Five years ago when a friend gave Asmaa Benachir a small beautiful bag made of recycled paper, her friend had no idea how she would be changing the artist’s life. Ms. Benachir was instantly enchanted with the little bag and started experimenting with recycled paper. The result was Au Grain de Sésame, an arts and crafts initiative that trains disadvantaged women to design and create organic products based on an innovative technique of recycling paper. Based in Rabat, Morocco, Au Grain de Sésame specializes in producing a great many home goods from recycled paper, including center tables, stools, baskets, vases, trays, bags, and a host of other products. Indeed Asmaa Benachir, though the work of the Au Grain de Sésame, is pioneering a new form of furniture made only from recycled paper. Ms. Benachir sees the work that the women of Au Grain de Sésame do as “preserving and promoting the local art and cultural heritage of Morocco. Au Grain de Sésame contributes to raising awareness of environmental conservation, while encouraging the choice of eco-friendly purchasing.”
But can paper possibly be sturdy enough for such things as center tables, waste baskets and stools?
Yes, Asmaa Benachir answers emphatically. You can make home goods, she says, in paper that will hold up as much as any other household product does. The trick to all of this is in knowing what you are doing, and building something that is durable.
I first became aware of Asmaa Benachir when she came to an exhibition I had in Morocco. When we got to talking, so fascinated was I with the idea that recycled paper could make household goods that I went to visit her at her gorgeous little gallery in the medina in Rabat. I saw the many paper-goods she had in the gallery, including an astonishing series of furniture, but a part of me still wondered, despite how sturdy they were to the touch, if they could actually hold up. So in 2009 I decided to take Ms. Benachir up on her challenge.
I commissioned from her a large suitcase-like bag that I would use to carry artwork back from Morocco to the United States. Let me be clear here, I told her, the bag would not actually fly with me in the plane, would not be part of my carry-on luggage, but instead would be checked onto the flight. And it would be carrying some of my precious artwork.
No problem, Ms. Benachir said. I can do that for you.
When I said this to Ms. Benachir in preparation for this article, she was delighted. “And it’s a natural product!” she said, leaning back in the workshop of the new and larger space in Rabat that she has just opened. “And think about it. Paper will not harm the environment, and that is one of the reasons I so enjoy working with recycled paper. It is sturdy and strong and it will not harm the environment! That is what I am trying to impart at Au Grain de Sésame. I am trying to sensitize women to the socio-economic importance of protecting the environment, and I want as many people as possible to know that you can do this by working with recycled paper, and that you can make beautiful yet durable things from recycled paper.”
The work of the Au Grain de Sésame is twofold. On the one hand, the space functions as an artistic gallery. However, as Ms. Benachir explained to me, the larger aim of the work of Au Grain de Sésame is “the empowerment of women.” Ms. Benachir is of the belief that art can be a means of development for countries like Morocco, and this is what she is showing and showcasing through the gorgeous handmade recycled paper works at Au Grain de Sésame.
And it is important, too, for Ms. Benachir that she works with women.
Says she, “One of the things that is known about Morocco is that we make beautiful products. Women in particular make absolutely beautiful products, artisanal products. Women in fact make these products quite easily.” What was missing from the work that women do, though, Ms. Benachir found, was a way for them to “professionally market and sell their products.”
She was also quite troubled by the ways in which female artisans were “dependent on a maâlem—a person who has extensive knowledge about a certain craft but who is often reluctant to transmit this knowledge to others.” These are some of the obstacles for women that Ms. Benachir seeks to overcome in the work she does at Au Grain de Sésame.
Benachir achieves her goal through a series of workshops. “The workshops that we run,” she told me, “include book-binding, artistic packaging, furniture decorating, art framing, and a workshop on making strong durable furniture from cardboard. We also have a print workshop and run a gift shop and cafe, as well.”
She admits that the work of development is hard, with one of the main challenges being securing funding to keep the enterprise going. “We were lucky to get a SEED grant recently,” she says. “And we have three enthusiastic American volunteers who are working with us. But every day it is a struggle.”
But for Ms. Benachir it is a struggle that is clearly worth it.
Because of her strong belief that there is a lot of unchanneled creativity particularly in women in developing countries, she hopes that in the work she is doing with Au Grain de Sésame she is launching a project that can be duplicated in other countries.
She points to the name of her collective, to explain why she remains optimistic despite the many challenges she faces in doing her job. “A grain is such a small thing,” she says from her new workshop, bright sunlight pouring through windows and doors as we talk. “A grain is a seed, something that, if you take care of it, can give you a lot. The first seed that you plant and take care of can give unintended results. Beautiful results. A seed can be magical. In fact, a seed is a magic formula—like in the myths of ‘open sésame.’ When you bring the two ideas together—Au Grain de Sésame—you bring together will and work to realize dreams.”
Asmaa Benachir and Au Grain de Sésame can be contacted through their Facebook page. In a few weeks their new website www.augraindesesame.com should be up and running.
Until next time.