Moroccan craftsmen rev up their skills

Jewelled car engine shows off local craftsmen’s skills and innovation, as Morocco aims to host F1 race.

The engine on display contains gemstones, silver and fossils [Eric Van Hove/Al Jazeera]

Casablanca, Morocco – Gemstones, silver, fossils and mother-of-pearl – these are not the typical components of an automobile engine.

But in Morocco, dozens of craftsmen, led by Belgian artist Eric Van Hove, have laboured to create a Formula One Mercedes V12 engine out of these and other precious materials. The engine, which does not run, is the centrepiece of an art exhibition in Casablanca that elevates traditional craftsmen from only selling their work in local markets.

The engine is also a tribute to the Laraki V12 Fulgara, a car designed in 2005 by Abdesalam Laraki and the only Formula One car ever made in Morocco with a powerful racing engine.

“Laraki’s job has to be finished,” Van Hove told Al Jazeera, while showing his work at the Abderrahman Slaoui Museum in Casablanca, in advance of an international tour. “Morocco has three million craftsmen – more than any other nation on earth – yet they are being used to churn out cheap export ware; pots and mirrors.”

He added, “Let’s try and invest in the car market and use them to make customised parts. There are many luxury goods that they could make.”

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In Van Hove’s atelier near Marrakech, craftsmen have painstakingly carved each one of the 460 parts of the V12 engine, including 660 bolts.

Fifteen types of wood were used: The cylinder heads were made from white cedar from the Middle Atlas mountains; the cooling system incorporates pink apricot wood; the valves were made of lemon wood and the crankshaft of orange wood. Ebony was used for the power steering system, while the intake manifold was formed from yellow copper, brass and tin. Ammonite fossils, estimated to be 80 million years old, make up the pistons.

“An engine is a huge gathering of parts,” Van Hove explained. “Some are very big and some small but they all have to fit together perfectly. If a bolt is missing it doesn’t go further than your front yard. It is a metaphor for the world’s system, from micro to macro; it’s a metaphor for society.”

Even though I was creating beautiful objects, they didn't mean anything. I had always dreamed of making something using 70 tools, but only ever used two, because that is all you need to make tables. Now I use all of them.

by - Abdelkhader Hmidouch, wood carver

Van Hove, who has also made hubcaps for a Citroen Picasso out of camel bone, silver and yellow copper, pays the Moroccan craftsmen he uses between $400 and $850 a month, depending on age and experience. The average wage in Morocco is just over $300.

Wood carver Abdelkhader Hmidouch says the project taught him “to be passionate about art”. The son of an orange farmer, Hmidouch was brought up in the mountains, where he discovered his talent for carving by making violins for his neighbours for free. At 15, he got a job as an apprentice to a master craftsman in Marrakech, where he has been working for the past 30 years.

“Even though I was creating beautiful objects, they didn’t mean anything,” he said. “I had always dreamed of making something using 70 tools, but only ever used two, because that is all you need to make tables. Now I use all of them.”

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The number of tourists visiting Morocco has tripled in the last 10 years to more than 10 million in 2013. Last year, there were reports that Bernie Ecclestone, president of Formula One, had signed a $600m deal with the King of Morocco to bring F1 racing to the country, although nothing has been heard about it since. 

Instead, the government has been injecting cash into other areas of the economy: Airbus and Boeing both recently set up factories in the Maghreb, and Casablanca has become a major hub for the aeronautics industry.

Meanwhile, Van Hove’s V12 and a number of similarly-jewelled spare car parts will continue to tour major European museums over the next six months.

“Eric’s work shows what these extraordinary people are capable of when they are using their skills to the full,” said Vanessa Branson, who established the Marrakech Biennale art expo, where the work was first shown. “Hopefully it will attract other artists to the region, once they realise the pool of talent that lies there.”

At the same time, Van Hove is working on a project to get his engine to work. “It has human emotion embedded in it,” he said. “It has love lavished on it by people who don’t even own a car.”

Source: Al Jazeera