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There is something interesting happening in Marrakech. The new Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts (MMPVA) is up and running. Some might say it is running before it can walk, since it has as yet no permanent building, no properly constituted staff, and only hints as to where its collection will come from.
Logistical considerations of this kind, which often delay the launch of museums for years, have been pushed aside. More importantly, this museum has already set out a clear intention not to be another flat-pack globalised culture house, but something more surprising.
It is temporarily housed in the historic El Badi Palace, in the centre of Marrakech, while its permanent home is built. British architect David Chipperfield has prepared plans for an enormous and spectacular building to be built on the outskirts of Marrakech. A programme of exhibitions, already under way, has been anything but routine.
The first show is given over to 10 contemporary Moroccan photographers. The quality is mixed, admittedly, but it was brave to open a museum with local, relevant, fresh work in a vernacular immediately graspable by the local population. Hassan Hajjaj is a relatively known artist with a strong record, notably in London where he has lived for some years. He showed small clear colour portraits of sitters dressed in studiedly ironic clothing (a djellaba in the characteristic monogram of the Louis Vuitton company, for example) on which the background has been painted out in bright north African colours or patterns. These are framed first in woven mats made of strips cut from plastic bags and, outside those, in slats cut from recycled tyres with their tread still legible as the carved pattern on the frame. These vaguely hip-hop artworks are full of sampled imagery and borrowed allusion, complex reflections on globalisation and consumerism and how those things arrive in a place such as Morocco.
Yto Barrada, shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse prize in 2006, showed a simple picture of a young girl sitting on a step looking at a dragonfly. Barrada, who has always been able to compose and frame with a gloriously controlled classical beauty, simply gave us here a characteristic Moroccan contrast between mainly dun colours and the sudden sharp blazing iridescent burst of the bug. A series of stitched photographs by Carolle Benitah was interesting, too, although a notch lower in quality. This was subtle and good photography, well chosen and at a high level.
Then the museum upped the ante. Five photographers from the Magnum agency were invited to spend a little time in Marrakech and create work based on the city. They found it harder than expected because the Magnum habit has been to photograph for books or magazines first and for the pictures only to leech on to museum walls after a time. Some, among them Jim Goldberg, simply didn’t come up with anything much. Goldberg’s skill comes in opulent fugues of sequencing and display, and he ran out of time to do that.
The two most interesting responses were from Susan Meiselas and Mikhael Subotzky. These contrasting photographers – Meiselas, the older, with the unimpeachable credentials and the eye of a hawk, and Subotzky, the younger, fashionable but with the jury still out on whether he will turn out to be the real deal – had exactly the same core reaction. They found it impossible to photograph the people of Marrakech in the straightforwardly piratical manner that photographers normally regard as OK. This is partly because Marrakech in particular, more than many other places, has a huge tourist population that photographs incontinently. In Marrakech, people are used to holding out their hands for money to be photographed, and are used to photographs having absolutely no meaning in the wider scheme of things.
Meiselas’ solution was to come up with a pop-up studio, in a public space in the market, in which she asked women to volunteer to be pictured. If they then decided they didn’t want to be part of the show, it cost them a small but appreciable sum to remove their pictures from the series. Meiselas quietly put the Dh20 notes of those who opted out on the walls where the picture would have been.
This simple strategy goes deep. There were stories of women weeping when they saw the respect with which the photographer had treated them and, at the other extreme, of women who hadn’t sat later putting pressure on those who had to withdraw for reasons of decency. Some of the sitters came to the opening night of the show, to be confronted for the first time not only by the strange paraphernalia of a museum but by the first representation of themselves done with honour and skill. You couldn’t have found a better way to raise awareness of issues around the roles and treatment of women in Morocco, to challenge preconceptions and to provoke debate.
Subotzky went another way. He equipped himself with a motorbike and a piece of video kit normally used by estate agents to make 360-degree views of the houses on their books. With these he was able to chug through the city. The film is rough but very powerful: the ground tilts and slides, seemingly toppling out of the frame. Sometimes his camera sidles along the side of tourist buses, filming them filming the city. Then, suddenly, he’s on the bus, a direct affront. Down back alleys, through the main tourist spots, this little film is a shifting, unsettling rollercoaster between voyeurism and the veil. To see such a thing with the eyes of a Marrakech resident must be a very thought-provoking experience.
Not bad for a museum that is only six weeks old. Its driving force, managing director (and curator pro tem) is David Knaus, one of the founders of the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Pavilion. Part of the finance comes from Karen Ruimy, a Moroccan who gave up a successful career in the financial sector in favour of a number of cultural activities. And as Knaus explains, “we have a very reliable partner in the Minister of Culture, Mohammed Sbihi, who has provided the site at El Badi Palace in a landmark private-public partnership”.
The MMPVA may be the first of a planned series of arts establishments. Rumour has it that a museum of decorative arts is next in line, to be headed by collector Pierre Bergé, a former chief executive of Yves Saint Laurent and long resident in Marrakech. That will be another statement. But with the arrival of the MMPVA, we can already see that Morocco’s new museums are to be active participants in polity and not just treasure houses of imported values.