Contemporary Art in Morocco:

Everything but Sex, Religion, and the Monarchy

The tour guide’s first warning struck me as strange: “Whatever you do,” he said, “don’t photograph any of the King’s guards or his police. They are definitely off limits.” I scanned his face looking for a faint smile, some sign that this was all a joke but his jaw was set and his eyes focused sternly on the group of tourists in front of him.

How could this be? After all, this was Morocco, the gateway to Africa, the country which had weathered the turmoil of the Arab spring by modest democratic concessions from their King Mohammed VI, on the throne since 1999. Some 36 million people, 45 percent under the age of 24, living peaceably in a country that had no oil and no gas; a country where the two largest sources of income are agriculture (subject to variable rainfall and climate change) and tourism (affected by terrorism in the region).

Displayed everywhere in a prominent position is a portrait of the King Mohammed VI — in the airport in Casablanca, on government buildings in the capital city of Rabat, in the storefronts off of the winding adobe alleyways of the old medinas in Fez and Marrakesh, in the glittery lobbies of upscale hotels where tourists on bus tours are greeted by Moroccan dancers in costume and served mint tea and almond cookies.

A happy, progressive monarchy, welcoming visitors from all over the world.

Not included on most tourist itineraries, though, are contemporary art museums where figurative art is no longer taboo and where young and bold artists tackle such social and political issues as income and gender inequality, dislocation and immigration, and climate change.

On view at the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) in Marrakesh until August 15, 2019 is Material Insanity, a group show exploring the power of materiality. The exhibit contains challenging works by 34 artists including Hassan Hajjaj (Morocco), Amina Agueznay (Morocco), Ibrahim Mahama (Ghana), Frances Goodman (South Africa), Bronwyn Katz (South Africa), and Nari Ward (Jamaica-USA), whose Flower Prayer (2019), made of collected shoe laces, references an African prayer symbol that Ward first saw in an old African church in Savanah, Georgia. A major exhibit of Ward’s work was recently on view at The New Museum in New York City.

Flower Prayer by Nari Ward, 2019 (Photo by Shael Shapiro)

A private museum that belongs to the Fondation Alliances, a not-for-profit association founded in 2009 whose focus is supporting cultural development in Morocco, MACAAL is a philanthropic initiative of Moroccan art collectors Othman Lazraq and his father Alami Lazraq who had a history of 40 years of collecting. Their collection comprises over 2,000 pieces of art, the majority of the pieces in contemporary African art. Three years ago, they opened the collection to the public.

Material Insanity, their 6th exhibit, says Janine Gaelle Dieudji, who co-curated the show with Meriem Berrada, draws strength from Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: “The Medium is the Message.” While Africa is clearly the context, “these artists are artists before being African artists. The question that they are all asking here is how do they challenge the way of making art?”

Whether they made their art from such disparate mediums as jute, torn nylon stockings, bright yellow plastic, or wool, the artists in the show have put their hearts into the identity of these pieces. In Noise (2018), a sound installation, Amina Agueznay focuses on the creations of 13 female artists whose woven, beaded, braided, and crocheted visions are transformed into a collaborative room-size piece, which resembles patchwork quilts made from scraps by Southern craftswomen in the United States. The installation in the shape of a cube, hangs on four walls and is composed of 210 rectangular boxes, 50 x 50 x 25 cm. In the catalogue essay, Ghitha Triki writes that the methods in use “reveal something about the forms created. They portray the timeless rhythm of the artisan’s hands at work while suggesting an inherent memory of all the forms. They are the “voice” and breath of the wool….These methods are an invitation ‘to see” and to experience that which is beyond the tangible materiality of wool.”

Noise by Amina Agueznay, 2018 (Photo by Shael Shapiro)

The push to go beyond tangible materiality, can be found everywhere in this remarkable show. In the work of 24-year-old South African artist Bronwyn Katz who often uses worn mattresses in her installations and whose piece in this exhibit, Greenside (2018) is no exception. Here her focus is a dismantled one-person bed, a remnant of an old neighborhood that has been gentrified. We see the mattress and the pieces of wood as Katz delivers her message on the perils, the losses of social change. Four bed rails and a bedframe hang on the wall. Below them, lies the empty mattress. It is a deconstructed bed, a reminder of people with modest means who once lived there.

