Introduction: The Magreb And Contemporary Art

Carol Solomon
Visiting Associate Professor and Curator of the Exhibition

Memory, Place, Desire is the first exhibition in the United States devoted exclusively to contemporary art of the Maghreb and the Maghrebi diaspora. Geopolitical events like 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Syria, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have heightened awareness of the Arab world. The Arab Spring, the 2012 attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi, and the growing threat of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have put a spotlight on North Africa. But this region warrants attention of another sort. Over the past decade, the artists of the Maghreb and its diaspora have been gaining a worldwide audience.

In 2011 an exhibition of contemporary art from all corners of the Arab world, The Future of a Promise, was mounted at the Venice Biennale.1 Propelled by the forces of globalization, artists from Arab and Muslim countries (like those from China and India) have gained stature in an art world dominated by a Euro-American epicenter. In western scholarship and exhibitions devoted to contemporary art of the Arab world, however, the art and artists of the Maghreb have been overshadowed by Egypt, neighboring countries of the Middle East, and the non-Arab Muslim states of Iran and Turkey—or obscured in a sweeping assemblage labeled “the Middle East.”

This relative disregard for the Maghreb is also evident in studies and exhibitions devoted to African art, a field with a near exclusive emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa. The recent volume Modern Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms (2013) omits the Maghreb and defends the decision as a “critical choice” made “to focus mainly on black Africa and much less on the north of the continent, where the art could be discussed, with no less relevancy, in a Middle East geopolitical context.” 2 Alternatively, the exclusion or cursory treatment of the Maghreb in studies of modern African art is attributed to its proximity to Europe and its French colonial past. A notable exception was the landmark 2004-05 exhibition Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, which included artists of the Maghreb. This was the largest exhibition of contemporary art of Africa ever seen in Europe, and was touted in a self-congratulatory fashion as “the first large-scale exhibition to embrace the whole continent, north and south, from Cairo to Cape Town,” as if it was a profound achievement to include North Africa in an exhibition in Europe of African art. 3 While contemporary art of the Maghreb is increasingly reshaping the historiographical boundaries of contemporary art of the Arab world and African art, the “multiple marginality” of the Maghreb still persists. 4

The study of the Maghreb, once a peripheral field in the American academy, is a discipline on the rise. Defined in terms of what it is not – not quite Arab, not quite African, not quite European – the Maghreb, according to historian Edmund Burke III, “inhabits a space between the essentialisms evoked by each.” 5 Considered from a postcolonial, postmodern perspective, these perceived “lacks” now appear as “marks of hybridity, alterity, and liminality, and as sites of resistance and contestation,” thus establishing new frameworks for the understanding of the region in all its complexity. 6

Any consideration of the Maghreb must necessarily begin with a geographical definition of the term, which is no simple matter! The Mashreq (in Arabic المشرق ) refers to the “east,” the land where the sun rises, and the Maghreb ( المغرب العربي ) refers to the “west,” the land where it sets. These companion terms identify the geographical reach of the Arab Muslim world. The Mashreq encompasses Egypt, the Levant, and the Gulf. The Maghreb includes the major North African countries to the west of Egypt: Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. But this terminology is not always used consistently. Maghreb, for example, can simply mean “Morocco.” By some definitions, Egypt, Mauritania, and Western Sahara are identified as part of the Maghreb. The “Middle East” (a term of British colonial origin) is frequently used to refer to the region extending from Egypt in the west through Iran in the east, and from Turkey in the north to the Arabian Peninsula in the south, but the term may also refer to the entire Arab Muslim world, including the North African countries of the Maghreb. This ambiguity is further complicated by the French, who identify their former colonies – Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia – as Afrique du Nord. In English, “North Africa” is sometimes used synonymously with the Maghreb, but this term can also include [North] Sudan, Egypt, and the Horn of Africa. In 1989, Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya formed the Arab Maghreb Union (NMU). 7 Today, the acronym “MENA” is appearing with increased frequency as a reference encompassing both the Middle East and the North African region of the Arab world.

Geographically home to one-third of all Arabs (Egypt constituting another third), the Maghreb is a mixture of Arab, Amazigh (Berber), African, and European cultures. It is connected to the Mashreq by culture and religion, but, at the same time, the Maghreb is very different, separated by great physical distance, a variety of Arabic dialects, and a unique history. 8 It is equally important to recognize the diversity that exists within the Maghreb; each country in the region offers a different constellation of historical, cultural, and socio-political realities.

