Daze or Malaise?

Louise Roesen Abildgaard, curator and MACAAL director Meriem Berrada, educator Yassir Yarji, and curator Janine Gaëlle Dieudji.

ARRIVING IN THE FORMER (INTERMITTENT) IMPERIAL CAPITAL OF MARRAKESH after a few days in Casablanca—Morocco’s economic powerhouse during the French Mandate—was a shock. Though only two and a half hours apart, the two cities could not feel more different: the latter’s wide tram-lined boulevards and somewhat laid-back architectural modernism in glistening Mediterranean white shifted to the earthy reds of Marrakesh’s buildings, old and new; its continental climate with swooping temperatures; and, above all, its overwhelming hypersaturation of tourists. After arriving at Jemaa el-Fna square with my luggage, as well as with a flawed idea of the whereabouts of my riad, I spent the next hour fleeing at least a dozen unwanted solicitations from local young men who insisted on helping me find my destination.

Once unburdened by my bags, I soothed my worked up nerves by moving an obligatory pilgrimage to the famed Jardin Majorelle up on my schedule. The villa and its expansive grounds had been built for Jacques Majorelle, a middling Orientalist painter, who took up residence in Morocco upon the invitation of the Mandate authorities. In 1980 it became the third Marrakesh home of the power couple Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. Painting the villa a dark electric blue—think International Klein Blue but with less of a purple tinge—had been part of Majorelle’s original design, but the gardens, with its boisterously diverse, soulful-looking cacti and forbiddingly straight sightlines over water ponds, were re-conceived by the landscape architect Madison Cox upon Saint Laurent and Bergé’s arrival.

Villa Oasis, the former home of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, as seen through the landscape designed by Madison Cox.

Though ready to slip into bed with a newly bought copy of Bergé’s Lettres to Yves, I resolved to take advantage of my proximity to the hip Guéliz neighborhood, where the majority of the city’s galleries are concentrated. At SINIYA28, a band of self-taught, Essaouira-based artists presented formally condensed supernatural visions (particularly impressive was Ali Maimoun’s entangled anthropomorphizing blobs executed in acrylic and sawdust), while the exhibition at Galerie 127 largely traced Carolle Bénitah’s use of red thread over the years. A standout work, The Magic Books, 2012, is a riposte to Marcel Broodthaers’s Pense-Bête, 1964, and features self-help books trapped in cocoons of shiny red yarn.

An old world atmosphere seeped through all three Art Deco floors of the recently established art center Comptoir des Mines with the exception of a small but packed group show curated by Hassan Hajjaj: all eight solo shows that constituted the Comptoir des Mines’s “Poésies Africaines” were by male artists and I realized much later that the gentleman who introduced himself as “Monsieur Daoudi” amidst a chilling Mohammed Kacimi mini-survey was Hicham Daoudi, the art center’s founding director, as well as the director of the Casablanca-based auction house, Compagnie Marocaine des Oeuvres et Objets d’Art (CMOOA).

By the time I managed to arrive at the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (aka MACAAL) the next morning, on the southeastern precipice of the city, the institution’s young president Othman Lazraq, heir to Lazraq/Groupe Alliances hotelier and real estate fortunes, and the curators of the exhibition “Material Insanity,” Meriem Berrada and Janine Gaëlle Dieudji, had already delivered their welcoming remarks. I was immediately drawn to Nairobi-based Cyrus Kabiru’s futuristic eyewear from salvaged objects, as they did not attempt to disguise the roughness of the raw material as a fashionable act of “upcycling.” When I asked about his relation to fashion design, Kabiru admitted to being intimidated by the rate at which fashion devours innovation, and added: “I just feel safe in the gallery.”

Artist Arlene Wandera with Centrestage, 2016.

Upstairs, Arlene Wandera furnished me with the backstory of her golden, half-open tin can suggestively whispering descriptions of extinct pineapple species (Centrepiece, 2016), and I excitedly reciprocated by pointing out the pineapple reference in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. On the same floor, Younes Baba-Ali showed documentation of his performance Without Negotiation, 2018, in which he bought something, anything, from street vendors in Dakar without exiting his car or asking for a better price. Since I already felt I was constantly being ripped off in Marrakesh with everything from taxi fares to babouches, I was captivated by Baba-Ali’s Zen attitude and his conscious decision not to bargain, rather than the world of objects that rushed in through his car window—including “Europe” chewing gums, generic Viagra, and a Muslim prayer book for young girls.

Lunch was served at the nearby Al Maaden Golf Resort restaurant, which also belongs to the Lazraq family. After sharing notes on the intricate legal frameworks (or lack thereof) for alcohol consumption across the Middle East and North Africa with some of the artists of the exhibition, I had to peel myself away from the tagine-and-vin gris bliss in order to take a caddy tour of the large-scale sculptures scattered throughout the golf courses. It occurred to me that my take on MACAAL’s sixth group show and the golf resort-cum-sculpture park were pretty much the same: The works themselves often felt like islands and I had no idea why they were there together, but there were still moments of self-evident brilliance, as in when we spotted Antonio Seguí’s gigantic pop caricature of a golfista. As for MACAAL, it was a relief to see a museum of African contemporary art embrace being a platform for younger and/or less widely circulating perspectives in Africa—works by Adrian Piper, Nari Ward, and the unavoidable Hassan Hajjaj were more the exception than the norm.

