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In Marrakech, African Photography on Its Own Terms

A new museum in Morocco becomes a destination for contemporary art.

By Sean O’Toole

Leila Alaoui, Khamlia, Sud du Maroc #1, 2014, from the series The Moroccans
© Fondation Leila Alaoui

The life and work of Leila Alaoui, the celebrated Moroccan documentary photographer, looms large over Marrakech’s newest art institution. Alaoui, who at age thirty-three was shot and killed during an al-Qaeda attack in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, was a close friend of Othman Lazraq, the photography-enthused president of the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), a privately owned art foundation on the southeastern outskirts of this walled city at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. MACAAL’s inaugural photography exhibition, Africa Is No Island, bears the subtle imprint of Alaoui’s influence.

Speaking during a weekend of festivities in late February that included a boutique edition of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair to mark the international launch of MACAAL, Lazraq cited his friendship with Paris-born Alaoui, an accomplished editorial photographer and portraitist who grew up in Marrakech, for sparking his interest in photography. The two met in New York, where Alaoui studied photography, and quickly struck up a friendship. Lazraq’s first photography purchase was a work by Alaoui, who also guided him on his early acquisitions—Lazraq’s home in Casablanca includes works by Araki, Peter Beard, Malick Sidibé, and the emerging South African Phumzile Khanyile.

Africa Is No Island. Installation at Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden. Photograph by Saad Alami
© MACAAL

“I was very young, only twenty, when I started buying photography with Leila,” said Lazraq, twenty-nine, who, like his father—Alami Lazraq, a Moroccan property tycoon and one of Africa’s wealthiest businessmen—is an architect by training. Speaking with characteristic brio, MACAAL’s youthful leader told an audience at the museum’s opening how Alaoui introduced him to her motivating ideas as a portraitist, of “facing” the real and “fixing a moment of history.” Alaoui’s sway, however, extends even further: she introduced Lazraq to Jeanne Mercier and Baptiste de Ville d’Avray, of the photography platform Afrique in Visu, who MACAAL later invited to curate Africa Is No Island.

The exhibition features a total of twenty-two individual photographers and one collective, many from the African continent, others—like Paris-based Italian photographer Nicola Lo Calzo and New Jersey-born Ayana V. Jackson—deeply occupied by its social life and connectedness to the wider world. Fittingly, the exhibition includes an image by Alaoui: a life-size portrait of a young Gnawa woman in violet-colored Mauritanian dress, photographed in 2014 in southern Morocco. Installed in an alcove with two speakers playing ambient sounds recorded in Marrakech by Italian artist Anna Raimondo, the work is excerpted from Alaoui’s The Moroccans (2010–14), a roaming project descriptive of the country’s disappearing cultural traditions and diverse racial makeup.

Nicola Lo Calzo, Portrait de David Godonou-Dossou, riche marchand et fondateur de la dinastie Godonou-Dossou, 2011
© the artist

“We chose someone who doesn’t look like a Moroccan,” said Mercier during a walkthrough of the exhibition in reference to Alaoui’s striking portrait. Although Moroccan, the swaddled Gnawa woman’s ancestry is linked to enslaved West Africans brought to the region by Arab and Berber traffickers. Africa Is No Island is mindful of the historical forces that have wracked the African continent. The exhibition includes five portraits from Lo Calzo’s ambitious multicountry project Cham (2007–16), about the embodied legacy of the African slave trade. In 2015, New Yorker critic Hilton Als praised Lo Calzo for bringing “disappeared bodies” back to life “by their living and breathing descendants.” Aalaoui’s portrait achieves much the same.

The team of Afrique in Visu invited French curator Madeleine de Colnet to assist them in their selections, with Lazraq offering additional input—notably a prohibition on wall captions and texts for the individual works on show. “I am really driven by emotions,” said Lazraq about his philosophy as a collector and curator. The lack of explanatory texts at MACAAL is nonetheless a hindrance, especially given the preponderance of documentary and conceptually applied photography on offer. For instance, French Moroccan photographer Mustapha Azeroual’s interest in uniqueness and preindustrial modes of photography—explored in Arbre #2 (2011), a ceiling-hung installation of two hundred porcelain plates featuring one-off images of trees made with a gum bichromate printing process—is hardly self-evident.

