The exterior of Les Abattoirs
The exterior of Les Abattoirs, the former slaughterhouse that was an arts space in Casablanca. Ryan Terhune

Artists in Morocco don’t know why an internationally recognized artists’ venue has been emptied and neglected.

CASABLANCA—At the edge of the city sits Les Abattoirs, a crumbling cathedral of art-deco architecture that served as the city’s slaughterhouse for more than a century. After the last generation of butchers left in 2002 the nearly 14-acre complex became the unlikely home of a public art movement in a city where art, fighting uphill against a lack of space, funding, and free expression, struggles to be accessible. Les Abattoirs changed that, bringing free performances, workshops, and concerts to the industrial, working-class neighborhood of Hay Mohammadi.

But now, most of those artists are gone. The gates are guarded. The warehouses are silent.

“This place was magical,” said Yassine Elihtirassi, manager of Colokolo, a group of traveling acrobats that once called Les Abattoirs home.

Clues to this period of creativity linger in the art left behind. Graffiti in five different languages covers the walls of Les Abattoirs and the concrete floor is cluttered with half-disassembled art installations, broken glass, bolts of fabric, and bits of wire. In a hallway the size of an airplane hanger sits a dusty blue and yellow bus marked “Theatre Nomade.”

Theatre Nomade and Colokolo were among the members of La Fabrique Culturelle, a collective of performers and cultural organizations that persuaded the city to convert Les Abattoirs to a public arts space in 2009. Led by a Casablancan architectural society and endorsed by Mohamed Sajid, the former mayor of Casablanca, the association signed a contract that enabled more than 200 artists to occupy the building, filling the old warehouse with acrobatics, dance, theater, and music.

A Theatre Nomade puppeteer outside of Les Abattoirs. (Ryan Terhune)

Les Abattoirs attracted everyone from the city’s budding rap and hardcore music scenes to local children attending free tumbling classes and film screenings. That same year, Les Abattoirs became the host of L’Boulevard, one of Africa’s largest alternative music festivals. Eventually its indie acclaim spread as far as the pages of The New York Times.

Spurred by the success, Mayor Sajid hailed Les Abattoirs as a “legendary spot” that “reveals Casablanca’s cultural life in perpetual renewal.” There was talk of municipal investment, restoring the more than 100-year old warehouse to a polished cultural space.

But then Sajid lost his seat in the 2015 elections. The new mayor, a member of the conservative Justice and Development Party, seemed to care less about promoting culture, say some Casablanca-based artists. When the contract Fabrique Culturelle had with the city expired in 2016 the city chose not to renew it, instead leaving the management of Les Abattoirs to one of the city’s Sociétés de Développement or SDLs, Casa Patrimoine, although other SDL’s were said to be involved. Defined by the World Bank as “local joint-ownership companies,” Casablanca’s SDLs are established to organize public-private partnerships but numerous press reports have revealed that many have chaotic leadership, misuse funds, and leave projects designed to better the community in disarray.

The Interior of Les Abattoirs. (Ryan Terhune)

Casa Patrimoine promised a restoration of Les Abattoirs at an unspecified future time. During this period of neglect, confusion, and murky authority, artists said that work teams emptied Les Abattoirs and pressured them to leave. Colokolo’s Elihtirassi said that one night the troupe returned to Les Abattoirs after an offsite performance to discover their workshop locked and their equipment missing, and the city subsequently began using the building for storage. Meanwhile attempts by La Fabrique Culturelle to renew its contract looped through the city’s bureaucracy.

Yassine Elihtirassi of Colokolo at a cafe outside of Les Abattoirs. (Ryan Terhune)

It’s difficult to understand why a thriving arts space, one cited in guidebooks and international press, wouldn’t be valued by the local government and the mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment. But according to Aadel Essaadani, a former member of the architectural society that convened Fabrique Culturelle, the city said that the space wasn't safe to host large crowds and needed to be renovated. But he believes that the clear-out of Les Abattoirs and subsequent neglect came in part because of a desire to suppress a space of freedom for artists. “Not using the space also means not having a space of expression," he said. “This used to be a haven for creativity and some freedom of expression.”

Essaadani also cites the disorganization of the SDLs as a problem, and in September 2018, a Moroccan news magazine reported that Casa Patrimoine had “disappeared,” with all of its renovation projects shuffled to another SDL, Casa-Aménagement, although when contacted, Casa-Aménagement said they have no jurisdiction over the space.

With the loss of Les Abattoirs, there are few performance spaces left for them in Casablanca, the city’s artists say. The spaces that do exist are limited in size and opportunity. “We don’t have a lot of spaces in Casablanca and Morocco for artists to work toward their creation, for music, for performing arts, for visual arts,” Essaadani said.  

The survivor. Theatre Nomade’s tent sits northwest of Les Abattoirs. (Ryan Terhune)

During Les Abattoirs’s heyday, arts classes and cultural events happened regularly. Rappers, metal bands and reggae groups would perform as members of Colokolo walked tightropes above the audience. Today, the space is empty with one exception. The blue and yellow circus tent of Theatre Nomade stands just northwest of Les Abattoirs’s front gate. The troupe of acrobats and puppeteers worked out a separate deal with the Ministry of Culture that allows them to linger month to month on a renewable contract, although technically, they aren’t allowed inside the building.

“We work today, tomorrow we don’t know, “ said Hassan Ogaal, Theatre Nomade’s costume and props designer.

The city of Casablanca has been creating its own cultural programming, renovating Place des Nations Unies, a common area for street performers, and constructing a cathedral-sized theatre near the Mohammed V square. Several SDLs also sponsor large events featuring many foreign performers such as Jazzablanca and The Casa Festival. However, Aadel Essaadani, who now works for the cultural development organization Racines, argues that these projects advance a narrow definition of culture that benefits the city more than citizens. “The objective for parliament and the king is to say that we have big theaters like New York and Paris,” said Essaadani.

And even Casablanca’s streets may become closed to artists as the city has issued new restrictions on public performance, a departure from Morocco’s long history of vibrant halqa street theater.

“I guess there were other spaces but Les Anciens Abattoirs, it was the really good place for us,” Elihtirassi said. “It was free, it was really close to everyone who wanted to come a circus show or some other show.” Since they were locked out, Colokolo has become nomadic, bouncing between art spaces in search of a home. Last year the troupe packed up and toured Europe, where resources and venues are more plentiful.

Kenza Sefrioui, an art historian and cultural journalist feels the fate of Les Abattoirs is symptomatic of a larger decline, of free speech and expression, that has limited opportunities for generations of creatives and activists.

“It’s more necessary than ever to continue the action,” said Sefrioui, “because it’s a necessity, a country without culture just doesn’t exist.”

Erika Riley and Ryan Terhune produced this story in association with Round Earth Media. Additional reporting by Youba Darif.

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