‘Where are we now?’ is the ambitious, overall question of the fifth Marrakech Biennial. More than 40 artists, who are showing their work in more than 30 locations, had to give an answer. Although there was a lot of good art to be seen, Rob Perrée did not get an overall answer. In this fragmentary essay – like a collage – he talks about the most interesting works within the context of a city were history and modern times meet and sometimes clash.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
The Marrakech Biennial in bits and pieces
My first visit to Morocco was in the seventies. At that time fortified Marrakech was a very interesting city to me. A lot of historical buildings – it was founded more than a thousand years ago – a very lively Berber market (souk), all kinds of red sandstone houses and a limited amount of tourists. Modern times did not touch the city yet. Marrakech smelled intriguingly old.
In 2010 I returned to visit the first Marrakech Art Fair. It was a culture shock. Around the historical city the real estate entrepreneurs had been very active: a lot of expensive hotels, riads and villas were built. The sleeping red beauty was turned into one of most important economic centers and tourist destinations of Africa. Thanks to the actions of the young king Mohammed VI, according to many people.
This February I went back to visit the 5th Marrakech Biennial. I stayed in an apartment in Gueliz, a part of the city you can call symbolic of Marrakech 21st century style. As if I was walking around in a new arrondissement of Paris. Driving from the ‘Plaza’ to the ‘Medina’ did feel like driving into another time and another world. The souk was replaced by stores like Zara and Mango.
Vanessa Branson – indeed, the sister of – fell in love with Marrakech when she visited the city with her brother. In 2002 she restored an old palace in the old center of the city and developed it into a chic boutique hotel, the El Fenn. After a lot of other cultural projects she decided that it could be interesting to have a biennial in Marrakech with her hotel as a meeting point. “From its humble beginnings in 2005, it has grown into an organic beast, alive with energy and enthusiasm”, she says in the introduction in the catalogue. With the mantra “anything is possible but nothing is certain” as its motto. Later in the week I realized that the mantra served as an easy excuse for a chaotic, Cuban-like organization.
From the first one on the Marrakech Biennial is a combination of fine arts, literature, film, lectures and music/sound. A biennial that has to feel like a festival.
The 5th edition is the biggest till now. More than 40 artists, 80% commissions, more than 30 locations and a full program of parallel projects.
The first day, while desperately looking for people who could hand me my press kit and other necessary stuff – the people who had to deliver were late and in another building – I walked into Hicham Khalidi, the Dutch-Moroccan curator for the fine arts. He invited me to join him to the biennial office – “they can help you out”- and to one of the venues. In the taxi we could have a brief first conversation.
“For a big country like Morocco – it has more than 30 million people – there are just a few good contemporary artists. Twenty. That’s about it.”
“So, a biennial is the perfect medium to change that?”
“Perhaps, but the biennial also creates a great deal of controversy. The traditional art world does not like us.”
“That implies that it was difficult to work on it?”
“Working on the biennial I have realized more and more that I am not really Moroccan anymore. It felt like working in a different culture, with different ways and habits. I am too European now.”
So, ’Where are we now?’, the theme of the biennial, does count for you personally?”
“Yes. ‘Where are we now?’ counts for me, for the artists, for the art, the art world, for the city and for Morocco. It’s all about identity.”
“I have read somewhere that this event is ‘Under the high Patronage of his Majesty King Mohammed VI’. For me that sounds very strange, scary even. What does that mean?
“It means many things, but first of all it means that it made it easier to make our way through the highly bureaucratic system. It opened doors. But, true, it also means self- censorship.”
Later in the week one of the artists made this point more concrete: it means no politics, no nudity. However it was not a sufficient reason for him to omit the inclusion of many sexual and political references in his installation.
Younes Rahmoun, Here and Now, 2008.
Younes Rahmoun – the best Moroccan artist, as I have heard from several of his colleagues – explained the statement of Khalidi about the limited amount of good Moroccan artists. “Education is not good here. We only have one high level art academy. The infrastructure for art is limited. But it also has to do with artists choosing the easy way. They leave the country and don’t come back. For me it is important to stay here and to work from a Moroccan tradition. It is possible. I draw, I paint, I make installations, and I perform. I use the medium that fits the content I want to express. I don’t need to go abroad to be able to do that.”
Morocco was not hit by the ‘Arabic Spring’. Talking with people like Rahmoun and other Moroccan artists and young intellectuals helped me to understand it a little better. Already for hundreds of years Morocco is a monarchy. Most people not only accept that, Mohammed VI and his predecessors were respected a lot. Rahmoun: “If my work is political, it is in a positive way political. I support my country.” Mohamed Daadaoui, writer of a book on the Moroccan monarchy says in an interview with the BBC: “Moroccan citizens, many of them poor and illiterate and living in rural areas, believe that the monarch has a special gift or blessing and they feel that they have some psychological relationship with the king.” When the revolution started, the king immediately announced reforms and elections. A clever move supported by a strong propaganda machine: his portrait was and is all over the city. Also in one of the biennial venues. As a work of art….. Mohammed neutralized the ‘Arabic Spring’ before it had the time to go off.
In three or four days I cannot see it all, especially when the organization makes it difficult to see the things I want to see. Not all the works were ready to be seen, not all the times and locations correspond with the times and locations in the guide. “Artists and technicians worked very hard. So did the curator and the biennial office. But there is a layer in between of people who have to deliver, who have to effectuate promises, who have to react on the requests, who have to answer the questions, who have to take their responsibilities, but who do nothing at all. They show their face when the camera is around.” A remark of an artist who didn’t find anything he ‘ordered’ when he arrived in Marrakech and whose promised budget went suddenly down to less than 25% of the original quote.