Ishola Akpo, L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux, 2014
© the artist

Roughly half the work gathered in Africa Is No Island is drawn from MACAAL’s private collection, the balance sourced through Afrique in Visu’s vast network, which is visually signaled at the ground-floor entrance to the exhibition in a wall-scale collage of photographs featured on the platform’s website and exhibitions. Africa Is No Island properly begins with three color images by Beninese photographer Ishola Akpo, from his series L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux (Essence is invisible to the eye, 2014), matter-of-fact descriptions of dowry objects—like an enamel plate and bottle of gin—that belonged to his recently deceased grandmother. The gently melancholic note registered by this work recurs throughout Africa Is No Island, even in the photographs of Walid Layadi-Marfouk and Lebohang Kganye, the show’s youngest exhibitors.

Along with Alaoui and Hicham Gardaf—a Tangier-born photographer whose series The Red Square (2014–17) offers an economical insight into Morocco’s rapid urban development in a style redolent of Lewis Baltz and Angolan photographer Edson Chagas—Layadi-Marfouk represents the vanguard of young Moroccan photography. His Riad series (2017–ongoing) is largely set in his family home in Marrakech and portrays his kin, notably an aunt, involved in choreographed actions. An outlier in the series, Haya Jat (Starfixion), presents this aunt in a blue evening gown, arms outstretched, facing an audience of two from the stage of Marrakech’s Le Colisée, an Art Deco cinema acquired by the Layadi family in 1971.

Walid Layadi-Marfouk, Haya Jat (Starifixion), 2017
© the artist

“The idea of the series came when I moved to the US,” said Layadi-Marfouk, who studied math at Princeton before changing to photography. “The visual representation [in the US] of my culture was completely separate and other from the way I had internalized, sublimed, and fantasized it growing up in Morocco. They were just black-and-white images of violent submission, pain, and extremism.”

Similar to Layadi-Marfouk, South African–born Kganye also uses portraiture to affirm her identity and explore intergenerational relations in her breakout 2013 series, Ke Lefa Laka (My heritage). Kganye’s photographic tableaux, which effortlessly blur the line between playful fantasy and sober document, present her in comical poses wearing her grandmother’s clothes and interacting with figures and settings photocopied from various family albums gathered during a research trip in 2012. “Photographs are more than just a memory of moments passed, or people no more, or a reassurance of an existence,” noted Kganye when she first exhibited her work at the Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg, in 2013, adding that they were also evidence of “a constructed life.”

Lebohang Kganye, Pied Piper, 2013, from the series, Ke Lefa Laka
© the artist and courtesy Afronova Gallery, Johannesburg

Kganye is adroitly paired in the exhibition with Sammy Baloji. The Congolese photographer is represented by three photographs, one depicting a Chinese pagoda built by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko at his ruined palace complex in Gbadolite overlaid with a black-and-white image of a bare-breasted Congolese woman photographed in 1935 by Belgian tropical medicine expert Dr. J. A. Fourche. Both photographers use collage techniques to overlay visual memories of the past, some personal, others collectively experienced, on the present day—the burden of history is palpable.

Namsa Leuba, Statuette Kafigeledio Prince, Guinea, 2011, from the series, Ya Kala Ben
© the artist and courtesy Art Twenty One Gallery, Lagos

The exhibition is noteworthy for its strong showing of performance-inflected portraiture, with exemplary works by Joana Choumali, Maïmouna Guerresi, Ayana V. Jackson, and Namsa Leuba, whose cryptic frontal portrait of an anonymous figure wrapped in synthetic material posed in an industrial site, Statuette Kafigeledio Prince, Guinea (2011), forms the cover image of the exhibition catalogue. Choumali’s portraits from her series Hââbré: The Last Generation (2013–14) were a clear favorite with visitors. The images explore the waning practice of facial scarification in West Africa, and feature sitters photographed in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, from both frontal and posterior views.

Like Jackson, whose self-portraits explore the photographic representation of blackness, Choumali’s stylized work is informed by anthropological codes of picturing otherness. The Photography Museum of Marrakech, which opened in 2009, offers ample evidence of this earlier photography; its holdings include pictorial, ethnographic, and colonial photography dating from the colonial occupation of Morocco that ended in 1956. The museum’s displays include a selection of prints by Hungarian photographer Nicolás Muller, who died in 2000 and was the subject of a survey at Jeu de Paume, Paris, in 2014. His confidently modernist portrait of a Tangier youth, photographed in 1941 in three-quarter pose, chimes with the work of Choumali, and even Alaoui—at least stylistically.

