Heidi Vogels — The Hidden Garden

Written by Omar Chennafi. Published on 14 November 2022.

I remember that when I was a child, kids from my street and I would chase each other around the rooftops. Looking back now, it feels like we were little ants running around the branches of a tree. I tried to explore the entire orb of the Fez medina, beyond the street of my neighborhood. It was like going on an expedition exploring another territory, seeking to dive deeper, to see new faces and places, and perhaps to make new friends—or opponents. I walked happily and finally found myself lost. I wondered how long it would last. I didn’t feel scared, but confused. I knew that eventually someone would find me and send me home. Walking through that ancient labyrinth of scents, I experienced the sensation of two worlds coming together–one invisible and the other manifesting.

Each neighborhood in this medieval city has its public facilities: a public bakery where people can bring their homemade dough to bake, a mosque, a madrassa (school), a fountain for access to water, and a public hammam (bathhouse). The medina is still like that to me; it’s a network of veins stemming from its many architectural, cultural, and spiritual centers. In my mind, all its roads lead to these places. However, something is missing. What about the gardens? Where did they go? Where are they? Are they hidden or have they vanished already?

Photos: Heidi Vogels.

The Hidden Gardens

The sound of birds in dark and empty alleyways are always a sign of a hidden garden, dissolving boundaries between one world and another. At one time, most of the houses of Fez, especially The “riads”, had their own garden. A “riad” is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. The word riad comes from the Arabian term for “garden” which is “riad”. It is also one of the seven names of heaven in the Arabic language. In the central garden of traditional riads, there are orange or lemon trees and a fountain.

The Moroccan garden is a mixture of the aesthetics of Islamic gardens throughout history, from Persia to India and Egypt to Andalusia. The sense of the overlapping stories and the history of those gardens have been stored for centuries in these hidden spaces in the medina of Fez. Hundreds of palaces and riads are lined up side by side, like a negative film strip. In each sequence, there is a different story of its garden. And yet, you can hear the gardens, but you can’t see them. I think of the sensation I had when I was a child — the smell of the “zahr” (orange flower water) my grandmother would use when she made coffee in the afternoons, and that I wasn’t allowed to taste.

Photos: Heidi Vogels.

Heidi Vogels: The Fez Garden Project

One of the many conversations I have had about these miraculous gardens over the past years was with artist Heidi Vogels, whom I met in 2012. I remember our conversation about the gardens of Fez and her idea of tracing those hidden gardens. Over the past ten years, Heidi’s work has explored the social and cultural space of the garden in a very specific local context.

Gardens of Fez is a long-term research and film project that centers on the walled gardens in the medina of Fez. Heidi’s research throughout the years unfolded the cartography of spaces, practices, and knowledge linked to these gardens. Drawing on the notion of heterotopia as drafted by Michel Foucault, Gardens of Fez explores the interplay of different dimensions of a shared reality as it used to be to explore the meaning of the space of the enclosed garden within the context of the medina of Fez, one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved traditional Islamic cities in the world. The garden exists therefore as a space in between, allowing movement from the site to the subjectivities that inhabit(ed) it.

Heidi applied photography, film, interviews, text, and other forms of research in her creative process. Often, ‘’I look for collaboration and exchange with colleagues and participants, while through my work I aim to generate spaces for these encounters and exchanges to take place’’. During the project development in Fez, which took place between 2013 and the present, while she worked towards finalizing a film of 50 minutes, lots of ideas and exchanges have developed in the last year. The film project also took other forms, such as a publication, video installations, and other collaborative projects that derived from the same subject.

Photos: Heidi Vogels.

The following is an edited interview with Heidi Vogel, discussing this work.

OC: What is the starting point that inspired you to work on the Fez Garden project?

HV: To explore the social and cultural space of the garden from a very specific local context that was culturally very different from what I was familiar with. Later, I came to understand how this subject is connected to and represents the city’s story. I started to film what I saw. The gardens, through the exchanges and stories and memories of its residents, functioned as a lens. Part of this process is to learn and understand the city’s history, its development, its problems, and how the disappearing gardens revealed themselves as a signifier of the unraveling of a very specific social and cultural fabric. This process has been manifesting itself since the mid-20th century because of many factors that are specific to the situation of Fez and Morocco, though we can also understand it as part of a wider process involving modernization, market-driven globalization, and individualization, which have effects on communities and cities everywhere.

OC: What is your Fez Garden project trying to explore within ecological parameters?

