Art

Tracing the Contours of Power at the Marrakech Biennale

Sam Gilliam's installation at Bahia Palace in Marrakech. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Sam Gilliam’s installation at Marrakesh’s Bahia Palace (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Editor’s note: Yesterday, we launched our first Hyperallergic Podcast, which visits Morocco for the sixth Marrakech Bienniale.

MARRAKESH — In the vaults adjacent to the city’s Koutoubia Mosque, a video by the Copenhagen-based artists’ group Superflex tells the story of migrants and refugees eager to reach Europe. However, the journey they embark on isn’t across the Mediterranean, but to one of the European Union’s most remote outposts, the French island of Mayotte, off the eastern coast of Africa. In 2009, the small territory, which was formerly part of the Comoros Islands, voted in a referendum to secede from its geographic neighbors, but it would take another five years for the territory of roughly 212,000 people to officially become an “integral territory” of the EU.

A view of Superflex's "Kwassa Kwassa" (2015) in Les Cisternes de la Koutoubia in Marrakech.
A view of Superflex’s “Kwassa Kwassa” (2015) in Les Cisternes de la Koutoubia in Marrakesh

Titled “Kwassa Kwassa” (2015), the video is the most emotionally powerful of the sixth Marrakech Biennale. Titled Not New Now, though the French and Arabic titles vary slightly in meaning, the exhibition spans five major sites in the historical royal city and incorporates the grandeur of two palaces (El Badia and Bahia), a dusty history museum in the city’s Medina district, a garden pavilion in the Ménara gardens, and vaults near the central mosque. Bucking the art biennial trend of dozens of locations spotted across a large geography, curator Reem Fadda has concentrated the majority of the works at the palatial locations, ensuring that they are easily accessible to art lovers, locals, and casual tourist alike. The Superflex work perfectly captures the tone of this biennial, which invited artists to explore new geographies and networks as barometers of economic inequality, political instability, and the power of art to connect us to the stories of others.

El Anatsui's massive work looks over the central courtyard of El Badii palace.
El Anatsui’s massive work looks over the central courtyard of El Badii palace and ceramic sculpture by Rachid Koraïchi, “La prière des absents” (2013–15).

Superflex at their best shed light on the mundane aspects of contemporary life, lifting veils to help us see the obvious. Here they focus their lens on aspiring Europeans who are dying in their quest to reach the promised land. The beauty of the slow pan in their film is overshadowed by the fact that more than 10,000 people — and possibly as many as 50,000 — have died trying to reach Mayotte. It is a number that might exceed those who have perished in the Mediterranean (the BBC reported that 3,770 died in 2015), but few people talk about this continuing tragedy.

A sculpture by Saba Innab against the walls of Badii palace.
A sculpture by Saba Innab against the walls of Badii palace

The unusual case of Mayotte’s recolonialization reflects the complexity of the new world order, which highlights illegal networks that tap the resources of the poorest populations desperate to escape their realities. The video is exquisitely shot in a god’s-eye-view perspective, which also resembles a drone’s aerial point of view. The tale follows the work of coyotes who shuttle people in white fiberglass boats. The artists conflate Greek mythology and Arab identity politics (though there were no Arabs in Lebanon in ancient times, as their story suggests) to create a legend about the birth of Europe that starkly contrasts with the paranoid and xenophobic EU of today.

Colonial legacies are at the heart of the Marrakech Bienniale, and Fadda explores the limits of decolonization. Put differently, how do you curate decolonialism? “I go back and look at a history of decolonization through the interrogation of artists that have looked at it,” Fada told Hyperallergic. “At the Pan African dreams of decolonization, at certain actions, and I’m looking at it critically because there are also failures. Where is the failure and what are we falling short at? Is it the new? Is it the call for authenticity? Are we recycling homogeneities?”

Those anxieties emerge in many of the projects of this expansive biennial, which includes some of the smartest political works since Okuwei Enwezor’s fantastic central exhibition at last year’s Venice Biennale — which took real chances and explored the limits of politics, blackness, and the culture of labor. The Marrakech Bienniale fully embraces the Global South, with only 30% of the participating artists hailing from Europe or North America, while a full third are Moroccan.