I also briefly dipped my feet in the second Marrakesh edition of the 1-54 fair that day, which was accompanied by a Karima Boudou-curated public program, the 1-54 Forum. This year the main inspiration for the forum was the Afro-Surrealist beatnik Ted Joans. After a brief look around, I hastened towards the École Superiéure des Arts Visuels de Marrakech (ESAV) in the early evening to catch archival videos of the artist performing his poems, including a reading on the occasion of a posthumous Jean-Michel Basquiat show at New York’s Tony Shafrazi Gallery. One culminated with a sonorous “JMB LIVES!”

Art historian Joanna Pawlik and curator of 1-54 Forum Karima Boudou.

There was more in store at La Mamounia (the landmark luxury hotel hosting the fair) the following day: Joanna Pawlik of the University of Sussex delivered an eye-opening lecture about the little that remains of Joans’ visual art, unpacking his appropriation of then-emerging “hipster” culture of the 1960s. Although he occasionally lived in Morocco during his lifetime, I wondered if Joans would be as bothered as I was with La Mamounia’s employment of exclusively darker-skinned men as doormen (in Morocco, this seemed to be a trend) and dressing them in red Mandate-era cape uniforms.

In the end, it took me a little less than two hours to carefully go through eighteen booths at the fair. Casablanca heavyweights Loft Art Gallery and L’Atelier 21 (which also took over Comptoir des Mines’s hangar-like annex for a solo show of Yamou) were both present, with the latter entirely focusing on drawings—most notably Leipzig-based Nabil El Makhloufi’s minimal, white-on-black pencil drawings of men engaged in an unknown ceremony (The ritual, 2018). Armand Boua and Yéanzi at the Abidjan- and Dakar-based Galerie Cécil Fakhoury, on the other hand, concentrated on updating and reinventing the legacy of art brut. Yossi Milo Gallery’s booth (Pieter Hugo, Kyle Meyer, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, and Sanlé Sory) offered a tight photographic presentation themed around self-fashioning, and Copenhagen-based Mikael Andersen was showing timely and subtle juxtapositions of the work of three Mancobas (Sonja Ferlov, Ernest, and Wonga).

Galerie Poggi’s Jérôme Poggi and Éleonore Levai with Djamel Tatah’s Untitled, 2016.

Galerie Poggi made the biggest impression of all with one of the two solo booths of the fair, devoted to Parisian Djamel Tatah. Surrounded by Tatah’s depictions of blasé, ghost-like Casablanca youth against matte monochromatic backgrounds, a wave of malaise—à la Anne Imhof—washed over me. “If you take out the figure, you also get a Brice Marden!” joked Jérôme Poggi, gesturing at the only one featuring a bank against an egg yolk backdrop. I remembered I had still not seen the Marden show at Musée Yves Saint Laurent.

But honestly, what I really needed was one last glimpse of Jardin Majorelle, next door from the Musée. I recalled how the most overpowering site at the villa was the most understated: Tucked away in a quiet corner, a broken fluted column, spoliated from a beach in Tangiers, memorialized the couple with shattering simplicity (in a country where homosexuality is still punishable by law). This gesture by Cox—the current president of Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, as well as Bergé’s husband before his death—remains as much a poetic gesture as an expression of camaraderie, love, and solidarity in a world tired of labels.

The memorial designed by Madison Cox for Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.

Artist Cyrus Kabiru with one of his “c-stunners."

Artist Younes Baba-Ali.

View of the Hassan Hajjaj installation at MACAAL.

Artist Mehdi-Georges Lahlou.

Wang Keping’s Totem at Al Maaden Sculpture Park.

Yazid Oulab’s Urban Mountain, 2012, at Al Maaden Sculpture Park.

Antonio Seguí’s Golfista, 2013, at Al Maaden Sculpture Park.

Writer Ayodeji Rotinwa.

Dealer Toby Clarke with a drawing by Ibrahim El-Salahi.

Bertel Bjerre and Mikael Andersen of Galerie Mikael Andersen.

Marrakesh’s École Supérieur des Arts Visuels (ESAV).

Dealer Antoine Laurent of In Situ—Fabienne Leclerc with Meschac Gaba’s Wright Brothers, 2010-11.

Galerie Cécil Fakhoury’s Francis Coraboeuf in front of a painting by Yéanzi.

The entrance of the second edition of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in Marrakesh.

View from La Mamounia’s gardens.

Curators Samuel Girma and Rado Ištok.

Artist Ebony Siovhan and dealer Mounia Diwane of SINIYA28 with a work by Ali Maimoun.