HV: Through the perspective of the gardens and their stories and memories, we can read the city differently. Hopefully, we can come to recognize the intrinsic qualities, the culture, and the central presence of water. The film is not a documentary story, but rather a visual and poetic elaboration of the multiple voices of its residents. The research for the project was extensive and allowed me to present the project in different manifestations–through film, video installations and projections, essays, and images. I just closed the exhibition Assembly – Gardens of Fez at Bureau Postjesweg in Amsterdam, where I presented a video of a talk by architect Rachid Halaoui, in which he speaks about the medina, its development, and its current issues

OC: How do you elaborate on the disappearance of the Gardens of Fez and their relationship with the inhabitants of Fez, their lifestyle, and modern life?

HV: The way that people live in the medina has slowly changed, meeting different expectations and desires that belong to our time and age. However, it is sad to see that this cultural heritage is becoming part of a past that is often turned into a folkloric image, instead of exploring how to live with these treasures, perhaps in different forms that we can imagine now. There are some projects where shrines and palaces are being restored, and foreigners and locals are running guest houses in old riads, but institutionalized access to Fez’s rich history is lacking. There is no documentation center about the history and development of the medina, for example, and there are no public archives to visit. This is not only a pity for visitors but for inhabitants of the city, for whom it is critical to give value to the place and culture of which you are a part.

OC: How do you connect the concept of Heterotopia with the nature of the Fez medina?

HV: Well, it is a perfect place for that, actually. Heterotopia, as described by Foucault, is assigned several principles, being a space that is both open and closed, like a cemetery or theatre, for example. You can see how the enclosed gardens at the center of the riads perfectly meet that condition. Foucault mentions also how time is stored there, how these spaces disconnect from the fast pace of life that surrounds them. The gardens in the medina that are still there, often in ruins, remind us of the lives lived there, at different times. At the same time, they maintain a lively presence in the memory of those who still remember the days in which the gardens were part of their lives, and what these spaces represented to them. And next to that, these stories and memories, unfold the story and culture of the city. The enclosed garden space is a microcosmos of all that lies outside of its walls. The medina contains many of these types of heterotopic spaces. Think of the hammam, the “zouaia” or “madrassa” o.a.

OC: Referring the term “slow violence”, in Nixon’s conception, is “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, what kind of links bring together the new and old, the Fassi inhabitants, and Fez as a space? Are they aware of this kind of connection?

HV: When I speak about the gardens with the people in my project in Fez, their stories carry strong emotions. An emotion of the past passing us by, yes, certainly. But I think it is deeper than this. It is also the gardens that represent qualities of life that belonged to a culture and a people, which are not recognized by acts of preservation and care for a city and its people.

OC: What role do you think artists and the arts can play in the current challenges, especially on the ecological issue?

HV: From my perspective, we have to let our practice ‘work’. A work ‘takes place’ throughout the different trajectories of its process. From local research to testing ideas with colleagues, and the production process, to presentations to different audiences and within different contexts. Within this constellation of exchanges, the work is virtually present and expanding in its context. I believe art practice is about pushing back, allowing us to think, see, connect, and act otherwise. However small, these acts are of the essence I think.

Installation View. Photos: Heidi Vogels.


At the present time, the Fez Garden project is still progressing, one of Heidi’s plans after the film has reached its potential is planning to bring all the participants in her film, and residents together in the medina. To celebrate with music, poetry, and performances, while having a program of talks and discussion, as well as addressing the current situation of the medina, its culture, its heritage, etc.

It is always an open mind experience to reflect on an artist’s work. The Fez Garden project by Heidi Vogels was kind of a form of manifestation of the memories I still have for the Fez Medina, which brought me back to navigate the cultural landscape of Fez, especially the gardens. Being a photographer and curator brings me closer to the world I live in and directly connects me with it. Most of my curatorial practices and artistic approaches are a contemplation of what occurs within my direct surroundings. It could be my street, my neighbors, my family, my friends, my colleagues. Heidi’s project is mirroring those approaches. I think that before we start to think outside the box, we need to understand the box we are living in. The arts could be a bridge to bring those layers together in a unison way.

Furthermore, the influence and role of the arts extends beyond the creative process or the artistic output of individual creators, becoming mirrors of reality, deep expressions, and tools for the transformation of the consciousness of a group or a society. The arts function both as a bridge within society and between societies, shaping and being shaped by the interconnecting domains of life. Today, artists play an important role in influencing individuals and transforming societies.