5th Marrakech Biennale: Contemporary art meets urban bedlam

If you think that Marrakech is not the quintessential place for a major contemporary art event synonymous with a biennale, you can think again. Mysterious, quaint and somewhat chaotic, the city will play host to the artistic surveys of “Where are we now?”, this year’s theme selected by the biennale organising committee.

The inauguration week of the 5th Marrakech Biennale, which kicked off on February 25 and running until March 31, presented a myriad of stimulating events. Highlights included a performance of Alexander Ponomarev’s Voice in the Wilderness in the Agafay desert, with at an extraordinary address-cum-system of coordinates (N31 26’ W08 10’), encompassing a corresponding metaphor of self-definition; the talks between director Stephen Frears and BBC presenter Alan Yentob, and actor Rupert Everett with novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz, freq_out’s sound installation at Theatre Royal, Jelili Atiku’s performance at Palais Badii, and an array of guided tours around the city’s mesmerising historical buildings.

This year’s biennale mediates four disciplines that reflect on the chosen theme and investigate socioeconomic and political parameters through the prism of artistic practice. The visual art and sound section, curated by Hicham Khalidi, includes 43 artists from Morocco and other countries. Site-specific artworks are featured in different venues throughout the city; the 16thcentury Palais El Badii, the Dar Si Said (Museum of Moroccan Arts) and the former Bank Al- Maghrib situated at the sensational Jemaa El Fna square, which is on Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity, to name but a few. Featuring the work of ten artists, the cinema and video section, curated by Jamal Abdennassar, focuses on the dialogue between north African contemporary art with sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East. The discipline of literature, curated by writer and playwright Driss Ksikès, absorbs 22 participants in a series of roundtables and performative lectures. Performing arts, curated by Khalid Thamer, traverse the interrelation between the traditional and the contemporary, challenging diverse environs of the city, where the two elements emerge and commingle. A parallel programme also embraces ten concurrent independent projects canvassing notions of cultural identity, society, economy and technology.

Despite its modest scale, the biennale has already grown significantly since its first edition. From a relatively limited number of participating artists and just one venue back in 2005, the event has evolved from a collection exhibition to an international and interdisciplinary multi venue affair. Inviting local artists, curators and other art professionals from outside Morocco manifests a cultural exotericism as well as the augmented need for a thought-provoking social dialogue. The Marrakech case is a paramount model of a traditional society pushing its boundaries to a great extent in order to capture the essence of contemporary presence and to navigate the art world into new horizons of coexistence.

The four-year, €560m city development project launched by King Mohammed VI this January, will transform Marrakech in terms of public transport, road systems, health and sport. Some €90m alone will be invested in culture, in a project that includes the restoration of historical buildings and whole districts. In the hope that the city will maintain its distinct idiosyncrasy, it can diversify into a fertile ground for cultural expansion and a terrain for contemporary art events.

The biennale wouldn’t be on the map of today’s world art scene if Vanessa Branson (sister of Virgin Group magnate Richard Branson) hadn’t sensed and envisaged its huge potential ten years ago, when she founded it. Alongside Andre Azoulay (honorary president), Amine Kabbaj (vice-president executive) and a management team, advisory board, artistic steering committee and other professionals and volunteers, Branson, the biennale’s president, has succeeded in initiating a distinctive platform of creativity and has ingeniously triggered the acquisition of a contemporary artistic hypostasis within the heart of Morocco and the whole of Africa.

This article wouldn’t be complete without the input of Vanessa Branson herself, whom I invited for a conversation on her protagonistic role, efforts and dreams for the biennale.

K.P.: As the founder of the Marrakech Biennale ten years ago and its president since then, you have been heavily involved in the promotion of the arts and culture in Morocco. What attracted you to this part of the world?
V.B.: Marrakech’s charms have long seduced artists. The clarity of the light, the simple lines of the architecture, strong shadows and earthy colours contrasting with the deep blue of the sky. The animated weather-beaten faces of its inhabitants, their grace and pleasure in exchanging stories and ideas. The food, full of colour and spice, the smells of the burning incense and exotic oils, the tens of thousands of artisans carving, welding and stitching behind every door: all combine to create the perfect environment for artistic dreaming. I first spent time in the city when my brother was hoping to become the first person to circumnavigate the world in a hot air balloon. He made three attempts between 1995 and 1998. On each occasion we were an enormous jolly party waiting for a week or so for the perfect weather conditions for the launch. It was a wonderful experience. I returned a few years later with a friend, we loved the place so much we spontaneously bought a beautiful ruined palace, not quite realising how big it was, this we subsequently turned into El Fenn a 26 bedroom hotel.

K.P.: This year’s subject of the 5th Marrakech Biennale is ‘Where are we now?’. Where was Marrakech 10 years ago and where is it now in the international art scene?
V.B.: Ten years ago there was very little arts infrastructure in Marrakech. There is still no art or architecture school in the town but there was a thriving group of strong painters. There were no non-commercial contemporary art galleries. The focus was very much towards heritage rather than culture. The Institut Français de Marrakech screened some interesting films and had a concert programme. Over the past ten years a number of good residency programmes have emerged, there are plans now for a contemporary art museum designed by David Chipperfield. An art fair came and went, a few artists collectives are also taking root. Some very interesting contemporary galleries are opening. There is now a private film school that also has a design school attached. There is an air of possibility for young creatives now reflected in the emergence of a vibrant design scene.

K.P.: How involved has the local population been since the 1st Edition of the Biennale and do you detect further cultural developments in the city (new galleries, art schools, peripheral institutions, etc)?
V.B.: There has been no tradition of critical discourse around the arts, very little literature on the subject in fact very little literature at all. Oral heritage has been the focus. For this reason we learnt quite early on that to engage a local audience we had to encourage their involvement both in the process of making the work and in the works themselves. We have a strong relationship with the state university and work with 40 language students. We twin the participating artists with students, both parties are immensely enriched by the experience. Rather than simply parachuting works into the town we invite each artist to make a research trip and then put forward a proposal and return to make the works in situ. This ensures maximum local participation and engages curiosity of the local population. The official curated programme of the biennale is quite small, 30 artists, a number of round tables, ten literature events, ten film and video events, some performance etc. We then form an umbrella over all our partner organisations in town, ESAV the film school, the Institut Français, Dar Al Mamoun etc. who hold their own events. On top of this we have invited organisations to come into town during the biennale with their own events. These parallel projects have been screened by our artistic steering committee. This adds up to over 450 participants taking part over the 5 weeks.

K.P.: What drives you to bring people from different disciplines together and engage them in a nexus of creative idealism?
V.B.: Nothing excites me more than groupings of creative people. The model of the salon with the exchange of ideas and the heated debates with all the potential of artistic collaborations. The Marrakech Biennale provides the perfect environment for this to happen, with its candle lit gatherings on slompy sofas going on well into the night.

K.P.: How do you see the Marrakech Biennale evolving in the years to come and how will it continue to compete with other major international art events?
V.B.: The foundations are in place for the biennale to continue to evolve into a world class event. The biennale board is strong and focused on artistic excellence. I’m confident that the model of a curated strong heart will stimulate a vibrant fringe – I see this growing ever bigger, kick-starting a truly exciting potential.