Morroco's landscape doesn't exactly lend itself to a lush array of indigenous vegetation, but that hasn't stopped international horticulturalists and comtemporary artists from breathing new life into garden spaces.
MARRAKECH – The dusty road that leads from Marrakech to the High Atlas mountains is filled with goats, makeshift fruit stands, and groups of men in long dress waiting for a ride home. Greenery is not easy to find in this part of the world. Or at least it didn't use to be. A handful of new gardens in Marrakech are changing the green profile of the area.
Twenty-eight kilometers outside town, bright, multi-colored walls announce the entrance to Anima, the new garden created by André Heller, Austria's craziest artist.
Heller, whose other multi-media projects include a massive garden on Lake Garda in Italy, launching the National Circus in China, and making a documentary about Hitler's last secretary, spent six years transforming eight hectares of erstwhile desert wasteland into his paradise garden.
Now, here in the middle of nowhere, one finds works from iconic artists like Keith Haring to Pablo Picasso dotted among thousands of roses and palm trees of all kinds.
"We have the maximum number of palm trees it is possible to grow here," explains another unlikely gardener, filmmaker Gregor Weiss, the co-curator of Anima. "Every single plant was shipped here. There was nothing before.”
A garden seems like a strange project for a man who launched Austria's first pop station, was the host of the TV show Wunch Dir Was, and whose giant, otherworldly sculptures include subjects as diverse as a 60-meter-high bamboo figure that once floated in the port in Hong Kong, and whose book readings in Vienna draw more than a million spectators.
"Heller is a crazy and prolific artist,” says Weiss. "He is a natural multi-hyphenate. Ever curious.”
In addition to plants, Anima is home to a Druid-style stone garden, Chinese zodiac columns, a glass house for children to play in, and the Paul Bowles Café, decorated with straw hats.
Heller and his team hope to develop the on-site gallery — bright buildings designed by Austrian architect, Carmen Wiederin — into the leading center for contemporary art in Morocco. The first exhibition showed the work of Hanane el Farissi, a young Moroccan artist who paints with her pubic hair; Malika Squalli, who has a photo series of places on the same latitude as Los Angeles; and goods from an Initiative to support disabled women in the Marrakech medina.
Seventy people from the area work at the garden, and the profits are helping the community. "We have funded a school in the village and invite women and grandmothers to sit in the back during lessons. Most Moroccans are illiterate,” explains Weiss, and they want to do something about that.
The gardens are organic. "For more reasons than one,” Weiss explains. "Someone took home pesticide early on to rid the family of lice and clean the dog. The dog died.”
Heller first came to Morocco in 1972. He returns every year to visit, recharge his batteries, and work on projects like a light installation of the prophet at the Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou.
Until recently, tourists in search of greenery in Marrakech have made their way to Yves Saint Laurent's Jardin Majorelle, a vivid garden just outside the city walls filled with cacti that rise like totem poles. The artist's former studio is now the Berber Museum, which displays Berber jewels, costumes, and crafts collected by Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge.
LE JARDIN SECRET
But now travelers have more choices within easy reach of Marrakech. Le Jardin Secret opened earlier this year on the site of a 400-year-old palace and gardens that had never before opened to the public. The Islamic gardens, art, and architecture are exquisite.
Aloé d'Agafay, the eco center outside Marrakech relaunched by eco enthusiast Beatrice Bonnaire this summer, offers visitors another place to enjoy nature just outside the city. Visitors can stay overnight in a camp and participate in workshops.