“It’s all about the outside here.” An expression I heard many times when I was there.
This biennial did not give an overview of what is going on in the Moroccan arts, let alone in the international arts. Most of the participating artists were Moroccans living in diaspora. Quite a few of the other artists were not of Arabic descent. All together an interesting but not a representative mixture. The theme ‘Where are we now?’ could not get a workable answer. Who is the ‘we’? Where is ‘Where’? When is ‘now’?
Therefore I don’t want to put the presented works in an international context. I just want to pay attention to those works that struck me the most.
Asim Waqif, Pavillon of Debris, 2014.
The highlight in Palais El Badii, a palace from the 16th century, was a huge sculptural installation of the Indian artist Asim Waqif (1978). In a kind of corridor between high walls he had built a long open construction with rough, used pieces of wood, in all sizes and of all ages. Walking through it was more like climbing, bending and wrenching. It was as exciting as it was uncomfortable. Several pieces of wood gave a sound when you stepped on it. A comparable installation he made a few years ago in the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, but the material he used there did not carry the history of the location.
Wafae Ahalouch, Hocus Pocus, 2014 (detail).
The exhibition in the Bank Al Maghrib was the most interesting one. A few examples to illustrate. Wafae Ahalouch (1978, Dutch-Moroccan) combined geometric forms – painted or as a flattened sculpture – with erotic collages of Moroccan girls and women. Arabic pin-ups. The forms were in grey and white, the collages were colorful. Because of the contrasting elements in ‘Hocus Pocus!’ her ‘message’ had a strong impact.
Hicham Benohoud (1968, French-Moroccan) presented in ‘La Salle de Classe’ a series of photos of absurdly orchestrated scenes in a classroom. Boys (and some girls) put in situations that must have been appealing to their wildest fantasies but that did not have any relation to the reality of the average classroom.
Hamid el Kanbouhi, SOUTA/Trendsensitive, 2014 (detail)
Hamid el Kanbouhi (1976, Dutch-Moroccan) used three rooms to install his ‘SOUTA/Trendsensitive’. In the first room he confronted the viewer immediately with his materialism symbolized by three bricks on a pedestal. The separation of man and women, still common in Moroccan culture, was illustrated by at least a hundred women shoes locked behind a steel door, climbing up a stair. The second room was a ‘place de la libération’: conflicting and sensual paintings of young women and men, the walls were filled with mysterious, cryptic, sometimes explicit texts surrounded by drawings that triggered my phantasy in all its dimensions. Kanbouhi had moved the street to the basement of a former bank building. Rough, honest, intriguing and provocative graffiti. Via a small door I could enter the last room where tea was served but where young blond girls risked to be put on hanging chairs – neutralized and humiliated – by a couple of ‘solid’ Moroccan boys. El Kanbouhi turns everything upside down: the delicate rules and safe codes of the art world, the traditional rules and habits of another culture, the assumed difference between high and low culture. He confronts the viewer with his trend sensitivity and, more important, with his hypocrisy.
Hamid el Kanbouhi, SOUTA/Trendsensitive, 2014 (detal)
Tounes Rahmoun, Untitled, 2014.
The copper oil lamps in the installation of Younes Rahmoun were put on the floor, in a number of circles. The lamps differed from each other, the circles were different in seize. The subtle formal differences and numerical differences referred to elements and texts out of the Koran, he told me later. The allover atmosphere was alternately meditational and deadly quiet.
Leila Alaoui, Crossing, 2014 (video still)
Leila Alaoui, The Moroccans, 2013.
In a parallel project Leila Alaoui (French-Moroccan) showed a short video: ‘Crossings’. The work tells the horrible story of many Africans who leave their country behind to try their luck in Europe. Instead of showing the reality of that ‘voyage’ as was done so often on photos and in documentaries, Alaoui had chosen to limit it to four abstracted, minimal, almost slow downed scenes projected on three screens: the desert, the rails, the water, and a not to identify place where people were moving around in the darkness. In every scene the stilled face of a black man or woman popped up. In the meantime I heard the desperate quotes of the victims of this enormous human drama. “What can I do? Going back means death, go on means death too.”
Eric van Hove, V12 Laraki, 2013.
Of course the works of Walid Raad – in which he plays with the archetypical museum and its ‘copy’ – were more than worth watching; the disembodied black musicians in ‘Untitled’ (only their hands were not locked in a white box) – a theatrical work of Gabriel Lester – were alienating and impressive at the same time, and also the shining sculpture of Eric van Hove – composed out of remade accessories of the first sport car in Morocco – I would not have wanted to miss, but for now I limit myself to the works that I mentioned above.
The Marrakech Biennial cannot play with the big boys yet, but this 5th edition could make a difference. Although not all the artists deserved the stage (these 3 teenage Moroccan girls, what were they doing there? Related to the Royal Family?), but in general Hicham Khalidi made an interesting selection. A professional organization would help to make the potential qualities of the works more visible.
If I reduce the main question ‘Where are we now?’ to the biennial as an arena for interesting, touching, provocative and inspiring art, it’s fair to say that the Marrakech Biennial is getting there.
The Marrakech Biennial is on till March 31.
Brief bio: Rob Perrée, is art historian, independent writer and curator. He is the editor in chief of Afranah.org. He lives and works in Amsterdam and Brooklyn.