Khaled Malas' windmill in Ghouta, Syria. (photo by Yaseen al-Bushy, and courtesy the artist)
Khaled Malas’s windmill in Ghouta, Syria (photo by Yaseen al-Bushy, courtesy the artist)

The individual projects often thrive on personal geographies grafted onto global networks, whether they are routes for capital, communications, energy, or refugees. Artist and architect Khaled Malas built a windmill outside of Damascus for his biennial contribution, and it got him banned from his native Syria. Power, Malas points out, has been connected to the government’s role since Ottoman times, so it clings to these networks as symbols of strength. It’s an apt observation and it’s certainly not a coincidence that a power station, the Taqba dam, and an oil refinery appear on various Syrian pound notes alongside historic ruins and other more modern symbols of Syria.

Khaled Malas's windmill project in Syria was represented by this monolith in Marrakech.
Khaled Malas’s windmill project in Syria was represented by this monolith in Marrakesh.

For his contribution in Marrakesh, Malas created a cross-shaped monolith in the Ménara garden pavilion that stands in for his real project that we will probably never see in person. His windmill lives on as an idea (and a photograph, seen above) that is beyond our reach, but still ignites utopian ideas about freedom, power, and art’s role in political struggle.

But most of the works in the biennial don’t confront politics as directly as Malas. Ahmed Mater, who has long been investigating the implication of the massive modernization project in Mecca, saved the vintage colorful windows that used to be ubiquitous in the city and has filled a series of rooms in the basement of El Badii with them. These historic objects resemble small, colorful, abstract panels, as much part of their era as any other object. Placed here, they evoke a crypt of design, infused with the story of their previous lives; they are a tribute to a phase that feels out of sync with contemporary Saudi plans for the holy city itself.

Part of Dineo Seshee Bopape's installation at Bahia Palace.
Part of Dineo Seshee Bopape’s installation at Bahia Palace

If Mater relies on urban nostalgia as a mirror of design connected to political ambitions, Dineo Seshee Bopape, who was allotted a few rooms and small courtyards in the Bahia Palace, fills her installation with rhapsodic reflections on the popular Apartheid-era protest song, “Azania.”

The song, which has no author, takes the refrain of über-colonialist Cecil Rhodes — who boasted of a “Cape to Cairo” rail project to unite British Imperial ambitions — and turns it on its head to manufacture a pan-African message that challenges the colonial logic imposed on the continent. Decades later, “Azania” doesn’t sound as idealistic as it may have seemed when it was first born in the protests that eventually toppled one of the 20th century’s most racist regimes.

Haig Aivazian's sculptural group at El Badii Palace.
Haig Aivazian’s sculptural group at El Badii Palace (click to enlarge)

Bopape asks various African people to record themselves singing or whistling the tune and she broadcasts their contributions in the courtyard space. The song’s lyrics also influence her interest in creating universal symbols from fragments of alphabets, rituals, minerals, and manmade forms from across Africa — she even incorporates soil from all the locales mentioned in the song in her installation. In one of her most poetic gestures, Bopape decoupages images of African flowers on the walls of one grand room as a symbolic replacement for the European flowers she was forced to buy when she was just a child eager to cover her notebooks in stickers. There’s a playful aspect throughout her work even when she is grappling with serious topics. In a far corner of a courtyard, she hides tiny handmade sculptures carefully placed on the ground. The journey through the work feels deeply personal as you gravitate to those compositions or materials that speak to your own experience.

For his own artistic journey, Haig Aivazian of Lebanon probes the many meanings of “tour” with an installation that fills one of the pools of the El Badii palace with Classical, Romantic, and mathematical forms. He takes a sketch the 19th-century painter Eugene Delacroix made in Morocco — where he traveled as part of an official French delegation — and transforms it into an oversize sculpture of a hand holding a bucket handle. Politics and art, Aivazian suggests, have always been married, but the artist has rendered Delacroix as a ruin of sorts, removing the damaging power he once wielded through Orientalist ideas about history, Islam, art, and non-European civilizations.

The subjectivity that was a hallmark of the Romantics was always tied to an Imperial ambition that was projected onto the world, but here that world view is just another toppled intellectual regime, placed alongside other historic ideas like objects in a museum. Aivazian is not only interested in that past but how images today create the same skewed perceptions of the world. One of his specific influences for this project is the marketing imagery for Beirut’s new Jean Nouvel building, which wraps the outlines of the Burj Khalifa, the Petronas Towers, and other notable landmarks around the current construction site. The images offer a thin vision of being a world traveler as you circumnavigate the site, the concept of a Grand Tour reduced to parody.

