Art In Morocco: Genesis Of An Artistic Presence

Farid Zahi
Research Fellow, Art Critic
Institut Universitaire de la Recherche Scientifique Rabat, Morocco

Translated from the French by Monique Laird, Craig Laird, and Alexandra Gueydan-Turek

Texte en français

In 1963 Gaston Dhiel organized an exhibition dedicated to what he labeled “young Moroccan painting” at the famous Bab Rouah Gallery in Rabat. One year later, three Moroccan painters were included in his book on modern art. Thus was born what would come to be recognized as Moroccan modern art. At the end of the 1990s, with the generation of Gharbaoui, Cherkaoui, Belkahia, and their followers, we can speak of contemporary art as irreducibly breaking up. The discourse of these artists represents a decisive and irreversible evolution that has propelled creativity into a new universe from which unique approaches seem to appear out of nothingness.

When one considers this generation of Moroccan artists, however, one acknowledges that contemporary art in Morocco does not derive from a rupture with modern art but rather is heir to a creative hybridity of approaches and attitudes. Western taxonomies, though they may appear to be universal keys, only partially apply to peripheral experiences that require what Foucault calls “regional stories” that can probe their underlying specificities.

Oriented towards a more radical openness to the variety of expressions of today’s world, Moroccan contemporary art is born from a desire to go beyond and a will to freedom. This attitude can be observed from the 1970s to the present, reflecting the nature and purpose of art in Islamic lands—lands that have been rigidly iconoclastic for centuries. Mohamed Kacimi’s performances and installations, Farid Belkahia’s experiments with indigenous forms and materials, and Boujemäa Lakhdar’s unique experiences with popular imagination had already given us a promising opening through which to view a transcendent and liberating aesthetic.

These practices, however, have been the subject of renewed interest with the arrival of a new generation who wants to break away from painting as the plastic art par excellence, while still adhering to former aesthetic concerns. One sees this tension, for example, in mounir fatmi’s Performance when he stages the deletion of his own paintings. It is a symbolic gesture that anticipates a new adventure, entailing questions, deconstruction, and creative hybridity.

The quest for freedom of expression, a new rapport with space, attention to the richness of everyday surroundings, and the abundance of reclaimed objects confers on these new sensibilities a flavor of multifaceted exploration. With a propensity for appropriation, contemporary art as practiced by artists of this generation travels through space and time; invokes the mnemonic, the dream, and the fantasy; multiplies the interplay of elements; accumulates strange objects; and deconstructs the horizon of our expectations.

The presence of memory, of the human body, of the political and social pronouncement, is ubiquitous. Such contemporary creations question the self, childhood, and the emblematic images of awareness in order to elaborate their aesthetic vision. They explore the possibilities to highlight another reality, the everyday life in which the body is immersed. The human body is propelled as a parchment, a mutation, a machine, and finally, a space in which all forms of expression become possible. Contemporary art develops multiple imaginations; the poïesis permeates the artwork, determining its creation and reception.

Contextual and conceptual art in its contemporaneity can be seen as well through the use of ordinary objects, advanced technologies, and hybrid constructions. The dasein (“being there”) of these things, sensations, and experiences is the basis for artists who push the limits of the gaze to re-appropriate the ontological logic of the sacred (mounir fatmi and Younès Rahmoun), of the political (Hassan Darsi and Mohamed El baz) and of the body itself (Benouhoud, Zakaria Ramhani, Safaa Erruas, and Fatima Mazmouz). Indeed, the creative freedom that these artworks possess places them in direct confrontation with a reality reinvented tirelessly and a history reformulated with each new visual excursion. The quest for identity is at the core of these works, each of which focuses on staging the self and the “other.” Nevertheless, identity is conceptualized as a process and not as an immediate fact, an identity whose wounds and fragments are always reread from new points of view.

Since the beginning of the 2000s, contemporary art has enjoyed an unprecedented success in Morocco. Photographic art, in particular, is living its moment of glory. This medium is often valorized for its instantaneous nature, its direct relation to real world objects. Many artists make use of it in their installations, playing with the multiplicity of possibilities it offers and the diversity of significations projected in the artwork. At the same time, it also archives the artistic performance. Video stills published in magazines provide a teaser and facilitate their own media coverage—making visible the ephemeral. Photography’s centrality to the current art milieu, its memorial nature and its contact with reality, deserves particular attention, although Moroccan artists have yet to exploit its full potential.

At the end of the twentieth century, several galleries, auction houses, and private collections were founded, providing better visibility and circulation of works of art. Some spaces are dedicated entirely or partially to artistic and photographic exhibitions (Galerie 21, L’Appartement 22, le Cube, and Galerie FJ). Artist residencies have also emerged, allowing young artists to meet and support each other in their creative practices. At the same time, public collections still seem to resist the assault from contemporary art, perhaps due to the visual “strangeness” of modern creations that have not found a place in the acquisition policies of emergent institutions. Critics and specialized publications must play a crucial role as contemporary artists continue to find their voices. But with the exception of DIPTYK, the sole magazine dedicated to this work, and a few daring columnists, the contemporary Moroccan cultural field remains untouched and hence deeply fertile territory.