Alexander Forbes
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Alexander Forbes' Berlin Art Brief

Following up with the Marrakech Biennial

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Last fall I spoke to Marrakech Biennale curator, Carson Chan, about the Arab Spring’s influence on the highly anticipated exhibition. Ahead of last weekend’s opening, which saw a wide swath of Berliners decamping for Morocco, I caught up with Chan again as well as Moroccan art specialist Alya Sebti to get an update on the progress. The biennale runs until June 3.
At first, it was kind of tragic that you lost El Badi Palace, but has it turned out to be a happy accident?

AS : I wouldn’t consider it as tragic since the reason of the loss of the Badi Palaci is a good sign of awareness by local authorities: We couldn’t use El Badi Palace because the cultural patrimony has decided to do a massive work of restoration and rehabilitation in the main touristic venues of Marrakech – including the Bahia which hosted the previous Biennale. Of course the timing is not the best for this years Biennale but we have to be patient and consider it as a long term effort in collaboration with many other persons whose aim is to present Marrakech as a main cultural center.

Besides, those new venues are a great opportunity to help visitors and residents discover new spaces by exhibiting in hidden or forgotten spaces, aside from the major touristic sites. We want to create a surprise, by exhibiting in unexpected spaces.

CC: Our new main site, the Theatre Royal, also provides a pretty spectacular architectural setting. If the biennial is not site specific, it is definitely context specific. Working in Marrakech is not the same linear process that one might find in Europe or North America, and it was this dynamic, changing context that was so exciting to us in the first place.

Carson, you spoke about Abstract Expressionism’s heavy influence on art in Morocco since the end of colonial rule, but with this promotion of Marrakech as a cultural capital, has there been a significant influx of more contemporary practices?

CC : I would nuance that statement to say that it was Abstract Expressionist painting that had a heavy influence on the art scene in mid-century Morocco. Painting has definitely developed independent of international movements, most famously with painters like Chaïbia Talal, who painted through her own evolution, but painted nonetheless. Painting is still the dominant mode of art here, but all other forms are also well represented. There are of course Moroccan artists living abroad, by and large, have been much more embracing of non-painting forms.

Alya, as a specialist in Moroccan Art, what do you see as the major issues, both facing art-making in Morocco and North Africa at large and being reflected on by artists themselves?

AS: Artists from Morocco and North Africa in general are facing several issues. One of the most urgent ones is the lack of museums and strong public art centers to support them. Due to this fact, the artists are mostly driven by private initiatives and the art market.

The boom of Maghreb and Middle Eastern contemporary art and the spotlight on the artists from North Africa is a good opportunity for them but they sometimes feel “confined” in a vicious circle enhanced by the art market: it is hard for the artists to experiment new ways of expression once his/her work is massively bought by collectors.

Fortunately this situation is evolving, for instance a few weeks ago the national foundation  of museums has been created, as well as other initiatives like l’Institut Français and the Goethe Institute who have always done a great effort to support artists.

On the other hand, there are new non-commercial private initiatives supporting artists, such as the artist residence Dar Al Mamun, created one year ago in Marrakech.

The Marrakech Biennale is another great opportunity to give those artists a better visibility besides market driven mainstream, not only through the main exhibition but also through several parallel projects that support local contemporary art associations, young curators as well as confirmed ones. We want to create a dialogue among them and a wide public, with free access to the visual art exhibitions.

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