Greenside by Bronwyn Katz, 2018 (Photo by Shael Shapiro)

In Owanto’s installation One Thousand Voices, (2019) produced in collaboration with journalist Katya Berger, we hear audio testimonies from Female Mutilation/Cutting survivors; some speak anonymously, and others openly. Their voices, an almost monotonous undertone, are paired with Pardonne-Moi, (2019), produced in collaboration with ex-cutters in South Senegal. What is profoundly significant here is that these women have abandoned the knife for the embroidery needle. Is this, we ask ourselves, their way to ask for mercy?

Owanto (Photo by Shael Shapiro)

Outdoors, in the entry plaza to the museum, Moroccan artist Fatiha Zemmouri has installed Gravity and Grace (2019), with faux stones placed in a circle, some seemingly defying gravity. Born in Casablanca and currently living in Rabat, Zemmouri describes herself as an artist who loves touching things. When she was asked to make a work for the Material Insanity exhibit, she decided to use foam, and give it the look of stone. Two years ago, she worked with stone in the Marrakesh Biennial.

For this exhibit, since foam is a light material, she placed some on the “stones” on the ground and others on glass stands, so that they would appear to be floating in space. “I am part of that generation of artists who love working with my hands,” she said. To create the foam rocks, Zemmouri carved the foam and then, with glue and mixed stone powder of various colors, lightly covered the outside of her rocks. “They’ve been outside for two months,” she boasted, “and everything has been OK.”

Gravity and Grace by Fatiha Zemmouri, 2019 (Photo by Shael Shapiro)

Zemmouri is currently showing her art at Galerie 38 in Casablanca and she has sold pieces to museums, banks, and other institutions. She also shows with a Dutch gallery that does art fairs. “Things have definitely improved for Moroccan artists,” Zemmouri said. “The King likes art and there are many Moroccan collectors. Today, many of us can live off of our art.”

That is, of course, if their art avoids scandal. In March 2018, just as the first 1.54 Art Fair in Marrakesh closed, Morocco’s culture ministry removed a wall work by Khadija Tanana from the Tetouan Centre of Modern Art for crossing the line of sexual propriety. The piece showed a silhouette of the ‘Hand of Fatima’ — an open hand that serves as a protector against the evil eye — formed from sexually explicit illustrations taken from Karma Sutra. The government also destroyed the catalogue to the exhibition. Although the work had been previously shown in Casablanca without any incident, the ministry said that “the group of sexual positions is not in line with religious and moral precepts. For many, the scandal was a reminder, that it’s best (safest) for Moroccan artists to avoid three subjects: religion, sex, and the monarchy.

At the Comptoir Des Mines Galerie (CM Galerie) in Marrakesh, which only shows Moroccan artists, Imane Barakat gave me a tour of the space, which has been open since 2016. Comprised of two buildings, CM Galerie is owned by Art Holding Morocco, whose President Hicham Daoudi is behind many art projects in Morocco: the artist auction in Casablanca; the Marrakesh Art Fair, and Diptyk, a magazine which focuses on contemporary art.

On view in CM’s new project gallery from August to April, 2019 was Poesies Africaines (African Poetry), featuring the work of artists Mohammed Kacimi & Mustapha Akrim, Mohamed Arejdal, Youness Atbane, Hassan Bourkia, Larbi Cherkaoui, Simohammed Fettaka, and Khalil Nemmaoui. Each of them was invited to create a work about Africa from a Moroccan point-of-view.

The exhibit is deeply political: both brave and bold. Mohammed Arejdal’s piece, from South Morocco, at the door of the desert, reflects on nomadic life by creating imaginary territory from clothing that he saved. The work reminds me of a Bedouin nomad’s tent that I visited in the Sahara desert; hand woven and handstitched and able to be packed up and moved, it is, nevertheless, remarkably strong and sturdy.

A striking ceramics piece by Youness Atbane, The Undocumented Museum (Untitled Africa), recreates the map of Africa with Legos-inspired figures of three colors standing on a table, each representing one of the 54 countries in the continent. Standing outside the continent is the island of Madagascar. Standing above it are three figurines who face southward.

The Undocumented Museum (Untitled Africa) by Youness Atbane (Photo: Courtesy Comptoir Des Mines Galerie, Marrakesh)

For Atbane, working in ceramics drew upon his family’s heritage in a pottery studio in Safi, a port city known for its ceramics artists. During school holidays, Atbane sculpted his own toy figurines made of clay. It was in Safi that he discovered that a potter could become a sculptor in his free time. “My great uncle was fascinated by the body,” Atbane wrote in an email. “He reproduced Greek or Roman statues that he saw in magazines. In a very direct way, his work broke the taboos of the Muslim tradition where body sculptures were proscribed.”

