There’s nothing quite like the kiss of a pristine sunny afternoon in Marrakech. Long known as one of Morocco’s hippest cities, Marrakech offers a sublime mixture of beauty and chaos: rose-colored buildings characteristic of the city’s Moorish architectural style; the old medina markets where hustling street vendors sell a variety of North African and sub-Saharan wares; vibrant bars and restaurants with their intricate mashrabiya paneling; and the startling monumentality of minarets piercing the sky. It’s now also a new haven for art and culture that has distinguished itself over the last few years as a destination for contemporary African art.
The third edition of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in Marrakech, which took place from February 24–25, once again in the lavish surroundings of La Mamounia Hotel, showcased work from the continent and its diasporas at twenty galleries, up two from last year. Some six thousand visitors flocked to the fair, its highest attendance thus far.
For many participating galleries the fair has been viewed as a gateway into Africa. Yet it remains largely francophone in its participants. Interestingly, this year fourteen galleries were from Africa, marking the fair’s highest number of galleries from the continent to date — indicative of organizers’ push to diversify the fair’s image as a largely francophone art fair for European and North African galleries.
There were also ten new galleries, another sign of change. Among the new participants were Nil Gallery (France), So Art Gallery (Morocco), Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art (Egypt), Whatiftheworld (South Africa), and Afikaris (France).
We are more and more present in the city, where we have a bigger role to play with all of the cultural platforms that exist in Marrakech,” said fair director and founder Touria El Glaoui. “We don’t have this role to play in London or New York; here in Marrakech our role is really that of a cultural cultivator.”
The Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), which opened in February 2018 and inaugurated its ninth show, “Have You Seen A Horizon Lately?” (through July 19), during the same weekend in February, has also been a catalyst for change in the Marrakech art scene. The show, curated by Marie-Ann Yemsi, takes its title from a song by Yoko Ono and invites visitors to view the world differently through works by a selection of artists, including Ono, Kapwani Kiwanga, Rahima Gambo, and Farah Al Qasimi.
Marrakech has long had an art scene. Notable art venues include VOICE Gallery, inaugurated in 2011 by Rocco Orlacchio, and various galleries in the trendy Gueliz neighborhood, including Comptoir des Mines Galerie, which opened in 2016, Galerie 127, inaugurated in 2006 by Nathalie Locatelli, and Galerie Siniya28, which also opened in 2016 with the aim of supporting emerging Moroccan and international artists. There’s David Bloch Gallery, which opened in 2010, Khalid Art Gallery, and Tindouf Gallery, among many others. There’s also Riad Yima, renowned Moroccan artist and designer Hassan Hajjaj’s tearoom-cum-art gallery and boutique space just a short walk from the Jemaa el-Fnaa square and marketplace.
“MACAAL has given Marrakech a massive boost as a capital of arts and culture,” said Hadia Temli, founder and director of Siniya28. “Most Moroccans have grown up without the experience of what a museum is and lack being exposed to different art expressions and different cultures. Museums provide an education and open horizons for a young generation of Moroccans.”
Institutions such as MACAAL, the YSL Museum in Marrakech, which opened in October 2017, and the 1-54 fair have garnered newfound interest in the city primarily as a gateway into the African continent. “1-54 has reinforced Marrakech as an international commercial platform,” added Hadli. “Moroccan artists and galleries are placed on the same platform as important international artists and galleries.”
This sense of the city as a gateway was also highlighted when new artist residencies were announced at this edition. The first recipient of the fair’s residency program, in collaboration with the Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam, is Nigerian photographer Lakin Ogunbanwo. “We will offer a residency to one of the exhibiting artists at each of the fair’s editions in London, New York, and Marrakech,” El Glaoui told Flash Art. The inaugural Ritzau Art Prize for a three-month residency at the ISCP in New York will be awarded at 1-54 in May. In London, in October, the fair will offer a residency in partnership with MACAAL.
While residencies, exhibitions, and an art fair with swift sales are all great signs, what is still needed are more Moroccan and African collectors. “We have an eclectic group of collectors — there’s no more French collectors than there are American collectors,” said El Glaoui. “We are getting the best from each side of the world coming to Marrakech. We did have more traction from Africa this year, and this is a great sign for us.”