Three countries of the Maghreb and their diasporas are represented in Memory, Place, Desire: Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The exhibition features 13 artists with works ranging from painting and drawing to photography, sculpture, and video installation. Artists with international reputations, such as Kader Attia, Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Yto Barrada, mounir fatmi, and Hassan Hajjaj, join established artists who are less well known in the United States, including Mohamed El baz, eL Seed, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, and Driss Ouadahi, as well as emerging artists like Mustapha Akrim. One third of the artists are women, although this percentage could easily have been doubled given the number of women artists in the Maghreb.

Using the tropes of memory, place, and desire as a creative nexus, the exhibition provides a broad platform to this small but diverse group of artists. The exhibition does not seek to unmask a unifying or monolithic Maghrebi aesthetic. There is none. Rather, it aims for a more nuanced presentation that celebrates the multifaceted identity of the Maghreb. Several works in the show are anchored in the historical, religious, political, or social realities of specific cities in the Maghreb and the Middle East – Algiers, Tunis, Tangier, Marrakesh, Tétouan, Cairo, and Mecca. Yto Barrada’s Girl in Red, Tangier from the photographic series A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project, for example, deals with the disenfranchised in her hometown and their unfulfilled desires of migration. In other works, inspiration is located in spiritual, metaphorical, or imagined places, as in the mystical journey of self-discovery and inner awareness presented in Younès Rahmoun’s video Habba. Nadia Kaabi-Linke exploits the visual rhetoric of memory and place through her creative use of forensic techniques to preserve traces of humanity in public spaces in Study (III) for Berlin à fleur de peau. Where the exhibition ventures into the territory of Neo-Orientalist representation and the discourse of the veil (as in the works of Zoulikha Bouabdella and Hassan Hajjaj), it rejects reductive stereotypes.

As the essays on each country in this volume attest, artists of the Maghreb and its diaspora are critically engaged in the life of their times, reflecting, contesting, and participating in the shaping of history and society. Unencumbered by existing aesthetic discourses, local or global, they are animated by a forward-looking dynamism. However, the practice of art across the region is not without inherent obstacles. The countries of the Maghreb are developing nations, and in each of them the arts infrastructure is wanting. It is most advanced in Morocco, which has the most active art market, the greatest number of galleries, and several important international art festivals (Asilah and the Marrakesh Biennale), all of which create opportunities for local artists and access to an international array of art.

Surprisingly, however, the country has only two professional art schools (Tétouan and Casablanca), and Art History, as a distinct discipline, is not in the university curriculum. Many young artists are therefore compelled to leave the country for training and education. There are few state-run museums housing contemporary art and a scarcity of official exhibition spaces. Outstanding collections have been formed by major Moroccan financial institutions, but, with few exceptions, they are out of public view. Years in the making, the controversial Mohammed VI Musée National d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (MMVI), in Rabat, Morocco’s first national museum since gaining independence from the French in 1956, is finally scheduled to open in the fall of 2014. Simply put, the state does not have an auspicious history in the collection, exhibition, and patronage of contemporary art.

There was little desire to promote living Moroccan artists under the French Protectorate, and this neglect continued with few exceptions even after independence. Only recently has there been any noticeable change in state support, and this seems to be motivated less by a genuine effort to give voice to contemporary Moroccan artists than by the government’s self-serving goals of building cultural capital, tourism, and “global standing.” 9 As Katarzyna Pieprzak argues in her study of the history of museum culture in colonial and postcolonial Morocco, “The deep disconnect between stalled and alienating state institutions and the vibrant art projects that animate and engage Moroccan culture … is reflective of larger political relationships between the Moroccan state and the Moroccan people since independence in 1956.” 10

In response to these shortcomings, a community of progressive curators and artists operate a network of artist-run, non-profit, and private collectives, residencies, and ateliers. Such organizations, including L’Appartement 22, Dar Al-Ma’mûn, La Source du Lion, Tranket Street, and Cinématheque de Tanger, provide studio and dialogue spaces, host exhibitions, mentor younger artists, and educate the public. Within these innovative collaboratives, contemporary Moroccan artists “have made significant strides to turn Moroccan art history into an accessible and relevant presence in the life of various communities.” 11