Sculptor Youness Atbane at work (Photo: Courtesy Comptoir Des Mines Galerie, Marrakesh)

Piled up in the storerooms, covered with fabric “to hide them from clients,” Atbane saw damaged and unfinished bodies. It was, he said, an undocumented museum.

As an African artist who divides his time between Casablanca and Berlin and who works in both the visual arts and performance, Youness has followed the debate on the restitution of African heritage from Western museums to their countries of origin. Statues, masks, sculptures and mummified bodies are works, he wrote, intimately related to the representation of the body. “They testify to the existence of ancient civilizations, history, and cultural practices indispensable to the building and recognition of nations.

The south-oriented statues in his installation seem ready to begin their return to their original lands. But this return is disputed by some institutions who argue that Africa does not yet have structures equipped to receive them. To Atbane, such an argument embodies “cultural domination hidden under the pretext of preservation.”

Cultural reverence, if not domination, is hardly hidden in the Musee Mohammed VI d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (MMVI) In Rabat, where the main galleries were devoted to Les Couleurs De L’Impressionnisme (The Colors of Impressionism), a traveling exhibit of masterpieces from Paris’s Musee d’Orsay. Since it opened in April, over 20,000 visitors have seen the show which was opened by the King’s sister, Princess Lalla Hasna. It’s a fine exhibit, one that hues to the museum’s main mission, to expose Moroccans to masterpieces of modern art. A previous a previous blockbuster show in 2017 brought 45,000 visitors to see Face to Face with Picasso.

On view in two adjacent galleries in April were temporary shows that reveal the vibrancy and the originality of contemporary Moroccan and African art. The first, Le Sel De Ma Terre, (Salt of the Earth) is devoted to the renowned Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui who died at the age of 94 in 2018. Curated by his daughter Touria El Glaoui, the Founding Director of 1–54 Contemporary African Art Fair, the show is a homage to her father, an intimate exhibit that showcases work that people have not seen before.

Hassan, who was a close friend of the late King Hassan II, was known throughout Morocco for his paintings of horses and traditional ceremonies of the Royal Guards. Some of these works are included in the show but the MMVI exhibit also features art work that hung in his home as well as unframed objects that filled his studio. It is an attempt to recreate Hassan’s personal salon, the music that he listened to and the portraits of his wife and family that hung on his walls.

Painting by Hassan El Glaoui (Photo: Courtesy Estate Hassan El Glaoui)

There are black and white photographs of Hassan in his studios over the years, an impromptu drawing on a cigar box, a sketch book made for a cousin, and drawings of clowns from the 1980s when a circus visited Morocco. “He was always drawing on everything: on newspapers, on napkins, in his phone book,” his daughter said.

Hassan El Glaoui’s phone book with drawings (Photo by Shael Shapiro)

There is a striking early self-portrait from 1940, eyes coming at you in many different directions. Touria El Glaoui found the work in his studio a few years back and framed it. It was probably a draft, she said, but it was one of many self-portraits that he did throughout his life. Few of the self-portraits and the portraits were ever shown and none were sold, most probably because he did not wish to commercialize the personal. Several portraits are installed in Le Sel De Ma Terre including one of Christine, El Glaoui’s mother, who was her father’s muse.

Hassan El Glaoui, Self Portrait c. 1940 (Photo: Courtesy Estate Hassan El Glaoui)
Christine: Hassan El Glaoui’s wife and muse (Photo by Shael Shapiro)

Hassan El Glaoui’s passion for figurative painting, undoubtedly influenced by his first ten years studying and living in Paris, was unique. Few Moroccan artists did portraiture, largely because there was “this thing about representation and Islam,” Touria El Glaoui said. “Somewhere in the Koran, it said that you were not to represent the Prophet. From that grew the idea that you were not to represent another human being.” When she visited the Islamic Museum of Art in Qatar, Touria discovered that the legend did not come from anything real. “There was an entire room there with some of the oldest Koran and there was a great deal of representation.”

The title for the exhibit Le Sel de ma Terre drew upon two ideas. The first was related to her family who made their fortune in salt at the end of the previous century. The second came from the poetry of the words, which were very dear and very important to her. “It was the perfect title for what I was trying to showcase.”

The exhibit is up until August 31st and currently there are no plans for it to travel, although Touria El Glaoui’s dream is to have the exhibit shown in Paris, a place her father loved.

