Danning Niu
Design Portfolio

Crafting the City

Site-specific Installation
Kattanine Fondouk, Fes El Bal (the old Medina of Fes), Morocco
Winter 2018, 3.5 Weeks

The project was the culmination of a one-month cultural exchange program, Morocco: Crafting the City. This program is the start of a two-year pilot project by RISD and the Ministry of Handicrafts, Solidarity and Social Economy of Morocco. During my time in Morocco, we collaborated with La Maison de l’Artisan in Fes and had the amazing opportunity to learn and practice the traditional crafts with the local artisans.

A visual response to the everyday scene of the hanging laundry on the rooftops in Fes Medina, the installation takes on the form of several paper cutouts pinned to a slender string with each of its end tied to an upright bamboo stick, juxtaposed with the cityscape in the background. The designs of the patterns are inspired by the traditiomal Moroccan crafts, zouaq painting and zellige, and the elaborate urban fabric of the Medina that enwraps the site.

Rooftops and Laundry 

I began the project with a mind map. The following text, fragmented and personal, records the myriad thoughts and associations dancing and swirling in my mind after seeing the ocean of rooftops and billowing laundry drenched in the sunshine of Fes Medina.

Inspiration: Rooftops and hanging Laundry

A parallel/
between practicing the mundane ritual of sunning the laundry/
            passing on the traditions from generation to generation

Internalized wisdom/
    a process that suggests continuity and transformation at the same time/     
        There's something poetic about it

Time/waiting/subject to weather/humbleness/grace from nature

My heart was moved by it in the most secretive and incomprehensible way.
Could it be the perfect angle of the sunshine that day?

The medina is silently breathing through the billowing fabrics.     

    hidden and private in the U.S./
dryers tucked away in the houses

Putting the laundry out/
a gesture of trust and genuineness/
a feeling of community

Zouaq Painting and Paper Stencil

My experience with zouaq painting at the artisan center sparked my interest in creating the paper cutouts. I was fascinated when Master Ali Jazoui showed us the intricately designed stencils and how, with a single dab of flour, the pattern was translated onto the wood panel-and there began all the meticulous drawing, coloring and outlining.

Inspiration: Stencils used for traditonal Moroccan zouaq painting
photo taken in the zouaq painting workshop at La Maison de l’Artisan

Although we all used the same stencil, our final paintings looked so drastically different from one another because of the different color combinations we chose, the different characteristics of the lines we drew, and the different dots and decorative patterns we decided to put on. Therefore, the stencils, for me, are the starting points, the origins, of a craft, a process that is deeply embedded in the tradition but always rejuvenates itself.

I was amazed by both the artistic and symbolic beauty of the craft (as well as all the othercrafts I’ve seen here). Therefore, the paper cutouts were my attempts to create my ownstencils-they are the embodiment of my aspiration to understand more about the craft as well as a metaphor of a starting point to something, something that is yet to be known.

Each paper cutout is the size of the wood panel used for zouaq painting. The pattern designs use languages of repetition, overlapping, and geometric transformation in traditional Moroccan zouaq painting.

Practicing zouaq painting myself

Zellige and Cityscape

During my time at La Maison de l’Artisan, I also had the opportunity to learn about the craft of zellige. The final designs also took inspiration from the structure and organization of the zellige patterns.

Inspiration: Zouaq painting and zellige pattern designs

Peter Sacks, in his travelogue “fes” drew an analogy between Fes Medina and traditional Moroccan tileworks.

“No tile is autonomous, none resolves to a complete, circumscribed design, but rather radiates outward to larger incompletions. Everything here is intensely mediated and contingent. And this is a far more complex renunciation of worldly certainty or fixity than that which is implied by the Islamic interdict against the representational image.” (“fez” 12)

Taking on the ideas of adjacency, sophistication, and incompletion, I wanted the relationship between the repeated individual sections and the entirety of my designs to be an overarching metaphor for the urban fabric. I experimented with framing, drawing, juxtaposing details of the cityscape of Fes Medina and created patterns that visually expand and contract.

Looking out to the Medina from the rooftop of the Kattanine Fondouk
Panoramic photo collage

Experiencing the textile of Medina through drawing

Three final designs, each corresponding with a part of the panorama of the Medina


Like sunning laundry, I hung the paper cutouts against the backdrop of the Medina. The pieces billowed in the wind like the linens and clothes on many other rooftops here. I felt an undescribable similarity between practicing this quotidian ritual and a craft passed down by generations. The intimacy of the hand, transformative power of time, patience, repetition, awareness of something bigger than you, whether it be the nature or the tradition, vitality and devotion.

Visiting different artisan centers, heritage sites, and learning and practicing traditional crafts with local artisans-my one month in Morocco has been an incredibly humbling experience. I am grateful for how generously the people and the artisans welcomed us and shared with us their virtuosity and knowledge. With gratitude, I created this piece of installation as an ode to the rich cultures and histories of this land.


The installation was included in two exhibitions, first in the Kattanine Foundouk, second at RISD Fleet Library.

I was thrilled by all the conversations this project has allowed me to have with local artisans, artists, students, and my peers. The most memorable instance was when a paper carving master offered to show me his workshop after seeing my installation. He told me he would never fathom cutting the paper with an X-acto (which I did here) and tried to teach me to use his awl-like carving knife. I failed in the end. We both laughed. He asked about my process and also showed me how his paper cutouts are used for making beautiful embroidered belts. The reciprocity was something I could never have imagined.