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Unpacking the thinking process
Notes on and around the theme of the 4th International Biennial of Casablanca
This question resonates as I sit on the terrace of a hotel, overlooking Mohammed V avenue. It is sunny, the view is clear. Rabat is so beautiful. I met with some of the biennial’s artists the day before. Walking around town, I felt comfortable. Memories came back. As I found my bearings and recalled some of the city’s features, I also noticed how things had changed. I still love that city though.
But why did I ever come in the first place? It’s not like there was a huge art scene back then.
Faint memory of a living room in a Parisian flat. I’m only a teenager. My younger sister is also here. Our elder sister dragged us to that place, as she always did, to visit her friends. All adults. A lot of noise. A mix of laughter and chatter. They talk politics but the atmosphere is friendly. There is a mix of French and English. I am too young to understand in detail, but I know they’re talking about apartheid and activism.
Then Abdou, our host, a Moroccan journalist and activist, takes me to his bookshelves. He tells me about his country, its culture and arts. He tells me about the beautiful jewelry worn by women. He picks a book on Berber arts for me to look at. I probably went through that book again on subsequent visits. Somehow, this stuck to my mind. And when came the time to decide on an African country to move to, Morocco was my first choice. I had never visited that part of the continent and I wanted to experience another aspect of Africa. As I said yes to my first professional adventure abroad, I remembered Abdou and his passion for Berber culture.
It is Abdou who organised my first accommodation at one of his friends’, a Berber linguistic scholar. She lived in a new area of Rabat then being built in the suburbs. Later on, I decided to move closer to my place of work and lived in Kasbah of the Udayas. Then came the time to legalise my stay. Procedures to obtain a resident permit back in 2000 were as tedious as one would imagine of any such formality. What struck me, though, was the line of questioning at the police station and the overt shaming of “us” sub-Saharans coming to Morocco in order to reach the borders of Europe.
As much as I tried to explain that I was taking the opposite journey, the officer found it difficult to compute an information that contradicted all the narratives disseminated by mainstream media. This was not the only instance I was to face a self-appointed border guard. Nine years ago, at a Moroccan airport on my way back to London I was asked if I had a permit to live in England. No matter the colour of your passport. When you’re black, the colour of your skin is always enough to raise suspicion on the legitimacy of your body’s movements.
Don’t they know that on the other side of the Mediterranean we’re all the same? Immigrants or children of immigrants. We’re only a few shades apart. As a matter of fact, Morocco in itself embodies a broad spectrum of African skin tones. And yet last month at the dinner table, that Moroccan lady turned to me as she asked a question about African architecture. I first had to remind her that Morocco was in Africa.
First encountered at university. We were two African students in our group of Medieval African History. The other student was from North Africa. I can’t remember which country. Having both grown up in an environment where our cultures were either exoticised or despised, we shared the same interest in learning about African historical figures. There was Mansa Musa (1280s-c1337) the Emperor of Mali who made his famous pilgrimage to Mecca in the mid 1320s; Ibn Battuta (1304-1377) Moroccan scholar and explorer, one of the world’s first geographers who travelled from Morocco to China between 1332 and 1347; Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), Tunisian historian, a precursor of sociology, and author of the Kitāb al-ʻIbār (Book of Lessons), a world history book which introduction Al Muqaddimah was written in 1377.
The thought of Ibn Battuta resurfaced in my mind in 2016 amid the rising stigmatisation of Muslim communities in relation to travelling and migration. Adding to the African migrants and Syrian Refugees crises in Europe, the infamous “Muslim Ban” instituted in the United States reinforced the relevance of such a historical figure in our appraisal of the world today.
Ibn Battuta’s Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, also known as The Travels (1355), stems from a human impulse to exercise one’s free agency, one’s quest for knowledge and understanding of the world, one’s freedom of movement before it even had to be inscribed as one of humanity’s rights.
2016, the year Britain voted for Brexit. That was a shock but no one could say they did not see it coming. For years, populist politicians, relayed by the tabloids and even mainstream media, had preached fearmongering, anti-immigration discourses, digging deeper the divide within Britain’s society. Europe has always been a source of dissension, but it is the migrant crises, and the European Community’s alleged failure to deal with those migratory fluxes that nailed it for the big island. The rhetoric that “we need to control our borders” is a painful reminder that not everyone is deemed worthy of their right to freedom of movement. Not even in cases of humanitarian crises. From a British perspective, this also reflects a return to a form of insular mind-set.
For a while I have been intrigued by the complex nature islands. Whether exploring the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and England through the prism of the colonial legacy of the English language (Murder Machine, Ormston House, Limerick, 2016) or in the case of Reunion Island, a French region in the Indian Ocean, that is closer to Southeast Africa than it is from Metropolitan France. The myths on the island’s creation, its history of slavery and maroon resistance, its cultural hybridity, its overbearing nature with the mountain, forest, volcano and maritime ecosystem, make it a rich site of artistic enquiry.