In contrast to Morocco and its forward trajectory, Algeria has been impeded by the trauma and stagnation brought on by years of violence and political unrest in the 1990s. Several of the most prominent artists of the Maghrebi diaspora are of Algerian descent, including Adel Abdessemed, Kader Attia, Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Driss Ouadahi, and Zineb Sedira, and all have wrestled with themes relating to Algerian identity, transcultural issues, or the diasporic experiences of migration, dislocation, liminality, and exile. Younger artists in particular are hindered by cultural, political, and socioeconomic factors that engender alienation in the local context and isolation from the larger international art community. Studio space is expensive, a luxury few can afford. Art criticism and scholarship are rarely practiced. Eager to participate in exhibitions, residencies, and conferences abroad, artists often find their efforts thwarted by difficulties in obtaining US and European visas. Nevertheless, many strides have been made in recent years to promote and facilitate the practice of art, including the opening in 2007 of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Algiers (MAMA) and in 2012, the creation of |A.R.I.A.| (Artist Residency in Algiers) by the London based artist Zineb Sedira.

The Arab Spring has had an impact on the practice of art throughout the Maghreb, most profoundly, of course, in Tunisia, its birthplace. The fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January of 2011 restored freedom of speech, giving rise to an explosion of creative expression. In Tunisian visual arts, this resulted in the appearance of graffiti and street art, a resurgence of political satire, and the proliferation of painting, sculpture, video, installation, and especially photography. This efflorescence has not taken place without significant challenge, however, and the future of free speech in Tunisia remains under threat.

The wildly popular Willis from Tunis, a wry and comic cat created by Nadia Khiari, appeared as a street art character and as the cartoon protagonist in a daily blog of social and political satire. To mark the first anniversary of the Tunisian uprising, the renowned French/Tunisian calligraffiti artist eL Seed was invited, in December 2011, to oversee the production of a monumental commemorative mural A New Revolution in the historic city of Kairouan. The exhibition includes both eL Seed’s poetic work on canvas In the desert of language, calligraphy is the shade where I rest and three of Khiari’s drawings of Willis from Tunis, who has become an iconic symbol of the still fragile Tunisian revolution.

The yearning for freedom of speech and creative expression unleashed throughout the Maghreb and the Arab world has energized a new generation of artists and initiated a political and social consciousness not seen before on this scale in the region. Such activism is especially evident in the work of Moroccan artist Mustapha Akrim, whose sculpture Article 25 recites the 2011 amendment in the revised Moroccan Constitution: “All citizens have the freedom of thought, ideas, artistic expression, and creation.” One of his newest sculptures, produced for this exhibition while he was in residence at Haverford, represents the text of the constitutional article in the shape of a big zero aimed explicitly at the Moroccan government for its hollow guarantee of these fundamental human rights.


  1. Anthony Downey and Lina Lazaar, eds., The Future of a Promise, Tunis: Ibraaz Publishing, 2011.
  2. Elaine O’Brien et al., Modern Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms, Chichester: Wiley–Blackwell, 2013, 21.
  3. Simon Njami et al., Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, exhibition catalogue, London: Hayward Gallery, 2005,11.
  4. As Kinsey Katchka points out, “there is an undeniable current in creative practice – among artists, curators, academics – that challenges the bifurcation of the African continent into ‘North Africa’ and ‘sub-Saharan Africa.’” Kinsey Katchka, “Creative Diffusion: African Intersections in the Biennale Network,” in A Companion to Modern African Art, First Edition, eds. Gitti Salami and Monica Blackmun Visonà, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2013, 501. Edmund Burke III, “Theorizing the Histories of Colonialism and Nationalism in the Arab Maghrib,” in Beyond Colonialism and Nationalism in the Maghreb: History, Culture, and Politics, ed., Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 18.
  5. Burke, 18.
  6. Ibid., 18.
  7. Knut S. Vikør, The Maghreb since 1800: A Short History, London: Hurst & Company, 2012, 1-3.
  8. Ibid., 2.
  9. Katarzyna Pieprzak, “Moroccan Art Museums and Memories of Modernity,” in A Companion to Modern African Art, First Edition, Eds. Gitti Salami and Monica Blackmun Visonà, Chichester, West Sussex : Wiley Blackwell, 2013, 428.
  10. Ibid., 428.
  11. Ibid., 435. For a more extended discussion of these issues, see Pieprzak’s Imagined Museums: Art and Modernity in Postcolonial Morocco, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.