Vanessa Branson sits curled up on an electric blue sofa in her west London home like a grown-up version of Pippi Longstocking – wild, windblown hair, bovver boots and an ear-to-ear grin. Her smile is as unstinting as her brother Richard’s and is proof, if one needed any, of the easy optimism characteristic of entrepreneurs.
“We were brought up to think of life as a giant game of pinball,” she beams. “My mum pulled back the lever and we pinged off from one great idea to the next.”
Branson set up an art gallery in London in the 1980s under her married name at that time, Vanessa Devereux, but the catalyst for Branson’s latest enterprise has been Marrakech. In 2002 she bought a riad in the Moroccan city, converting it into a hotel, El Fenn, since when the pinball has shot off anew in the direction of cultural politics.
“In the build-up to the Iraq war, George W. Bush kept on saying things like ‘If you are not with us you are with the terrorists’,” she recalls. “But my personal experience of working with Arabs was of people who looked you straight in the eye and who ended every conversation with a warm embrace. It was so at odds with what I was hearing on the radio. Then, one day in the spring of 2004 I finally snapped. How could our leaders be dealing with such a complex and nuanced situation with so little wisdom? I realised I had to do something and I had to do it right away.”
Thus was born the Marrakech Biennale, whose fifth edition begins today. With a remit to “build bridges between cultures”, previous editions have attracted 70,000 visitors from across the globe. Could it also be to drum up business for El Fenn? “My hotel was already very successful – I didn’t need to do the Biennale as well,” says Branson. “It’s a bloody effort, but it’s my mission.”
Every other year about 400 artists flock to Marrakech, some spending up to six weeks there collaborating with local craftsmen and artisans to make works that feature in the final show.
One of the star exhibits at this year’s event, for instance, is a work by Belgian artist Eric van Hove in which a car engine, based on the Mercedes-Benz V12, has been constructed using precious materials by 40 Moroccan craftsmen. The point of the work is to highlight the potential of the 3m or so craftsmen said to be working in the country.
While most biennales focus exclusively on art, Marrakech embraces film, literature and music, too. “A cross between the Venice Biennale and the Edinburgh Festival – with their fringe events – was my model for Marrakech,” says Branson.
Using the Biennale as her platform, Branson has become an advocate of “soft power” or the use of the arts as an agent for international diplomacy. In the past couple of months she has given speeches on the subject in Casablanca at a forum organised by the international talks platform Ted and in Saudi Arabia at the Global Competitiveness Forum. “I want to stress how the arts send a really positive message to the rest of the world and are an economic driver – innovation creates great business,” she says.
The Marrakech Biennale is one of the most chic there is, attracting European and Middle Eastern royalty as well as a sprinkling of arts glitterati. Last year Julian Schnabel, Zadie Smith and Annie Lennox came; this year’s line-up includes Rupert Everett, Stephen Frears and Julien Temple who will all give talks about their artistic practice.
“I realised early on how powerful the arts could be as a catalyst for discussing wider ideas,” says Branson. “You see it in action at the Marrakech Biennale – people working for, say, Chinese museums sit chatting to filmmakers from the Middle East. They really have time during these cultural festivals to develop relationships; the arts are enabling in a very subtle way.”
But does all the schmoozing really make any difference? Last year Qatar, which has one of the most high-profile arts programmes in the Arab world, sentenced the poet Muhammad al-Ajami to 15 years in jail for criticising a former emir. Is there a danger that autocracies use art simply to dignify their appalling regimes?
“The arts can at least help to get some debate going,” says Branson. “Artists by their nature enjoy being honest – often brutally so. I’m utterly convinced they can play a very important role.”
Branson was born in Surrey, southeast England, and her girlhood was filled with “just the right balance of nicotine, alcohol and people”. “The pressure on children nowadays seems so goal-driven with all these boxes to tick,” she says. “But like the rest of my family, I am dyslexic and passing exams meant very little to us. It was the evening meals with fascinating guests where we collected our knowledge. We would discuss world events and big stories and despite our youth and sometimes being laughed at, we were also listened to,”
Her father, Edward Branson, was a barrister, “a lovely, elegant, quiet man who smoked a pipe and purred in the corner”. She credits her mother, a former dancer, with the financial acumen that has flourished so successfully in her children. “She always used to say: ‘Don’t be frightened. Don’t fear; it is fear that holds people back.’ Being dyslexic was also a great advantage – I was completely unemployable and was forced to become my own boss.”
At 22 Branson set up her own picture-framing company, and at 24 she married Robert Devereux, a founding shareholder in the Virgin Group, with whom she had four children. When Branson was in her forties, the couple divorced, only to reunite a few years later for a further decade. But now, she says, the relationship has finally “run out of steam”.
Devereux, who is now chairman of Frieze Events & Magazines, sold his collection of British art for £4.73m three years ago in order to set up the African Arts Trust, which helps promote sub-Saharan artists – the theme of the 2016 Marrakech Biennale. Their 24-year-old daughter, Florence, has caught the arts bug, too. She is part of the Mint Collective, which unites artists, musicians and writers in their twenties from across the globe with Moroccan ones.
With barely any sponsorship, the Biennale relies on a number of deals in kind for its support, with Branson underwriting its core funding of €1.5m. “I think everyone expects my brother to pay for it,” she says. “But art isn’t really Richard’s thing – he likes writing.” Without financial help, however, Branson fears that the Biennale may not survive. The King of Morocco has given it his formal imprimatur but his approval has not yet translated into hard cash.
“I do think the country is beginning to recognise what a great investment the arts can be,” says Branson, brightly. “Everyone, the world over, is worried about what is going to become of today’s idle youth. But if you harness their skills they have the ability to be creative. Give them a directing package and you have little film directors everywhere rather than little thugs.”
Marrakech Biennale runs to March 31, marrakechbiennale.org