The Marrakech Biennale “aims to provide for an intellectual framework that unites multiple arenas of art and cultures by looking at it from the particular location and history of the city of Marrakech. It builds on a longstanding history of Pan Afro-Arab unity, through critically investigating socio political projects, cultural partnerships, and art movements that have led to many shared artistic tendencies….one of the primary objectives of the Biennale is to further the dialogue beyond art and culture into a wider set of implications.”
It was first held in 2004. This year, 50 artists or groups are represented in the main exhibition. According to the web site, 17 were born outside the Arab world. There are also several fringe shows.
It’s more difficult for me to place the ‘non-Western’ artists. In an interview, van Hove says:
“What I learned at art school in Europe, after returning from Africa at the age of 12, was a medium of expression that is very filtered through western standards. If art is universal, contemporary art is a western medium – pretty much an institution – and the way of it is conceptualism. I was taught to use this approach: it is my craft somehow. I just don’t feel bound to using it only there, in Europe. You can’t easily go to the centre of Africa with conceptual art and apply it there: there is a vocabulary to invent….. I think simply that I saw all these young artists from Africa and Asia struggle to find their balance, to express themselves with an original voice, making a huge translational effort to fit into a western sense of art. Let me use a metaphor: if the Chinese had invented programming we would now need to learn to programme software in Chinese characters – imagine any western programmer having to learn Chinese first before starting to code…well it’s the same in art today. Young artists have to fit an international idea of what contemporary art is, what is mediatized or talked about. It has very intangible semiotics as well, based on delicate things, so if you are not from that mainstream culture it’s incredibly perverse. It’s a challenge to express certain cultural ideas with a different language from that cultural sphere – what is kitsch and what is not, for instance.”
Is this patronising, or not? I don’t know.
To take just a few of the ‘non-European’ artists (I did not have time to view them all!), there seem to be several strategies:
Perhaps one of the most successful adaptations to the ‘western medium’ is Mona Hatoum who is relatively well known in the West. She works in video, and also by performances and installations, such as ‘Electrified’ shown at the White Cube in 2014.This consists of “Kitchen utensils, furniture, electric wire, light bulb and variable transformer” hanging from the ceiling. Interestingly, her Wikipedia entry lists and impressive number of exhibitions, but not the Marrakech Biennale.
At the other end of the scale, Dana Awartani claims to be ‘Dedicated to the revival of historical crafts from the Islamic world’ and works in wood and ceramics as well as drawing.
Mohammad Melehi produces hard-edged abstracts in the style of Bridget Riley, Albers, Frank Stella perhaps. He later became a leading Moroccan cultural bureaucrat. Whilst studying in the USA, he wrote: “The quest for identity in post-war America art was very interesting to me: American painters recently discovered that they weren’t really part of European history.” This is a partial answer to van Hove’s comment, above.
Mohammed Chebaa – see image – produced similar abstracts, but I can’t find very much about him on the web. (He died in 2013).
There was less digital art than I would have liked. Mohssin Harraki has a large spider-like assembly of 87 lights, a bit like a splayed-out chandelier, controlled in a ‘breathing’ pattern, described as a: “‘luminous’ installation, commissioned for the exhibition “Memory Games: Ahmed Bouanani Now”, curated by Omar Berrada as part of the Marrakech Biennale. The installation, titled ‘Tagant’, replicates the process of immersing oneself in the forest of signs that is Bouanani’s archive. ‘Tagant’ means ‘forest’ in Tamazight.” Each light has a label inscribed with the title of one of film-maker Ahmed Bouanani’s manuscripts: here the cultural references are starting to lose me!
There are some good comments in Diptyk, a Moroccan arts magazine/ blog, which address the question of nationalism/ arabism vs internationalism/ ‘colonialism’.
“Exit Vanessa Branson, qui a bien mérité un peu de repos …. L’avenir dira si ce retrait améliorera les choses, mais il semble que pour une biennale qui aspire à être nationale, voire régionale, quitter le giron des biens patrimoniaux d’une riche anglaise pour devenir un bien d’utilité publique soit une bonne piste. ”
“Au milieu du sublime Palais de la Bahia, on comprend mieux que les formes développées par ces artistes avant-gardistes de la réappropriation locale dans un mouvement moderne, étaient alors une réponse qui demeure d’une acuité troublante. Ici, on comprend enfin que leurs œuvres n’avaient jamais été pensées, conçues pour les white cube des grands musées où on les retrouve aujourd’hui, mais pour Marrakech, le Maroc. Le lieu où elles sont nées et dont elles sont nées. C’était valable hier, en 1969, sur la place Jamaâ el Fna c’est troublant ou réconfortant de voir que cela n’a rien perdu de sa puissance aujourd’hui…
Le « rien de neuf pour le moment » de Reem Fadda […the curator…] devient alors évident…
On comprend aussi que pour habiter les lieux patrimoniaux et chargés de la ville, il ne fallait pas aller chercher bien loin des œuvres qui sous nos yeux depuis toujours avaient murement réfléchi la question…”
It was ironic that the Bahia Palace is a tourist target, and most of the people looking at the exhibition were in fact looking past it, at the place where it was held. (Disclaimer: I went as part of a tourist group myself.)
However, according to Diptyk the harem area of the Palace was opened for the first time: “il n’est visible que grâce à la biennale”. So the tourism and the biennale were interacting and expanding each other.