In Anton Newcombe’s studio in Berlin, there was a typewriter. On this typewriter was a faded, dusty note that read, Everyone should be shipwrecked once in their life.
These words had an unsettling effect on me. Whether I understood it at the time or not, my ship was already on the rocks.
Unhappy in Berlin, no longer making art, and having abandoned my few social responsibilities, I had been dreaming of escape — maybe to Brighton, England, the place I was born. But instead I took off for Morocco. The flight booking and the decision were made just 48 hours before leaving.
William Burroughs went to Morocco to find his personal interzone, a place in which he could be out of place and consequently free, where he could live without hindrance, with people whose temperament matched his own. But people had been decamping to Morocco long before the Beats washed up there. For more than four hundred years, Tangier and the coastal cities south of it had been the refuge of pirates and privateers, artists, hustlers, traders and anyone on the run or just looking to get lost.
Morocco is one of those frontier lands where certain lawless archetypes get a chance to reset. You just have to surrender to the place. And in order to survive, you have to shift your perceptions and expectations of, well… everything.
Somewhere between the chasm of what was once familiar and comfortable and this altogether new zone, is where you can, sometimes, excavate a new understanding of the world – and of yourself.
I headed to Essaouira, a small town of around 5,000 on the south coast of the country. Up until a few years ago, it had been connected to the nearest large city, Marrakech, by an unsurfaced desert road.
During the summer the population expanded and contracted like a lung.
The north wind blows hard all year round. Everyone says that it stops around autumn time.
But I don’t think it ever does.
The essentials of life in Essaouira haven’t changed much in 100 years. If I wanted fresh red meat I had to bargain for it in the souk where it hangs, fly-blown, on hooks along the main street. Chickens are slaughtered in plain sight in tiled abattoirs among the vendors of fruit and vegetables, spices, nuts and dried fruit.
Everything in the souk compels you to reassess how you move through the world.
There are no pleasure yachts moored Essaouira’s fortified harbour. Its waters are crowded with small, timber, Klein-blue, open fishing boats. The old stone wharves are jammed with fishmongers and shipwrights and the families of fishermen repairing nets. To buy fish you have to brave the smell of diesel mixed with sweat, cat piss, and fish guts stewing in the heat.
For the three months that I lived in the old medina, deep within its warren of decaying alleys and bazaars, in a rooftop room surrounded by chicken coops and turkey runs, opposite other roofs where the slaughter of goats and sheep was routine, I made art to try to keep myself sane and to make sense of this shift of – and my eventual, hard-earned sense of self-discovery.
I had shipwrecked myself in an old pirate refuge and the images I made — including those below — were the raft I assembled from the driftwood of my imagination, in the hope of being able to sail ‘home’, wherever that might be.
No Palm Trees in Berlin
Mixed Media and Photography
16cm x 21cm
View of Essaouira from the sand dunes on the outskirts of the city.
The walls of the old medina and a receipt for jewellery.
A teenager watches the sea as the sun sets.
Reflected light on white washed ruins.
Freshly slaughtered sheep for Eid al-Adha.
Map/Collage of the Medina of Essaouira
Mixed media on paper
20cm x 27cm
Despite the dust and trash there is always colour.
Sketches on a medicine bag.
Typical street and dentist in the medina.
Shipwrights working on a trawler.
Hand drawn map of imagined medina
Pen and ink on paper
16cm x 16cm
Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon is a British-Australian artist, photographer and diarist, who lives in Southern Europe. He has exhibited in Berlin, London, Budapest and Sydney. Follow him on Instagram @finnlohanlon
All images and artwork by Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon