A cryptic, James Bond-style title announces the retrospective nature of the sixth and latest Marrakech Biennale (MB6). Not New Now, rather loosely translated into French as Quoi de neuf La?, a hard-to-pin-down phrase but ably interpreted by Palestinian curator Reem Fadda, as the relentless quest for novelty – something that she deprecates and wants to avoid.
Pinpointing the restless seeking for something different that marks every biennial, each in turn vying to be ahead of the game, she is looking for a way out. “We all chase the new, ” she says. “How do we surpass the cultural orientation towards newness?”
The route out of this cul-de-sac, chosen by MB6, is to offer a wealth of art by a deceased, Moroccan artist in the form of re-imagined and refashioned work by artists a generation younger than the originator, and to re-introduce the ideas of the founder pioneers of the Moroccan modern art scene.
Both elements are explored in two main venues, the Palais Badii and the Palais Bahia, the former amounting to little more than crumbling ruins. However two difficulties face a curator using these locations. The first is the ban on attaching signs or captions to walls or structures. The second is even more intractable – picturesque, eye catching surroundings.
The background of snow-capped Atlas mountains steal the show from the outdoor art; while the sheer wealth of geometric and arabesque detail within the Palais Bahia festooning walls, doors, archways and ceilings sets the bar high for getting a work to stand out.
South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape says she was overawed by the elaborate decoration, including ornate tile and plaster work of the Palais Bahia. Work can easily be swallowed up amid the plethora of patterns. Her humourously entitled The Name Of Which Escapes Me Now, gets lost.
Other artists’ works rise to the challenge. Eric van Hove, a Belgian artist, born in Algeria, shows a replica of a powerful Caterpillar engine made by over 40 Moroccan artisans out of 295 parts using 46 different materials including mother-of-pearl, leather, wood, copper, recycled steel, ceramic, camel bone and plasterwork; each material carefully selected for the beauty of its appearance, its texture relating to its role in the functioning of the engine.
“I’ve been interested in these bulldozer engines for some time,” he says. “The D9T in particular because it’s a civilian engine, made for construction, but it’s been armour plated and used widely in warfare.” Eric cites war zones such as Vietnam and Iraq. The replica is cosmopolitan, with craftsmen coming from Indonesia to work on the piece and materials being brought from as far away as Congo and Brazil. Visitors draw near to scrutinise the engine’s carefully crafted detail.
Nearby in equally decorative rooms more than ten, 1960s-style, acid-coloured paintings and flowing beaten-copper pieces by a trio of artists collectively known as the Casablanca group hold their own perhaps because of the confidence of their message.
Showing these artists who were at their peak in the 1960s and 1970s follows the current trend at international exhibitions for retrospectives of modernist Arab pioneers, recent examples were seen at the Biennales of Venice and Sharjah in 2015 and at Jeddah’s 21,39 in 2014 and 2015.
“These men shaped Moroccan art, ” says Amine Kabbaj, Executive Director of MB6 . “They are icons for today’s generation of artists. They changed the direction of Moroccan art by elevating the status of craft and incorporating it into their works.” Farid Belkahia ran the School of Fine Art in Casablanca and his work is viewed as a ideological critique of Western cultural imperialism.
Joining forces with Mohammed Melehi and Mohamed Chabaa, leading intellectual artists of their time, the three sought to establish a national postcolonial cultural identity, teaching at the art school in Casablanca, showing their art in Marrakech’s main square in 1969 and investing art temporarily with a power that could not be constrained by designated art spaces.
They are known by the same name, The Casablanca Group, as the short-lived, but influential movement of newly independent African states, such as Ghana, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Mali, that eventually evolved into the Organisation of African Unity; the intellectual and ideological underpinnings of which can still be appreciated each summer at the art festival in Asilah, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast.
In an adjoining area of the Palace, directly influenced by deceased, Moroccan polymath Ahmed Bouanani, Moroccan artists reinterpret aspects of the treasure trove of his translations of folklore, jewellery design, film scripts, novels and history books – the vast majority of which only surfaced after his death.
Sara Ouhaddou has local draftsmen use ancestral, manual techniques to recompose Bouanani’s sketches and manuscripts of Amazigh jewellery dovetailing these with tales and characters from popular stories. The resulting works bridge installation, body adornment and decorative symbols narrating oral tales written down and illustrated by Bouanani.
Yto Barrada transforms Bouanani’s unpublished French translations of the 16th century Sufi mystic The Majdoub’s poetic motifs and mottos in Applique Majdoub Flag. She sticks her pin into Morocco’s collective memory, bringing together The Majdoub’s proverbs, weaving – with its connotations of feminine wiles – and bourgeois home fabric, crafting them into rough, handmade banners with her subversive stitches.
The huge outside area of the Palais Badii does not overwhelm the immense, articulated, bottle top hanging by veteran Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, draped over the tallest stone remains. Equally at home in a monumental setting Moroccan artist Fatiha Zemmouri amusingly jams a massive, meteorite-like rock between two walls cleverly placed in the middle of a long narrow passageway.
Saudi Arabia’s leading artist, Ahmed Mater adds another dimension to his work, Songs of Cyanosis (a reference to bluish discoloration of the skin due to inadequate oxygen and an oblique reference to his profession -a medical doctor) by showing Ottoman arches, lintels and windows salvaged from the rapid urbanisation of Mecca. He personally collects fragments discarded as modernity tramples over the history of the place, posing the question whether we should venerate or dispose of unwanted objects.
The disciplined geometric works of Dana Awartani, the other Saudi artist participating in the Biennale, creates the same sort of reaction in visitors as a ship in a bottle. How did she do that? The finely crafted three dimensional geometric shapes include Octahedron Within A Cube taken from her current Platonic Solid Duals Series combining aesthetics with traditional artisanal techniques. It’s work with a timeless feel that holds the eye.
On an emotional note the tears of Algeriian Rachid Koraïchi’s Sufi farewell to his beloved parents seem mirrored in the ripples of the body water in which the seven urns stand; while an extraordinary monument to Leila Alaoui, the young journalist killed in a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou earlier this year takes the breath away.
At times the effect resembles ice; at others a burning fire. Made of mounds of plastic garbage brought together by a committed anti-rubbish collective the shining tribute shows that free-cycling can produce the strongest of images.