BY Sean O’Toole in Opinion | 15 MAR 18

Africa Is No Island

At MACAAL, one of Marrakech’s many new cultural spaces, a rich photo survey rooted in journalistic, historical and anthropological enquiry

BY Sean O’Toole in Opinion | 15 MAR 18

The earthen ramparts that once bounded old Marrakech remain a potent symbol in a city whose dense urban identity has been ruptured by the numerous golf courses constructed on its metropolitan fringe. Thami El Glaoui, the Pasha of Marrakech, is credited with building the city’s first championship course in the late 1920s. More recent is Marrakech’s transformation from boho bolthole to walled-off golfing mecca: the city now has more than a dozen golf courses, many integrating residential complexes and hospitality features – including the 900-square-metre Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) at the Al Maaden Golf Resort.

Opened in late 2016 to showcase the collection of Moroccan property magnate Alami Lazraq and his son, Othman Lazraq, MACAAL was designed by French architect Didier Lefort and forms part of a constellation of new cultural institutions in Marrakech. They include collector Nabil El Mallouki’s Museum of Art and Culture of Marrakech, which opened in early 2016, and the Studio KO-designed Yves Saint Laurent Museum, opened last year; collectively these institutions have positioned Marrakech to become North Africa’s premier contemporary art destination. The younger Lazraq is sanguine about the place of MACAAL, describing it as ‘a small and intimate museum’ at its international launch in February 2018. ‘It is a family museum.’

Joan Bardeletti, Des jeunes filles d’une école privée de Nairobi, from the series ‘Les classes moyennes’, 2008–11, print on Baryta paper, 80 x 100 cm. Courtesy: MACAAL, Marrakech © the artist

MACAAL’s exhibition programme includes guest-curated temporary exhibitions hosted in parallel with institutional surveys. One of two exhibitions currently on view, ‘Second Life’ offers a broad overview of the Lazraq family’s 2000-strong collection and intermittently explores how artists from the continent repurpose everyday materials like plastic, copper coins and consumer waste – the artist collective Zbel Manifesto’s installation, A Dinner and City (2018), a low-lit room crammed with leftover packaging that swamps a formal dinner setting, was a talking point at the opening. And occupying the ground floor of the museum, ‘Africa is no Island’ presents an ambitious survey of photography that draws on the work of 23 African, diasporic and non-African photographers.

Ishola Akpo, from the series ‘L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux’, 2014, print on Baryta paper, 60 x 90 cm. Courtesy: MACAAL, Marrakech © the artist

Curated by the collective Afrique in Visu (Lisbon-based Jeanne Mercier and Baptiste de Ville d’Avray, here collaborating with curator Madeleine de Colnet), ‘Africa is no Island’ profitably brings together work intellectually rooted in journalistic, historical and anthropological enquiry. Loosely organized into three sections devoted to the body, time and space, the selected works are drawn equally from MACAAL’s collection and Afrique in Visu’s online platform. MACAAL’s progressive appetite for photography owes to Othman Lazraq’s friendship with photographer Leila Alaoui, who died in 2016 following a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

While African subject matter figures strongly, the show’s curators argue that Africa is a ‘visual territory’ rather than a bounded terrain, a conceit that allows them to bypass ‘the very notion of borders’. It is an optimistic claim: identity, that surging counterforce to a borderless world, nonetheless registers strongly in the exhibition’s many portraits. The human subject is frequently deployed as a means to reflect of past time. Joana Choumali’s arresting portrait, Mme Djeneba (2013–14), is one of two such works from her ‘Hââbré: The Last Generation’ series, which focuses on ritual scarification, a social custom rapidly heading for extinction.

Joana Choumali, Mme Djeneba Haabré, from the series ‘la dernière génération’, 2013–14, print on Baryta paper, 90 x 60 cm. Courtesy: 50 Golborne Gallery, London © the artist 

Choumali portrays her subjects frontally, in three-quarter pose and from behind, respectfully isolating her subject against a neutral backdrop. Similarly, Leila Alaoui presents a portrait of a young Gnawa woman in Mauritanian dress photographed in 2014 in southern Morocco (part of her series ‘The Moroccans’, 2010–14). Alaoui’s and Choumali’s portraits owe a debt to the formal registers of anthropological modernism, a broad church of photography that privileged clarity and precise description of the human subject. It was a mode also preferred by various colonial ethnographers.

Photographic tropes used to describe and define blackness have long interested Ayana V. Jackson, a self-taught photographer born in New Jersey, US. Her striking seated portrait, Sara Forbes (2016), offers a contemporary reimagining of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an orphaned Yoruba royal who was gifted by King Ghezo of Dahomey to Queen Victoria in 1850. Jackson’s dispassionate self-portrait quotes the styling adopted by Victorian royal photographer William Bambridge in his 1856 portrait of Forbes. Jackson’s work forms part of a seam of performative portraiture that includes work by Namsa Leuba, Maïmouna Guerresi and Lebohang Kganye, whose 2013 series ‘Ke Lefa Laka’ (My Heritage) explores her family history. Kganye’s narrative tableaus feature photographs of the artist wearing her grandmother’s clothes, with additional protagonists drawn from family albums.

‘Africa Is No Island’, 2018, installation view, MACAAL, Marrakech. Courtesy: MACAAL, Marrakech; photograph: Saad Alami

The exhibition has its idiosyncratic moments. Both Alaoui and Jackson’s portraits are installed in purpose-built alcoves, an isolating device that amplifies the encounter with their bold and contrasting depictions of black femininity. The exhibition is marred somewhat by Lazraq’s refusal to caption or textually describe any of the exhibited works. Lazraq is compelled by photography’s democratic reach across the continent, and its ability ‘to capture and record what is real,’ as he writes in the catalogue. A photograph, though, is rarely self-evident and often requires a measure of exposition. The five portraits drawn from Paris-based Italian Nicola Lo Calzo’s project Cham (2007–16), a globe-spanning exploration of the embodied ancestral legacy of the African slave trade, are rendered stunningly mute, which is a shame.

François-Xavier Gbré, Unilever #2, Haubourdin, France, 2010, from the series ‘Tracks’, 2009–16, print on Baryta paper, 80 x 120 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan © the artist 

The torsions of urban renewal gripping Morocco form the basis of Hicham Garddaf’s ‘Red Square’ series (2014–17): tightly framed photos of urban wall surfaces from Tangier. The implied critique of Morocco’s rapid urban development in this work is somewhat neutered by the indoor display; Garddaf usually presents his photographs in outdoor installations, juxtaposed against city walls. Abijan-based Frenchman François-Xavier Gbré’s dispassionate studies of industrial and architectural ruin in Africa and Europe offer a fine counterpoint to Garddaf’s fractional vision of the new. Gbré’s four photographs include interior studies of the ruined Elizabeth Hotel in Tiberias, Israel, made in 2009 at the start of his project, and a defunct Unilever soap factory in Haubourdin, near Lille, photographed in 2010. The ruins look African, but aren’t. That is partly the point of this roaming, intriguing, people-interested exhibition: the unravelling of time and the confident articulation of Africa’s relatedness to elsewhere.

Main image: Hicham Benohoud, Untitled from the series ‘La salle de classe’, 1994–2002, silver photography on Baryta paper, 50 x 60 cm. Courtesy: MACAAL, Marrakech © the artist

Sean O’Toole is a journalist in Cape Town, South Africa. He edits Art South Africa.