Hina Mahmood
Last updated: 29 March, 2012

The Marrakech Biennale: With changing times come changing perspectives

“…it is not surprising that the boldness of this exhibition has been met with both enthusiasm and curiosity,” writes Hina Mahmood as she explores the success of the Marrakech Biennale.

Last year was a tumultuous year for many countries in the Middle East with hundreds of protesters demanding change – not just political, social, and economic – but also a change in perspective – one that broke from traditional thinking, allowed for bold ideas, and encouraged innovative approaches. It is fitting that in this context, the Higher Atlas Marrakech Biennale, featuring contemporary art far different from the traditional craftsmanship of the country, aroused the curiosity of the local population, bringing over 4000 people to its opening on February 29th.

There was plenty to be curious about. The biennale, displayed works from international artists, in the context of five much more traditional Moroccan settings – the cisterns (or cellars), beneath the ruins of the former Koutoubia mosque’s foundations, were transformed into a fascinating exhibition as was the Theatre Royale – an abandoned opera house that was cleaned up to display over 30 installations.

Carson Chan, one of the curators of the exhibition, was delighted by the response he received from Moroccans, “People are just really curious and find it fascinating to see work like this. We have, for example, a really large sculpture about 10m long in the (Theatre) Royale by Alex Schweder La and Khadija Carroll La. A large scale structure you could experience by just stepping on it was a new experience.  Its been amazing to see the reaction and see people take the time to look at things.”

Chan has been criticized by some for not focusing on post colonialism or featuring the Arab Spring prominently in his exhibition. He openly admits that he is not an expert on the region and that his goal was to hold a good exhibition that would provide Moroccans with access to contemporary art and ideas from around the world in a country which does not have a large contemporary art scene.

Had the Biennale creators wanted the focus to be on regional artists, it is far more likely they would have chosen a curator from the region. Chan was impressed by the rich culture in Morocco and credited the locals with being able to address issues themselves. He felt that it would be counterproductive to have a curator from Berlin try to do this in the form of an exhibition.

“A lot of international press didn’t pick up on this nuance and saw it as a problem of the exhibition that we didn’t address the Arab Spring,” said Chan. “Doing a large scale art exhibition during a perceived instability in the government is a reaction already. To say that we are investing and we want to promote a cultural life in Morocco during this time and to bring other news stories to it – I think that’s our response already.”

His goal was to create an experience for the audience – to use art to bring people together in a public venue but create a very personalized experience. The exhibition was created to focus on this experience and communication rather than other factors such as the nationality of the artist unless it was relevant to the work. Chan pushed this fact by deliberately excluding names of the artists next to the works so he could foreground the experience of the artwork rather than the biography of the artists.

Alia Radman, a filmmaker and photographer had a surreal and very personal experience with an installation. “One of the pieces that was very special for me was the house by Ethan Hayes-Shute. I was amazed because this is where I live in the US, where my parents were based and I didn’t know him before,” she said. “You walk into this house and you feel the character of that house. It was crazy for me because I actually go into houses like that and I know what its like. To bring that experience to Morocco where people can walk into an experience that is part of my life is amazing and an artist put that there.”

Though the focus of the exhibition was on the art experience, the Moroccan context was prominent in some of the work on display. Leung Chi Wo, an artist from Hong Kong, dealt with Moroccans living in his city and used the political shift that he experienced when Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony to react to changes in Morocco’s environment. Hadley+Maxwell, two Canadian artists, created a large scale work in theater, that used lamps crafted by Moroccan artists as well as songs by local singers to reflect on the Marrakech context. Jon Nash, a young artist from London, used YouTube to explore and work with youth and identity and the project coordinator Alia Radman gave a group of students from the Cadi Ayyad University, in Marrakech, the opportunity to create short films to document the event.

Youssef Meziani, a student of cinema and visual arts at Cadi Ayyad University enjoyed his experience as cameraman and editor for the Biennale TV Project. “The great thing is that we made a lot of friends, contacts with artists, and with other students we didn’t know,” he said. “It is not a thing that we usually see in Morocco. Many people are not that interested in art so this kind of event proved to people that they have this artistic part in them.”

Tariq Abassor, also a student of Cadi Ayyad University, enjoyed the Biennale TV Project as well. “I had the opportunity to meet a lot of people and see what foreign artists did,” he said. “It was a new thing in Marrakesh and the first time that I saw an event like this. It was a very interesting experience. I was surprised to see people in Morocco visit this space. I think they liked it because I saw some people who went and saw what the artists did and they came back with their family and friends.”

Alongside the main Higher Atlas exhibition there were 15 parallel programs and talks that gave local artists the opportunity to participate in the Biennale. Artist  Younes Rahmoun, architect Abderrahim Kassoua, artist Hassan Darsi,  and historian Aziz Daki, were just a few of the Moroccan artists featured. There were talks that addressed political changes and forms of art such as one given by WJT Mitchell, an image specialist, who spoke about images that originated in the Arab spring and the ramifications they have on society.

The 4th Marrakech Biennale has been cleverly arranged. For Moroccans, it provides a flavor of international contemporary work, a completely new, and for many, very exciting experience. On the other hand, foreigners and Moroccans seeking a bit of local flavor, had the opportunity to attend a number of parallel programs that brought together some of the critical minds of the Moroccan art scene. As the Marrakech Biennale gains prominence it could also serve to attract more tourists helping the economy and encouraging greater investment in art. The exposure of students and local artists to prominent international artists will also serve as an important foundation for building relationships that could potentially lead to external collaborations in the future.

Though Marrakech is a long way from the global art trek of New York, London, and Berlin, the opportunity for its residents to experience international art within the context of buildings in their own city, is both unique and invaluable. In an environment where Moroccans are welcoming a change in political perspective and a break from tradition, it is not surprising that the boldness of this exhibition has been met with both enthusiasm and curiosity.

Higher Atlas: Marrakech Biennale 4, curated by Carson Chan and Nadim Samman, is on view until June 3rd, 2012