Abdelkader Benali brought Moroccan art here

The exhibition The second story almost a month has started in the Cobra Museum in Amstelveen, about modern Moroccan art. Still, it already attracts visitors from all over the country. The well-known Moroccan-Dutch author Abdelkader Benali is the guest curator of this exhibition. He carefully collected the works of art, which date from the period after Morocco’s independence in 1956. What is the story that this generation of Moroccan artists wanted to tell? And what appeals to the author in Moroccan modernism?

Why an exhibition on Moroccan modernism? Has your own work influenced you on this journey?

‘From 2015, I visited exhibitions of modern Moroccan art. Then the urge arose to bring that work to Holland. A clear connection to my literary practice: the Moroccan writers went into discussion with the visual artists. They saw each other as colleagues, each trying to change the world with their own resources. There was a lot of idealism in it. As soon as I started reading the works of Moroccan writers, I also discovered the artists. In recent years, I have also seen so many good young artists emerge. I was therefore pleased that museum director Stefan van Raay invited me to design the exhibition.

‘Like in the work of contemporary Moroccan artists, I use everyday Moroccan objects and attributes as the starting point for a story. This is how garden chairs come into play Wedding by the sea an important role. The role of the chair has a strong charge in Moroccan society and evokes associations with authority and hierarchy. ‘

Modernism is generally known as the European art movement. Should we then see Moroccan modernism as a reproduction of European art?

‘Modernism is not tied to a geographical location but is a mentality. The artist creates a modern consciousness by giving an external form to what he has in cultural baggage and thus giving his culture back to the public. The young Moroccan artists thought it was very important that people who did not come into contact with art were given the opportunity to look at art. Most Moroccans did not go to the Academy of Fine Arts because it was banned during the colonial era. There were no museums either. So the artists brought their works to squares and streets so people could spontaneously see them. The artists believed that by confronting art, people would evolve, be inspired to dream aloud of a better world.

“Modernism is therefore not a Western concept. Every artist makes a reflection of what is happening in the world. In fact, I would not think of art in Western or Eastern terms. The exhibition shows that art from Morocco is inspired by modernity and that Moroccan artists manipulate this according to their cultural baggage. ‘

‘Modernism is not a Western concept. Every artist makes a reflection of what is happening in the world ‘

One of the themes you have chosen is decolonization. What role does it play in this exhibition?

“What makes Moroccan modernism so unique is that the birth of modernism coincided with Morocco’s independence in 1956. Morocco came out of French colonial rule, which gave art a boost. The Academy of Fine Arts in Casablanca was one vehicle of the settlers. That is, the French colonists used this academy for themselves. The Moroccan people were not allowed to study there. They could work in the archives or as administrators of the museum, but they were not allowed to become artists. This policy was part of the divide and rule policy at the time. The education at the academy was divided: one course of study trained people to become administrators or archivists, the other course was pure art education. The French authorities preferred not to see Moroccans do art education. It was well understood that such an education could lead to critical artists who could criticize the colonial administration. The French did not want that. However, there was a lot of traditional art in Morocco. The French wanted to promote this art, and they needed officials and artisans to do it. The Moroccans were considered suitable for that sector. ‘

‘These traditional arts required no formal education. And traditional artists did not have the enthusiastic idealism of the young generation who settled in Casablanca shortly after independence, between 1956 and 1963, with the aim of bringing modernism to Morocco. These young artists had come into contact with modernism through their travels and meetings in countries such as Spain, France and Italy, where they received an art academy education. This new generation was able to receive an education abroad. And those encounters with modernism abroad gave her the baggage to shape Moroccan modernism. Back in Morocco, they argued that the museums in Morocco should be decolonized. They emphasized the Moroccan cultural heritage. ‘

How did this process of decolonization go with the young artists in Morocco?

