Recap: “Not New Now”, The 2016 Marrakech Biennale

“Where Are We Now?” and “Not New Now”. These two phrases map the intellectual and creative parameters of the 5th and 6th editions of the Marrakech Biennale respectively – this is a festival of contemporary arts deeply rooted in the multiple temporal and spatial geographies of the city in which it takes place. There is no doubt that the city of Marrakech is a deep wellspring for such an endeavour. Geographically, it sits at the intersection of multiple historic trading and migration roads, suspended between the Atlas Mountains and the Atlantic. Temporally, the urban geography of the city is saturated with these multiple histories – the ancient medina bleeds into the new town, known as Gueliz, a legacy of the French protectorate which in turn seeps into the post-industrial sprawl on the fringes of the city.

For the city the Marrakech Biennale has come to represent what Nietzsche called a ‘sounding of the idols,’ striking it with just enough force to make these histories sing. The very sites in which the works are exhibited are a testament to this, from Palais Badia, former seat of the Saadi Kings, to Palais Bahia, commissioned by the Grand Vizier Si Moussa in 1860 to L’Blassa, an abandoned Art Deco building taken over by the Biennale.

The 5th edition, held in 2014 and curated by Hicham Khalidi, addressed the present condition of the city. Sound art featured heavily and its capillary motion wove the different aspects of the exhibition, and indeed the city, together. Among the many wonderful works commissioned by the Biennale, Cevdet Erek’s Courtyard Ornamentation with Sounding Dots stood out. As its title indicates, the installation dealt with ornamentation, so scorned in the Western tradition of modern and contemporary art and yet a central feature of Islamic art. Palais Badia, where the piece was exhibited, was stripped of all its original ornamentation when the Saadi Kings moved the administrative capital of their empire to Meknes. Experiencing the aural ornamentation of this highly produced sound in the austere palace, one felt the questions of the present moment, particularly of the status of Islam vis-à-vis the West, overlaying the history of this extraordinary building, asserting themselves with each new burst of sound.

Cevdet Erek’s Courtyard Ornamentation with Sounding Dots at the Marrakech Biennale, 2014.

If the 5th edition dealt with questions of the present, then the most recent edition, curated by Reem Fadda, reoriented these questions towards the pasts and futures of the city. This reorientation was most apparent in the delicate exhibition at the Palais Bahia. Here bold and pioneering modernist paintings by the still relatively unknown Casablanca School (Farid Belkahia, Mohammad Chabâa & Mohammed Melehi, 1956-1978) sat in conversation with the project Memory Games: Ahmed Bouanani Now curated by Omar Berrada. The artists participating in this project took their inspiration from the undiscovered archive of the Moroccan poet and filmmaker, Ahmed Bouanani. It featured a series of playful and subversive flags by Yto Barrada, three sculptural works by Sara Ouhhadou that renewed and reworked traditional Moroccan jewellery styles and techniques, and a recreation of Bouanani’s actual library where visitors could sit and leaf through his eclectic reading materials. The sense as you walked through this exhibition was that the urgency of the last edition had been harnessed and then dispersed into multiple avenues that crisscrossed and looped back upon themselves. With this edition just having drawn to a close, the question we cannot help but ask is “Where To Now?”

Untitled, Mohammed Chabâa.

Sara Ouhaddou from Memory Games: Ahmed Bouanani Now Project, 2016.

Maia Holtermann Entwistle

Maia grew up in London but, after the UK, the greatest part of her life has been spent in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa. She is interested in the intersection between visual culture, space and politics and is about to start a PhD which will focus on the relationship between popular culture and Islamism.