ONE OF THE THINGS that makes the contemporary art scene in Morocco so difficult to grasp—and so unlike the cultural infrastructures existing elsewhere in the region—is the fact that it has no center. Casablanca is the commercial hub, Rabat the seat of government. Asilah and Essaouira host major annual festivals for art and music. Tangier lays claim to the literary imagination. Marrakech, with its eleven-year-old film festival and two-year-old art fair, is the destination of choice for an incongruous mix of jet-setting expats, holidaymakers on a budget, and riad-refurbishing fashionistas quick to follow in Yves Saint Laurent’s footsteps. Galleries tend to cluster in Casablanca and Rabat. Serious museums are nonexistent. But in the past decade, an impressive network of independent spaces and artist-led initiatives has spread throughout the country, aided by the ease of inter-city travel and an art-historical narrative that has long assimilated efforts that are ephemeral, episodic, and dispersed.
Last week, however, Marrakech made a strong case for becoming a site of convergence with the opening of the city’s fourth biennale. On Wednesday at Riad El-Fenn—biennale founder Vanessa Branson’s colorful boutique hotel, with its red leather walls, William Kentridge drawings, and Batoul S’Himi world-as-pressure-cooker sculptures—the crowd packed in for a press conference was certainly larger and more eclectic than anyone, including the organizers, could have imagined in advance. Given the high concentration of curatorial brainpower—I took a seat next to Sheena Wagstaff and Ute Meta Bauer, and ran into Frances Morris, Catherine David, Simon Njami, Rasha Salti, Jytte Jensen, and Susanne Pfeffer throughout the day—the audience’s professional experience was also jarringly disproportionate to the main exhibition’s youthful promise.
To be sure, the curators Carson Chan and Nadim Samman are smart and charming, and, however untested they may be on this level of exhibition making, they orchestrated a wonderfully tactile, at times eloquent, and thoroughly intuitive sequence of engagements with cross-disciplinary artworks made by around forty members of their generation, most of them totally unknown, and moreover, they did so under terrible budgetary and bureaucratic conditions. The curators hit the ground running a year ago and laid out an exhibition plan for “Higher Atlas” that relied solely on new works commissioned in response to a specific site. In December, they lost that venue—a sixteenth-century palace—and had to radically reroute everything to an unfinished opera house, a cistern below a mosque, a park, a village abutting a luxury hotel complex, and a former bank building on the edge of Marrakech’s main square, Djemaa El-Fna.
“Forgive our organization,” said Branson. “There are six of us. Everything is a little last-minute.” A former London dealer and the sister of Richard, Branson set up the biennial eight years ago and bankrolls it still, “as a form of redress,” to counter the Bush administration’s vilification of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 and create North Africa’s first trilingual arts extravaganza in the process. This was the first edition to call itself a biennale—past iterations were pegged as festivals, with separate strands for visual art, literature, and film. It was also the first to earn the high patronage of the king, Mohammed VI, a symbolic gesture that came late—that morning—and seemed like signal failure, given that it was his government, formed after elections in November and unprecedented constitutional reforms in July, who had booted Branson’s curators from their palace.
The venue shift was barely mentioned at Riad El-Fenn. That the reasons inconvenienced them but failed to capture their imagination may explain why Chan and Samman went to such lengths to answer questions that were never explicitly asked of them but hung heavy in the air. Why were there so few artists in the biennial from Morocco, the Maghreb, the rest of Africa and the Middle East, particularly against such a rich backdrop of revolution, contestation, and reform? Why did a supposedly trilingual art event drop Arabic at the moment it got an international profile (in a few instances where Arabic does appear, in the catalogue and on the exhibition map, the letters are embarrassingly backward, reading left to right instead of right to left)?
“The great thing about a press conference, seeing so many foreign faces, so many non-Moroccan faces, is that it emphasizes the idea that international culture can really exist and flourish in North Africa,” said Chan. “We didn’t choose artists based on their nationalities but on what they do and their ability to make firsthand encounters. We thought, why not see Marrakech as any other city?”
“We’re not flying artworks in and putting them behind walls,” added Samman. “We’ve been producing this show for two months solid with local artisans, craftsmen, and contractors”—effectively reducing Moroccan participation to the provision of manual labor. “The lead time for an event like this is never enough. To do a survey would have been light, even spurious. Who cares what a young curator from London or Berlin discovers about Moroccan art in such a short time?”
