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Review: Looking Back on the Marrakech Biennale
August 15, 2013
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The announcement of the 5th edition of the Marrakech Biennale, to be launched in February 2014, presents a loose formulation of the principal preoccupations put forth by the five curators. Structured around the theme “Where Are We Now?,” the Biennale is said to “focus on the geographical connections that underlie the immediate temporality,” examining the intersection of two aspects, “urgency” and “geography.” This review takes a look back at the 4th edition of the Biennale to consider how it has previously considered, or failed to account for, its own geographical context.

Spearheaded by its President, Vanessa Branson (sister of Virgin mogul Richard), with assistance from the likes of United Kingdom Cabinet advisor, Public Relations man, and former Barclays Bank executive James Howell, the Biennale has managed to secure a level of unprecedented celebrity glitz in North Africa’s arts events.

Despite the wealth of it supporters, the Marrakech Biennale hasn’t been the sleek forum one would expect of, say, Hoor Al Qasimi’s Sharjah Biennale. Indeed, its modes of presentation are more similar to the DIY aesthetic of North African sister nation Egypt, whose various biennial art festivals boast a more haphazard aesthetic, characterized by poor exhibition panels and installation techniques.

The 4th Marrakech Biennale’s main exhibition largely took place at the Théâtre Royal, a semi-converted, maze-like theatre, and a twenty-minute walk from the city’s old Medina; the venue will also host the main exhibition of the 5th edition. Although the building’s façade has had much of its ornate qualities restored, its interior boasts an unfinished industrial sensibility. Upon entry, the elaborate characteristics of the site dissolve as they become devoured by the intensity of overwhelming and abrasive concrete walls – walls that arguably were not designed for exhibiting contemporary art. Artist videos most notably suffered within this exhibition context, but to critique the architecture of the venue alone would be a futile means of rationalizing the curatorial parameters of the 4th Marrakech Biennale.

The Biennale bore two titles. The first five days of public events were helplessly named Surrender and the visual arts program, ostensibly the crux of the Biennale, was titled Higher Atlas. The latter was described as “a reverie and transcendence … a cartography of the beyond.” The allegorical statement seemed to function as a contradiction – was this an exhibition about bringing the “outside” in? Was the function of Higher Atlas to bring international art into Morocco, or was it to operate as a showcase of site-specific cultural production in the country? And if so, was Marrakech indeed “the beyond” that these two curators, Nadim Sammam and Carson Chan, were referring to?

A cursory look at the artists who took part in the show reveals little. Of the 37 artists, only two were from Morocco, and only one of the two produced new work. Younes Baba-Ali developed a new commission, entitled Ending your life under the sun (2012), which consisted of a wooden coffin that enclosed a tanning bed complete with UV lighting. The artist’s description, available only upon request to the press, states that the piece is about the migratory flux of Western individuals to the southern hemisphere. A literal reading might suggest that this piece was more about the harms of fake tanning than any allegorical consideration of migratory movements.

Elsewhere, in an uncomfortable corner under a staircase, laid the esteemed Moroccan artist Hassan Darsi’s video work from 2009, L’Homme qui court, a performance video, which finds a single individual (Darsi) running around the Half Moon Residential Complex construction site, 25 kilometers south of Casablanca. The decision to include the noted Morrocan artist was an important one, but one that begged many more questions about the curatorial impetus behind the show. Why was Darsi not presenting a new work? Where were the other Moroccan, North African, sub-Saharan, and Central Asian artists to be found in this Biennale?

Instead, the curators presented works by a plethora of virtually unknown European and American artists, many of whom produced work that seemed to exacerbate the “alien” context in which they were working. One example that could be made is a tame performance by Matthew Stone and Phoebe Collings-James entitled Ordinary Life (2012). Taking place in a Marrakech hammam, the performance saw participants sweating while listening to music. In contrast to the performers and their exoticising approach, Katia Kameli, a French-Algerian artist, presented a stunning video called The Storyteller (2012). The Storyteller finds Kameli scoping out a hakawati from Marrakech’s Djemaa El Fna Square and films him as he retells the plot of a Bollywood movie within the Théâtre Royal. Suspended from one of the theatre’s epic balconies, Kameli’s installation could only be viewed from the other end of the theatre. The distancing of the artwork and its audience could be used as an allegory through which to consider the Biennale as a whole. Filled with ambitious scope, energy, and potential, the Biennale too often failed because of the scope of its ambition. Simple things such as information panels and interpretation text, for example, were not to be found within the exhibition venues.

But perhaps the most curious issue was the disavowal of the local context in which the Biennale was operating. While the literature program of talks provided some rich arenas for debate, presenting leading North African cultural figures, the visual arts program seemed to exist in opposition to this ethos. This seems at odds with the manner in which the international arts community has been operating in recent times. A look at three significant international exhibitions from 2012 – La Triennale in Paris, dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, and the New Museum Triennial The Ungovernables in New York, for instance – reveals a very different picture. Here, the under-represented artists in post-colonial nations of Africa and Central Asia are given the opportunity to exhibit new and recent commissions that explore the complexities and contradictions of presenting culturally specific work within a competing global context. Hassan Khan, Iman Issa, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Etel Adnan, Tarek Atoui, and Ala Younis are but a few examples of the artists to work in these contexts.

Still, the audience for the Marrakech Biennale has cause for optimism. Its ethos – free art for everyone in the center of Marrakech – is a noble and rare one in North Africa, where issues of access prevent many from enjoying regional cultural production. Esteem is warranted to its international supporters who have generously supported the visual arts, one of the more sidelined forms of North African culture, at a time when very few locally have been willing to do so. The title of 5th edition – “Where Are We Now?” – signals that the curators acknowledge the shortcomings of the dislocated curatorial approach of last year’s Biennale and augurs a more studied consideration of context.

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Alexander Ponomarev, Agravitation, 2012, installation. All photographs by Alia Radman and Raimar Weinskowski. Courtesy of Marrakech Bienniale.
Hadley + Maxwell, Skies of the Heart, 2012, installation in Théâtre Royal.
Faouzi Laatiris, Rosace No. 2, 2012, installation.
Jürgen Mayer H., Satellight, 2012, installation.
  
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