An unexpected delight on our recent trip to Morocco was to discover that we had coincided with the Marrakech Biennale. To my shame, I had not realised that such a thing even existed, so I cannot pretend that it was all part of the careful planning of our trip. No, it was complete happen chance and rather wonderful.
Marrakech is the red city of dust, noise, intricate architecture and decorative arts. Visitors flock to see the Majorelle Gardens - the creation of Yves Saint Laurent - with its elegant planting of mostly sculptural specimens, save the eye-searing varieties of bougainvillea that cascade over walls and pergolas, their frothiness softening the hard lines of the garden architecture. And then there is the famous blue of the studio house, pots and fountains. Even now I close my eyes and I can see it: almost feel its humming intensity.
Ho hum! – and there was me, trying hard to move away from my deep and enduring love of blue hues.
More significant sights of the city include the myriad historic palaces and it was in these that we finally made sense of the posters we had seen everywhere, promoting something, but we knew not what, our Arabic being a little rusty.
In the Bahia Palace, which is the ultimate experience in Moroccan decoration of mosaic, carvings and painted surface, we were greeted by a charming young woman who (in her perfect English) explained that we were about to enter one of the main expositions of the Biennale. A map showed that this was a huge event, sprawling across the whole city: so exciting.
Work had obviously been curated and/ or specifically created for each site, so in this palace where the eye could never rest, it had been decided to show large abstract paintings. Interestingly, their intense colour and big statements, hung in small, cool rooms off courtyard gardens, contrasted well with detailed decoration on every surface of the palace. Some of the work itself felt curiously dated, however, reminiscent of work being made by my father and his friends back in Birmingham in the 1960s: hard-edged, bold, flat colour of interlocking pattern. Yet, for me, they were also perfectly placed to give context to the very particular path these Moroccan artists had taken through the history of their own culture: still preoccupied with covering large areas of wall space with intense design, but simplified and pared down.
So, painting - tick – not to Mick’s taste, but the setting was sufficiently inspiring that even a return visit was mooted.
Little, however, had prepared us for our next stop at the Badii Palace.
The Badii Palace is a huge ruined complex devoid of its once opulent decoration, with its labyrinth of cellars, vestigial internal walls and only external walls and a few (yet massive) buildings still standing. The complete antithesis of the Bahia Palace.
As was the art work.
The first thing that caught my eye was a pile of bricks on a raised concrete area in the middle of an ornamental pool. Mick was not convinced it was 'art', but I had spotted the ubiquitous perspex stand with information pamphlets about the artist and strode confidently over the narrow path to this man-made island. The pile of bricks were of complete irrelevance for me visually: it was …. a pile of bricks ….. but the thinking behind the piece fascinated me.
The artist, Radouan Mriziga, is actually a dancer and choregrapher. His work involves dancers and performance artists exploring the idea of inhabiting space and filling the void through the use of dance. He also has a fascination with form, geometry and mathematics(influences from all that Moroccan decorative art, I wondered?). The Badii Palace piece was the result of semi-choreographed movement replicating the repeated actions of artisans as they move materials, lay bricks, apply plaster.
This had huge echoes for me as I often reflect on how each of us engages in activities in a similar but individual and unique way, from our mark-making as artists to the sweeping gestures of cleaning floors in our homes.
Unfortunately, while I was busy immersing myself in this flow of thought and feeling jolly ‘arty’, let me tell you, Mick had wandered off. Another pile of bricks had been spotted – was this a second piece?
The lack of perspex stand and witnessing young men who were definitely builders, not dancers, ferrying them back and forth gave us our answer and brought me firmly back to earth.
And so we marched on to the pavilion which housed a photographic exhibition by Mounir Fatmi. A fascinating exploration of the concept of ‘Other’. Most interesting for me were the series of manipulated images, fusing Fra Angelico’s ‘ The Healing of Deacon Justinian’ and a photograph from a modern operating theatre in action. He poses a question about science and religion. For me, it was a reflection on the concept of ‘faith’.
From there, we continued to meander round the avenues and alleyways of the palace to be confronted by something breath-taking from the sculptor Fatiha Zemmouri. For wedged between two tall, tall, seriously tall walls was an enormous (think cubic capacity of an average room) boulder.
“Wow!” I exclaimed.
”Wow” said Mick ‘well, now, that is art…”
“..So monumentally beautiful..” I murmured
“It can’t be made of stone” Mick announced, on closer scrutiny.
“It’s like a meteor that’s become embedded in an ancient site and they've sort of all become one” I mused (still feeling a bit arty, obviously)
“It must be papier mache or polysterene” stated Mick, firmly.
Gloriously, we were both right.