A third exhibit on the lower level, Lumieres D’Afriques, The Lights of Africa, includes work from 54 African artists, one from each of the countries in the continent. It is the first Arabic stop on the exhibit’s tour, said Kholoud Berrahaoui, a curator in training, who boasted proudly, “You will see, we don’t need Europeans to show us art.”

Conceived of by the African Artists for Development (AAD), Lumieres d’Afriques opened in Paris in 2015, subsequently traveling to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, Dakar, Senegal, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Darmstadt, Germany before opening in Rabat in April, 2019. Contributing artists were asked to create an artwork that focused on light, a piece that illuminated how energy, especially electricity, is essential for progress in Africa. In addition to producing original art, artists were asked to document their art-making process and to visit schools, and the AAD published various educational booklets for host countries.

Artistic responses to the AAD’s invitation were diverse and bold: Nyaba Ouedraogo’s (Burkina Faso) entry, a photograph of three people sitting on a wooden bench, watching sports on television. The field on the screen is bright green: their clothing is colorful — Red with red and white polka dots, white, yellow with green. We are watching them watching. Although the shot is from the back, and we cannot see their faces, we know that this is a happy moment.

Nyaba Ouedraogo (Photo: Courtesy Musee Mohammed VI)

Artist Napalo Mroivili (Comoros) seems to have taken the charge to focus on energy literally. He has painted a broken electric light bulb transformed into a kerosene lamp, set against a black backdrop and framed in an intricate white lace design on red. The elaborate, elegant frame is one that might traditionally surround a beloved ancestor. Here, it reminds us that there are always solutions, albeit old ones, in the face of adversity. Emeka Okereke’s photograph Light Switch provides a realistic counterpoint to Mroivili’s framed light bulb. In Okereke’s photograph, we see his little sister looking upward at an electric outlet and wires connected to a fuse box that provides electricity to the neighborhood. It is a familiar tangle of wires, one that dangles everywhere on streets and in homes in his native Nigeria where blackouts are frequent and where access to electricity is difficult.

Napalo Mroivili (Photo: Courtesy Musee Mohammed VI)
Lightswitch by Emeka Okereke (Photo: Courtesy Musee Mohammed VI)

Two conceptual pieces by Cyrus Kabiru ((Kenya) and Steve Bandoma (Democratic Republic of Congo) speak to the power and, potentially, the predicament of being wired. Kabiru has created a bicycle sculpture with various appendages, some of them electronic: in addition to a strainer, a fork, and box from Pelikan fixer spray, there is a small speaker cone and eight transistors hanging from the frame. By assembling found objects to create a windmill, Kabiru says he has created a “solution to the problems of Africa, a way to move forward.” Three of Kabiru’s Macho Nne series are in the Material Insanity exhibit, as well.

Cyrus Kabiru (Photo by Shael Shapiro)

Steve Bandoma’s nude male tribal figure from his Lost Tribe Series is wired, too. In one hand: a screen with the logo for Facebook, Attached to his chest computer chips, his feet, attached to a computer mouse. Who is this man? Bandoma asks, and what is his future? Bandoma’s thesis: modernity is definitely not synonymous with the suppression of the traditional.

Steve Bandoma from Lost Tribe Series (Photo by Shael Shapiro)

Least literal in her interpretation of the exhibit’s theme is Algerian artist Amina Zoubir, who in thinking of light, turns to Voltaire and the Enlightenment, Le doubte est desagreable mais la certitude est ridiculte (Doubt is unpleasant but certainty is ridiculous). Hammering nails into a square of white wax, using Arabic calligraphy, Zoubir appropriates the philosopher’s message. At the 2015 opening of the show, she explained her work: “Why wax? Because it reminds me of load-shedding. We all have a candle at home ready for power cuts. Candles are the first source of light and probably the most economical, because a candle stays alight for hours. An idea is always illuminating.”

Amina Zoubir (Photo: Courtesy Musee Mommad VI)

In a passage in French describing her work, the curators write that the piece “deals with the role played by the philosophy of the enlightenment in the separation of religion and politics.” To Zoubir, “Light is now the stimulus of the human spirit.”

It’s an inspiring and challenging finale to the Lumieres exhibit; words that resonate with contemporary Moroccan/African art, both a nod to the past and a poke at the future.

An arts and culture journalist for Guernica, Huff Post, Tablet, etc, Roslyn Bernstein’s books include Engaging Art, Illegal Living, and Boardwalk Stories.

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