Living History at the 2016 Marrakech Biennale

For the sixth Marrakech Biennale, currently on view and titled “Quoi De Neuf Là”(a French expression roughly translated as “What’s up?,” but here interpreted as “Not New Now”), history is as much of a medium and subject matter as much as the Red City itself. Concentrated within Marrakech’s central historical sites of the El Bahia and El Badii palaces, Dar Si Saïd museum, Menara Pavilion, and Koutoubia Mosque and its surrounding minaret and cistern, curator Reem Fadda says she proposed an exhibition of “living art, instead of contemporary art.”

Overlapping influences and communities from the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Africa converge within “Not New Now,” where often highly political work is made with new technologies. Reason’s Oxymorons (2015), a series of video interviews by Berlin-based Kader Attia, explores the themes “Genocide,” “Totem and Fetish,” “Reason and Politics,” and “Trance”; Copenhagen collective SUPERFLEX’s film KWASSA KWASSA (2016) documents the recent history of Mayotte, an island in the Indian Ocean bordering Mozambique and Madagascar, which returned to its status as a French colony in 2014; and The Otolith Group (comprised of British artists Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun) presents its 2013 film In the Year of the Quiet Sun, an exploration of postcolonial politics traced through the lowly postage stamp. Rather than seeing these contemporary works within any form of a white cube, they are inserted into archeological sites in varying states of ruin.

Alternatively, certain installations and artworks are more historical and regional in their identity. Take for example Farid Belkahia, an artist who spent nearly his entire life in Marrakech (1934-2014). Belkahia studied and worked in Europe for several years, but eventually returned to the region, where he headed the School of Fine Art in Casablanca in the early ’60s and created abstracted pieces from rich materials resembling the Moroccan earth (wax, copper, tanned leathers), effectively replacing the European expressionists’ canvases with the organic. 

In the same vein of Belkahia, the Casablanca School follows its own thread within the Biennale, as it is considered a chapter in the region’s “global past.” Inevitably influenced by colonial-power aesthetics, this deeply rooted regional organization led to Maghreb modernism. A product of social and artistic change (Morocco became an independent state in 1956 and a group of students subsequently remodeled the school in 1964), the art produced in Morocco by Moroccan artists became a societal and political means of communication within the postcolonial establishment. Artists Mohammed Melehi and Mohammed Chabâa, whose individual exhibitions are clustered with Belkahia’s, subtly reflect a circling of artistic practices. Melehi’s series of brightly colored, graphic, shaped canvases—the result of combining American Abstract Expressionism and European mid-century artists with an interest in spirituality and poetry—stands in cheerful opposition to Belkahia’s elemental materials.

In settings so heavily adorned with traces of architectural, social, and aesthetic eras, it is with works by artists like Melehi that moments of levity and fragility dot the landscape. American artist Sam Gilliam’s ghostlike draping fabrics, steeped in soft washes and tie-dyes of pastels, paint another narrative of abstraction, while Saudi Arabian artist Dana Awartani’s delicate geometric forms are suspended by gold thread in disproportionate glass containers. South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape’s gossamer constellations employ wooden and wiry metal arms to transport bits of African soil between rooms in a tender, fragile system. Considered together, the works on view compose a biennale of living, not simply contemporary, art.