Secret Fishbowl

Alix and I spent a few hours shopping for antiques in Marrakech with Michael Graham and his wife Donna one afternoon. I found my favorite piece of art aside from the architectural details in the houses, museum, and madrassa, was in a small antiques shop in the north end of the medina. The place was full of lovely things, including very cool lighting fixtures, but these took my breath away.

The proprietor had a pair of brass bowls, maybe 16” wide x 10” tall, with very fine damascene work on the exteriors. The age darkened brass was inlayed with copper and silver designs, script, sinuous foliate details, and banding. The quality was superb and a relief from the acres of mid-level stuff on sale elsewhere.

Inside the bowls however, was an unexpected surprise. The inside surface was scored with deep hatching into which was hammered further silver and copper designs, in this case a scene of fish chasing each other around a center rondelle.

This process is known as “kuftgari.” and is different from true damascene work because the hatched ground makes it possible to inlay the silver and copper wires anywhere on that ground, rather than directly into prepared grooves. I was particularly taken by the semi-hidden or private nature of the design.

In the house I grew up in, my mom had (still has) such a bowl, but with a plain interior, that she uses for a fern or paperwhites or what have you. Perhaps I’m just not schooled enough in the use of these objects but to me the form makes sense as a flower bowl or a planter. I suppose these could have been filled with water (and fish?) and the rippling water would set the design to life. Nonetheless, the interior of a metal bowl is not in my experience a place for decoration, certainly not the place for the most interesting of the object’s decoration. Perhaps it has something to do with the Islamic disapproval of representational image making. You could show these to your trusted friends only.

I’m reminded of a set of Chinese cabinets I once saw that upon unlatching of secret latches, revealed panels of erotic scenes.

-David Calligeros

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