mural of a whale.

The first morning...sketching out the whale

Thank you Mirleft community

I had begun the conversation of the mural with friends in Mirleft soon after I had returned in April. Everybody thought that it was a good idea, but because this beach is the biggest public space in town, and in the summer months one of the most visited beaches in southern Morocco, I wanted to exchange creative thoughts with as many people as I could. This was not only to improve the artistic possibility of the mural, but also to make the project more of a community effort- I didn’t want to just come in and change the face of the most visited place in Mirleft.

The whale is coming to life

Max and Max and the awaking whale

We decided to create a message with the mural about taking care of our natural environment, and wanted to use both words and images to do so. The whale aspect of the mural was something that I had come to the drawing board with, o better yet, something that was already on our canvas. There were competing ideas of what to paint alongside the whale, and our major concern to painting a bunch of sea creatures was that the wall would simply get too crowded and took tacky. You can see this wall from any point on the sand, and can also see most of it from the water, so if there were too many things on the wall it would only look like random colors from afar (which could have been a nice effect but not what we were going for).

The ocean is painted and the whale is beginning to swim

Thank you Max Baumgarten

We decided to keep it simply beautiful and paint one giant whale diving into the Atlantic ocean, that covered the entire lower wall, and who’s flippers extended into the upper wall. Its shape was already there, and we only had to bring its natural form to life. Inside the whale we decided to paint a world map, and on the upper wall we decided to write a symbolic multi-language message about caring for the environment.

Drawing the world

Of course the paint also goes on our bodies

After getting formal approval from the town Governor, which meant submitting s sketch of our design, we started painting on Thursday June 3rd. Some people had told us not to go to the Governor, that we could paint the wall without any official support. This kind of made sense given that we were putting in our money and time, meaning that we weren’t asking the Governor for anything, but the space is too public to change without official approval.

Painting the land

It began by creating the ocean; mixing blue dye into a bucket of white paint, adding water and stirring- all on my rooftop under the already strong sun of morning. We then walked down to the beach armed with paintbrushes and chalk, buckets and paint, water and rags, and continued to spread the word of our project as we met people on the road to the sand. They knew of the proposed mural, this is too small of a town to have an idea without it moving through the streets and settling in like the everyday invisible dust. The insha allahs of when and what had given us room to create, and when we began to outline the whale in chalk, it was not only Bachir, Hakim, Max and I that were there, but a half-dozen others ready to help.

Re-creating the world


With only a few lines of chalk to outline its body, Max made whale instantly pop out of the wall. He drew a wise head with a calm smile, and a lower body that arched up towards majestic flippers. And when we painted the ocean around the whale, you could see it boldly swimming into the Atlantic. People worked together, sharing buckets of the blue recently-made-ocean and used every brush that we had, which meant using large rollers, the mid-sized flat brushes, or even the small brushes for detailing. We then used a black to give the whale a large fin, a calm mouth, and an eye that looks like a wise mans eye from up close, and the eye of a teenage girl from afar.

Our world

Then I had to draw the world- inside the whale. To get dimensions right, I drew a few lines of latitude and longitude, measuring with a long tape measure. Using the pocket atlas I bought with a gift certificate I had been given by a Junior Lifeguard the day I left California 11 months ago, a pocket atlas that I’ve used as a travel guide and educational tool for me and for others, I outlined our earth’s land masses and islands. It was daunting, because by now there were over a dozen people involved in the project, all of whom were waiting with brushes in hand to paint the world. It wasn’t until I stepped back and the crowd rushed in to continue painting, this time with the yellow of our recently-made-land, that I could see the earth grounding itself inside the whale.

People loved the ladder

The first day of painting ended, 12 hours after the ocean had been created, as we sat on the cooling sands of sunset and admired what we had made. It was only now that Max and I stopped to eat the sardine salad that Ahmed had prepared for our lunch.

Taking a rest at the end of the day. Admiring our work


The second day was less glamorous then the first, but with the help of many it was equally inspiring. People came to paint on their way to or from the beach, some staying for hours, others for minutes. On the second day we could say that we painted the sky. The lower wall was the ocean and the body of the whale, and the upper wall was the sky. What this really meant was painting white the entire upper wall, which is about 80 meters long and 1.5 meters high. It was also a hot day, with a sun that seemed to never move from its mid-day position, and to paint the upper wall you often had to balance on a treacherously loose rock cliff. For most of the day we were Billy-goat painters under a hot Moroccan sun.

Painting the sky

Thank you Rachid! Rachid worked hard with us for 3 days

But it was Ahmed, the Patron Saint of Mirleft (as Max would call him), who was the man of the second day. Ahmed is a man in his 50’s who has the typical enlightened story of someone who’s completely left behind a life of drug for a more tranquil way of being. Now he spends his days taking care of a few beach front homes for the wealthy, but allows us full access to these abodes when the owners are not using them (which is 11 months of the year). Ahmed used a mid-sized flat brush to go around the areas we had painted and fill-in any missing spots. He did this all afternoon long, bending gracefully and painting methodically.

The sky shows sign of light

Ahmed, the Patron Saint of Mirleft

On the third day we said: “KEEP MIRLEFT BEAUTIFUL” in Berber, “POLLUTION KNOWS NO BORDERS” in French, “TAKE CARE OF OUR BEACH” in Arabic, and “TOGETHER WE SHARE THIS WORLD” in English. We wrote our words in the sky, using a blue of the ocean, and had to balance like Billy-goats to sketch and paint these words.

Hakim and Ahmed

On the third day we said our words

Deciding on what to say was not easy. Words are precise and the worldy whale says so much on its own. We placed Berber as the first language, next to the flippers of the whale, because that’s what the town wanted. They wanted to represent their culture, first, and have it in the foreground of the mural. What followed was French, then Arabic, and then English (this order had less reason).

Hakim. Thank you.

After the third day we were so tired and passed out in the lifeguard outpost

On the third day we finished the mural. More than the whale, we had painted the world. We had painted the world on a whale. We had painted THE WORLDY WHALE of MIRLEFT.

The finished project

Now the beach has a worldy whale

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