The Everlasting Appeal of James McBey’s Zohra

TALIM Enchantment Zohra
Arabic language online magazine (named after an oasis near Marrakesh) stopped by recently for one of their quick video pieces on Morocco's cultural attractions.

Here it is, focusing on Zohra, James McBey's 1952 oil painting at TALIM's museum (image above from Enchantment: Pictures from the Tangier American Legation Museum).

Diana Wylie, who devotes an entire chapter to McBey and his world in Enchantment, wrote this of the enigmatic model:

[P]ainting portraits of wealthy Americans sustained [McBey] during the war years in the US.  He had a gift for flattering portraiture, but he could insinuate subtle insights, too.  In this 1952 portrait of a servant girl named Zohra he has captured a look that is both soft and guarded; the girl has already learned how to defend herself against the aggression of the street.

What brought and many others to the Legation is the notion that Zohra is the "Moroccan Mona Lisa."  McBey did endow Zohra with eyes that can follow you from whatever angle you gaze at the portrait.

Luckily Zohra navigated those mean streets successfully, and 60 years later, can contemplate the meanderings of chance, when she was painted by a Scottish artist in Tangier, whose work is displayed at the American Legation.  Zohra now is a proud grandmother, and her American connection that started years ago (James McBey was married to American Marguerite Loeb McBey) has only been reinforced: Zohra's sons live in the US, and she is a regular Transatlantic visitor.

James McBey's works are primarily in three places: his native Aberdeen, Scotland; the Tangier American Legation; and the Imperial War Museum in London.  McBey served as an official artist in the British Army during World War I, and his portraits of Lawrence of Arabia, General Allenby, and others are visible at this great BBC website.

Gerald Loftus

2 thoughts on “The Everlasting Appeal of James McBey’s Zohra”

  1. This is quite lovely. She reminds me of the heroine of François Bonjean’s now-obscure novel Yamna. (I have translated Yamna from French to English and have yet to find a publisher, though the novel is a masterwork by a master and for me, after my years in Fes, always a journey to the heart of Moroccan life).

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