Joana Choumali, Mme Djeneba, 2013–14, from the series Haabré: The Last Generation
© the artist and courtesy 50 Golborne Gallery, London

But style is an unreliable point of entry into contemporary African portraiture; rather it is an interest in photography’s hazy ethics and a common cause between subject and maker that compels many contemporary portraitists. That portraiture is now the genre du jour across the continent was clear from the selection at MACAAL, and also the offerings at the inaugural Marrakech version of 1-54, held in the sumptuous La Mamounia Hotel. Of the artists on show at MACAAL, Leuba, Choumali, François-Xavier Gbré, and Hicham Benohoud all had work on sale at 1-54. One of the highlights of the fair was New York dealer Yossi Milo’s presentation of five gelatin-silver prints by Sanlé Sory from his Volta Photo portrait studio, opened in 1965 in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second-largest city. The selection included a striking side-view portrait of a youth in a white vest and cap, thumb propping his chin, eyes appraising the camera—he oozes swagger. Last year, Sanlé told The Guardian, “Fun was central to my work.”

Sanlé Sory, Chez Inter Music, 1976
© the artist and courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Fun also remains essential to the work of Hassan Hajjaj, a Moroccan pop artist who took up photography in 1989. Best known for his vivid and playfully garish street portraits of Moroccan youth, Hajjaj’s photography is a flip, urban counterpoint to Alaoui’s respectful portraits, and is on permanent view at Riad Yima, a boutique and tearoom in the medina that also includes a gallery. As part of the festivities around MACAAL’s opening, Hajjaj invited Yoriyas Yassine Alaoui to exhibit his street photographs of ball players, sunbathers, and worshippers from the series Casablanca Not the Movie (2015–ongoing).

Hajjaj’s initiative lent a biennial-like feel to the weekend of MACAAL’s opening, as did writer and translator Omar Berrada’s thoughtfully curated program of talks on the subject of decolonization at the fair, including a fascinating performance-lecture by the Black Athena Collective (photographers Dawit L. Petros and Heba Y. Amin) on pharaonic-era trade along the Red Sea.

Hassan Hajjaj, Marmouche, 2012
Courtesy the artist

In recent years, Marrakech has emerged as an important art destination in North Africa. This legacy is partly founded on the successes of the Marrakech Biennale, an unapologetically progressive showcase of Mediterranean—rather than exclusively African—art, founded in 2005. The 2009 edition, for instance, included a picnic hosted by Tangier-based photographer and artist Yto Barrada, and British artist Shezad Dawood’s Make It Big (Blow Up), hoax stills from a Pakistani remake of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film BlowUp (1966). However, the withdrawal of sponsorship last year led to the cancellation of the 2018 biennial, which would have coincided with MACAAL’s opening.

Private collectors like the Lazraq family and Nabil El Mallouki, whose Museum of Art and Culture of Marrakech opened in early 2016, offer an alternative approach to sponsor-led events like the biennial. These new private museums also slot into a growing network of cultural venues in Marrakech: some are modest, like the photography museum and Hajjaj’s Riad Yima; others—like the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, opened last year opposite a garden that was created by artist Jacques Majorelle and later acquired by the late French fashion designer—cater to Marrakech’s new class of culture tourists.

“The role of a museum is to engage and educate people, to somehow bring a small touch of light and hope,” said Lazraq before proudly ushering journalists into Africa Is No Island. “I think Morocco needs it, Africa needs it, we all need it.” Part of that education, he added, involves reframing perceptions of photography. Lazraq jovially recalled his father’s befuddlement at his preference for photography, video, and installation art, saying he enjoyed the pushback. It helped reinforce a central article of faith: “Photography is a medium I love and care for.” The eccentricities characterizing MACAAL’s debut photography exhibition design and approach to information notwithstanding, Africa Is No Island is a confident expression of Lazraq’s passion for the medium and ebullient vision to make his North African museum a destination for photography enthusiasts.

Sean O’Toole is a writer and editor based in Cape Town.

Africa Is No Island is on view at MACAAL, Marrakech, through August 24, 2018.

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