The flame-like image by Mohammed Melehi has many layers of meaning.
The flame-like image by Mohammed Melehi has many layers of meaning.

Yet the focus of the Marrakech Bienniale isn’t only on the outside world, as Fadda looks locally at some of the most prominent champions of Moroccan modernity, particularly those involved in the Casablanca School of Fine Arts. An influential art school, it fostered the vibrant abstract art of Farid Belkahia, Mohammed Chabâa, and Mohammed Melehi, and proves how modernism could be embraced in non-Western cultures in new and surprising ways. This was a “contaminated” modernism that freely moved between architecture, graphic design, and painting, and even incorporated social politics. One flame-like painting by Melehi appears on a wall of the Bahia Palace as a beautiful op-art-inspired image, but reappears in a neighboring vitrine as the cover of a 1970s brochure about Palestinian liberation and solidarity. The same form accumulated layers of meaning as artists waded into the political fires that burned during that era.

Rayyane Tabet performing "Dearest Victoria" at the Menara garden pavilion.
Rayyane Tabet performing “Victoria Dearest” at the Ménara garden pavilion

There’s a kinship between artists of the Casablanca School and more contemporary artists working in non-European contexts, like Rayyane Tabet, who performed “Victoria Dearest,” a piece about his great grandfather’s work with a German archaeologist during the colonial period. As part of his legacy, Tabet’s ancestor gifted his children a large carpet under the stipulation that it be divided each generation until it disappears. You wander among the vitrines, examining maps, documents, and the faces in photographs (all often laid on fragments of the carpet itself). When the artist performs his story, revealing the meanings in each object, it all comes alive. But when he leaves the room, some of the resonance departs with him. All legacies require the ritual of remembering to sustain themselves, and they are adapted to reflect their age and political realities. During his performance, Tabet is able to breathe vitality into these objects that momentarily flutter with life.

The connection with the living arts is something Fadda has consciously incorporated into her program. In a city with few art spaces, she has adapted the biennial to the existing urban infrastructure rather than slavishly reproducing the usual frames of contemporary art. Not New Now, like Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures before it, makes the case for the future of biennials as multifaceted constellations rather than cohesive statements or declarations. The logic of neocolonialism, part of the power structures imposed by powerful nations on others, compels the forces of resistance to take diverse, sometimes amorphous forms. Even if the artist remains at the center of this struggle, the art can feel unsettling as their ideas worm through our brains to ignite new flames that may topple the forces of control and homogenization.

The following podcast talks to curator Reem Fadda and some of the artists in the biennial. Thank you to our producer Gisele Regatao, for her hard work on this project. You can listen to our podcast on Soundcloud and iTunes:

A room of sculptures and videos by Khalil Rabah.
A room of sculptures and videos by Khalil Rabah
Vintage windows from Mecca make up this installation by Ahmed Mater in the vaults of El Badii Palace.
Vintage windows from Mecca make up this installation by Ahmed Mater in the vaults of El Badii Palace.
Works by Farid Belkahia
Works by Farid Belkahia
A view of the installation by Oscar Murillo
A view of the installation by Oscar Murillo
Another aspect of Dineo Seshee Bopape's installation
Another aspect of Dineo Seshee Bopape’s installation
A work by Al Loving at the Bahia Palace.
A work by Al Loving at the Bahia Palace
Art by Dana Awartani explores mathematical concepts
Art by Dana Awartani explores mathematical concepts.
Fatiha Zemmouri, "Sheltered... From Nothing" (2016)
Fatiha Zemmouri, “Sheltered… From Nothing” (2016)
Work by Yto Barrada
Work by Yto Barrada
Sculptures by Jumana Manna riff off the forms in El Badii Palace, where they are installed.
Sculptures by Jumana Manna riff off the forms in El Badii Palace, where they are installed.

The Marrakech Biennale 6Not New Now, continues at sites around Marrakesh through May 8.

Editor’s note: The author’s lodging and travel expenses were paid for by the Marrakech Biennale.

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