Luckily, the biennial doesn’t hinge on “Higher Atlas” alone. The biennale’s project coordinator, artist Alia Radman, worked with fifty students from Université Cadi Ayyad to create short films documenting the event, including an animation of August Sander–style portraits that leveled the field among artists, welders, security guards, carpenters, and curators. And despite a remarkable video by Katia Kameli and a beautiful quartet in the Koutoubia Cisterns, the real draw was arguably not the main exhibition at all but fifteen parallel programs and a series of talks organized throughout the week by Omar Berrada, who directs the library and translation center at Dar al-Ma’mûn, a residency program tied to the luxury Fellah Hotel eight miles outside the city.
For one thing, all of those ancillary events pulled together some of the more critical minds of the Moroccan art scene, despite murmurings that many artists were actively (if informally) boycotting the biennial. The curator Abdellah Karroum, who curated the last biennial and runs the influential art space L’Appartement 22, was in town from Rabat for “Badiya/Madina,” a performance by the artist Younès Rahmoun. The artist Yto Barrada drove down from Tangier with the filmmaker Sean Gullette for the launch of a new book (in five languages) by the Cinémathèque de Tanger, which she directs. The architect Abderrahim Kassou of Les Abbatoirs de Casablanca, the journalist and playwright Driss Ksikès of DABATEATR in Rabat, the artist Hassan Darsi of the Casablanca artists’ association La Source du Lion, and the art historian Aziz Daki of Atelier 21 all came to speak on Berrada’s panels addressing identity politics, images and the Arab Spring, and the ever-complex relationship between art and public space.
Katarzyna Pieprzak, the author of Imagined Museums: Art and Modernity in Postcolonial Morocco, batted aside some of the more pompous claims made for the biennial by Chan and Samman, and invited everyone “to think more deeply” about the terms of access, dialogue, collaboration, and exchange engendered by the event. After a terrific pair of talks by the curator Rasha Salti (on the abundance of audiovisual material being made by protesters in Syria, including stencils, posters, shadow plays, and videos of demonstrators dancing the dabke in clear view of snipers and tanks) and University of Chicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell (on revolution and counterrevolution in the context of Occupy Wall Street), the Casablanca-based art historian Holiday Powers challenged Berrada to bring the discussion back to Morocco and the yearlong protest movement known as February 20. Given the king’s patronage, she stressed, “This is not a neutral environment.”
Indeed, more than ninety people have self-immolated in Morocco since 2011, in what the newspaper Le Soir Échos rather crassly termed “Bouazizimania,” after the Tunisian street vendor whose death sparked mass protests from Morocco to Yemen last year. The reasons go beyond poverty to the persistent lack of personal freedoms. The current Moroccan regime may be image-conscious, media-savvy, and far friendlier than the last. It may portray itself as the Arab world’s democratizing exception. But it is still an authoritarian state (one of the reasons why this biennial was repeatedly compared to Sharjah, rather than Johannesburg, Bamako, or Dakar). “Refusing to gun down protesters hardly makes a government democratic,” writes the veteran journalist Ahmed Benchemsi in a recent essay on how the regime has outfoxed its opposition. “The legislative elections of November 2011 changed nothing—the king and his entourage retain absolute dominance in every field of public life.” That the tools of this regime are as financial as they are political was clearly giving some biennial attendees second thoughts about funding structures. Berrada, for his part, dodged Powers’s request by suggesting it was a time for questions rather than answers.
So. After a five-day run of exhibition openings, panel discussions, and film screenings; endless fretting about the interns; a nebulous insurrection from within the biennial itself; and an absurd social hierarchy of wristbands, meal tickets, and invitation cards, here are four such queries: Which art scene—local, regional, or international—does the biennial intend to anchor? From Ksikès, how could a perennial event ever hope to sustain a dynamic contemporary art scene in the absence of permanent institutions? From Mitchell, what if a biennial born entirely of private enterprise only serves to create an aesthetic of neoliberalism, to the detriment of contemporary art’s more emancipatory claims? And last, how likely is it that a center in Marrakech will really hold?