In Tokyo, I found out about the house in which I was staying. In the garden is a Keyaki tree that gives its name to the house. It is said to date back to the Edo period (1603-1868), just like the adjoining park Shinjuku Gyoen. A garden created under the Japanese Lord Naitō in 1772, it became an experimental agricultural centre, then a botanical garden before being named an imperial garden in 1879.
The Edo era is a fascinating period in Japanese history. It was notably defined by Japan’s self-imposed isolation that brought the country economic and social stability, as well as thriving arts and culture. Edo is also the former name of Tokyo which lifestyle, then known as Ukiyo or Floating World, was marked by unbridled hedonism.
Among the cultural productions that emerged from this period was Suikōden or Water Margin, an adaptation and series of illustrations of a 14th century Chinese novel attributed to Shi Nai’an (ca.1296-1372) and Luo Guanzhong (ca. 1330-1400) chronicling the prowess of outlaws operating from a marsh-edged mountain, fighting against tyranny during the Song dynasty.
Tales from Water Margins
Water Margin, also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, is said to have been a source of inspiration for oppressed people and, interestingly, the protagonists in these stories adopted a strategic relationship to the local topography that would later be found in Maroon resistances, when enslaved Africans in the colonies reclaimed their freedom by escaping and living in inaccessible environments protected by swamps, forests or mountains, in other words, on the margins of society.
The Japanese adaptation of this Chinese novel, in times of declared isolationism, is one of the many proofs of the porosity of cultures. Furthermore, if one considers that Ibn Battuta was contemporary to Shi Nai’an and that his Travels took him to China, one finds an interesting web of journeys and trajectories that open the scope for multiple cross-cultural connections and interactions.
Without literally referencing the novel, the 4th International Biennial of Casablanca borrows one of its translated titles as a metaphor for the current state of spaces that exist on the margins of what is considered legitimate, official or mainstream.
In its Moroccan anchorage, Tales from Water Margins, draws inspiration from Ifitry, the biennial’s artists residency located in a secluded environment in the region of Essaouira, on the Moroccan coast, directly facing the Atlantic Ocean which waves are the bearer of the water’s past and present narratives.
The theme also echoes Morocco’s own territorial features at the crossroad of land, ocean and sea. It also aims to address the country’s histories, the cultural diversity that exists from within, and the complex position of Morocco as gateway to, and gatekeeper of, fortress Europe.
Tales from Water Margins is conceived as a series of solo and group exhibitions of existing and newly created works presented in several venues across the city of Casablanca. The project is also envisaged as a laboratory allowing space for research and experimentation, showcasing creative processes in a timeframe that extends beyond the 2018 edition.
The call for artists launched last year opened up opportunities for practitioners who, in most cases, have never exhibited in Morocco before. The overall selection was made in view of creating sets of conversations between a diversity of works, each of them echoing or responding to one another.
Some of biennial’s highlights include Tunisian artist Héla Ammar’s now iconic Bab B’har (2017). This photograph is an obvious opener to the narratives the biennial set out to unfold. At first sight, the image could be read as a simple invitation to travel or to escape. However, as the artist explains, placed at the border of the water and the land, the door compels the viewer to a deeper reflection on modes and rites of passage. It conveys both the idea of changing state or time, and the notion of mobility and obstacles. Trials, boundaries, barriers and checkpoints all stand for doors that can either open towards new horizons or, conversely, isolate and fragment what is supposed to be a whole or continuity.
The lived ordeals of migration are translated through Ammar’s Body Talks (2017), a series of portraits displacing the landmarks of identity from facial features to the body. Her sitters, all known for their fight for civil liberties, pose with their faces covered with a scarf. They are activists, bloggers, dancers, designers, reporters and entrepreneurs. To us they are anonymous. Only their tattoos can act as distinctive signs of their identity.
Exploring borders and migration between Europe and the Maghreb region, Mohammed Laouli (Morocco) and Katrin Ströbel (Germany) Fluid Boundaries (2014 to now) – created in collaboration with Le Cube – independent art room – envisages the Mediterranean region as a cultural and geopolitical entity. A nomadic boat / temporary shelter, built with local materials found in situ, serves as a site of interaction with fishermen and local communities. Each iteration of the sailing boat is the occasion to record the personal account by a participant of their experience of migration, or stories on the place of interaction. Ströbel and Laouli collect these stories complementing the video component of their installation that also includes photographs and drawings.
Among the examples of research-based practices, can be named Moroccan artist Abdessamad El Montassir whose Al Amakine (2016-2017) project unearths invisible micro-histories and immaterial archives of the Sahara in south-west Morocco. These testimonies, passed orally by local populations through a poetic language, tell of important political, cultural and social events that took place in this area.
In collaboration with poets and citizen-witnesses, El Montassir painstakingly researches the places bearing these latent events in order to bring them to light. By reactivating these stories, El Montassir facilitates alternative and endogenous modes of transmission of this territory’s history.
Another research-oriented practice is that of British-based Mauritian artist Shiraz Bayjoo. Searching for Libertalia (2018 – ongoing) is a long-term project that intertwines the real history of piracy with the French East India Company’s slave trading with Madagascar during the 17th
– 19th centuries. It also places this story against the island’s struggle to ‘liberate’ itself from the Vichy administration during the Second World War.
Running along this, is the story of Captain Mission, a character who appears in A General History of the Pyrates (1724) supposedly written by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). The book depicts 17th century pirates as renegades and freedom fighters against European crowns. In this particular story Captain Mission raids French ships, frees the slaves and creates a utopian state in the north-west of Madagascar.
Bayjoo retraced many of the sites discussed in the book. The video material he shot as part of his research forms the central part of his installation composed of objects and vitrines. Bayjoo’s work also references thoughts from Negritude and Pan-Africanism movements and, particulaly, Franz Fanon (1925-1961).
A collaborative platform
Exploring artistic practices linked to insular contexts and narratives was an idea that captured my imagination well before developing the biennial’s curatorial concept. Beyond this topic lies an interest in the remaining impact of slavery and colonial histories in present day socio-economics. However, the theme of the biennial only crystallised as irrational fears of migrants and refugees, led to no less irrational sets of discriminatory laws in different parts of the world. We’ve all seen the ordeal of Syrian refugees and the debates as to which countries should or could host them. In France, the refugee camps of Sangatte (1999-2002) and, later on, the Calais Jungle that was raided many times before eventually being demolished in 2016 are only a few examples of the hostility encountered by migrants in the West. But Africa is not exempt as many reports continue to raise the alarm on the treatment of sub-Saharan Africans in the Maghreb, as they attempt to leave the continent.
The idea behind the formation of the curatorial committee composed of Dr. Ethel Brooks, Yasmina Naji, Ema Tavola and Françoise Vergès, was to notably invite scholars like Brooks and Vergès who, in their research and writings, have extensively addressed topics related the theme of the biennial, including the experience of Romani communities, camps and encampment, the history and legacy of slavery, as well as creole identity, to mention but a few.
The exhibition spaces are also shared with curators Naji and Tavola. Tavola’s presence materialises a long sought curatorial and artistic conversation with the Pacific region. Developed with the support of Creative New Zealand, Tavola’s exhibition A Maternal Lens features Margaret Aull, Julia Mage’au Gray, Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai, Leilani Kake and Vaimaila Urale. For this project, Tavola chose to work with mothers / parents who produce work in the context of raising children to acknowledge and honour not only the precious time invested in the process of creating an exhibition project, but also the emotional intelligence that comes from this positionality.
The artists from her project are all agents of change within their respective communities; quiet activists using creative platforms to enable cultural transmission, advocating for the visibility of indigenous Pacific people and aesthetics, custom and the complexities of culture in diaspora.
Beyond the exhibitions, set to include numerous opportunities for diverse audiences to engage with the arts, a number of conversations have been engaged with Moroccan associations promoting access to arts to audiences that are less exposed to contemporary art practices. For 2018, the biennial is collaborating with Centre Les Étoiles de Sidi Moumen, a cultural centre established in 2009 by Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch and artist Mahi Binebine in the Sidi Moumen area.
Dedicated to training young people from the neighbourhood in performing and visual arts, as well as foreign languages, Les Etoiles is a platform for local youth to develop and showcase their talents. It also provides them with an opportunity to engage with established Moroccan and international artists. This year, Reunionese artist Yohann Quëland de Sant-Pern will be the biennial’s resident artist at Les Etoiles. He will develop a workshop and new project that will be unveiled during the biennial’s opening week…
Tales from Water Margins will run from 27 October to 2 December 2018 in several emblematic venues of Casablanca. The exhibitions will be accompanied with a bilingual catalogue, performances in the public space and a rich public programme involving artists and curators talks, as well as round tables with a number of interventions by international art professionals.
Tales from Water Margins
4th International Biennial of Casablanca
27 October – 2 December 2018.
Artists: Ibrahim Ahmed, Yoriyas Yassine Alaoui, Héla Ammar, Gilles Aubry, Mo Baala, Bianca Baldi, Raphaël Barontini, Shiraz Bayjoo, Cristiano Berti, Sutapa Biswas, Rémy Bosquère, Abdessamad El Montassir, Raphaël Faon & Andres Salgado, Thierry Geoffroy, M’hammed Kilito, Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, Mohammed Laouli & Katrin Ströbel, Mehryl Levisse, Fatima Mazmouz, Emo de Medeiros, MELD & Alexander Schellow, Gideon Mendel, Amine Oulmakki, Anna Raimondo, Saïd Raïs, Ben Saint-Maxent, Magda Stawarska-Beavan & Joshua Horsley, Oussama Tabti, Filip Van Dingenen and Haythem Zakaria.
Venues include: Villa des Arts de Casablanca, La Coupole, École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Casablanca, Instituto Cervantes, San Buenaventura Church, and more to be confirmed, including a number of interventions in the public space.