“Specifically, decolonization is an individual process. But training a new generation to become an artist must take place at an institute. In this case, it is an art academy that requires a whole new curriculum, based on its own national culture. It sounds nice, decolonization, but what is it? Do you need to petrify your own culture so that there is no room for originality? Do you want to throw away all Western culture? It was a very difficult task for the young artists. These artists were very brave. They chose to bring examples of European art – such as nineteenth-century painting and sculpture – to the back rooms of these academies. And to bring local and traditional art from Morocco into the empty spaces. It’s our art: tattoo art from the Amazigh culture, jewelry art, stories, music culture. All these aspects formed the basis of a new national culture. The thinking was: this is our starting point for a new Moroccan art. ‘

In what way could this new Moroccan art, as part of the decolonization process, contribute to the formation of an individual identity for the young generation of Moroccan artists?

‘A good example is Fatima Mazmouz’s work (1974, ed.). She was a feminist. She wanted the dancing women or chikhates (Moroccan Priestesses, ed.) to restore their place in Moroccan history. In Moroccan culture is chikhates loved but also marginalized as they are often associated with immorality. But chikhates were also very important for the Moroccans’ resistance to the French as they sang important messages of independence in their songs. The French colonial authorities were not aware of this. The women used their bodies as a weapon in the fight against colonialism. Mazmouz offers us an extra history lesson. ‘

How could these artists hold on to their Moroccan roots while breaking new ground at the same time?

This is reflected in the work of the pioneers. They used typical local products, ingredients like henna powder and goat leather. They worked with sand and with shapes that they saw as Moroccan. They also used the shapes in Amazigh jewelry, shapes in Moroccan architecture, and shapes in Islamic calligraphy. A good example is the work of the artist Farid Belkahia (1934-2014, ed.), Whose works can also be seen at the Cobra Museum. He combined abstract art with geometric shapes in his works of art. His work is very layered, with layers based on materials from Moroccan culture. In his works of art, he uses goatskin, henna powder as paint and other forms from the Amazigh culture. So raw material work: you can not get more Moroccan! These worlds really meet in his work: the cultures of the craft, the culture of the Amazighs and the modernist movements around the German artist Paul Klee (1879-1940, ed.). Belkahia here clearly refers to modern art and by modern artists like Klee. Klee, in turn, has gained artistic inspiration in North Africa. These Moroccan artists were eager to get in touch with modern art from Europe. They did not have their backs to the outside world, but wanted to bring the outside world to Morocco. ‘

Artwork by Aissa Ikken (1937) (Image: Shawintala Banwarie)

How did the advent of modernism change the views of young artists on politics and Moroccan society?

“The first phase of the development of modernism focuses on the liberation of artists, the second phase on the liberation of society. From 1967, there was a growing recognition of the Palestinian cause (in response to the Six Day War and Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, ed.), Pan-Arabism and the Third Way (countries that did not want to join the capitalist West). join, but also do not join the Communist Eastern Bloc, ed.). The visits abroad inspired African thinkers and poets. They opened a bridge to African culture, through writing or by criticizing colonial art. And the new generation of Moroccan artists increasingly realized, especially in the sixties and seventies, that art is also a political instrument.

‘With modernist art, themes such as human rights and human dignity could be put on the agenda’

‘In 1965 there was a revolt in Casablanca. Students and union members went on strike over measures restricting their freedoms. However, the regime brutally crushed this uprising and killed hundreds, perhaps thousands. In response to this, in collaboration with artists, the literary magazine Souffler Setup. Through modernist art, themes such as human rights and human dignity could be put on the agenda. Thus, a new form of modernism was created, in which writers and artists entered into dialogue to shape society and resist injustice. ‘

The exhibition has received a great deal of media attention. What did you think was the best feedback you got?

‘Well, it’s the young Moroccan-Dutch artist who came to the exhibition with his mother. She is studying at the art academy. The exhibition gave her the opportunity to show her mother what she was doing. In this way, the exhibition truly becomes a place where worlds meet: because the mother, in turn, told her daughter about the background of art, the Moroccan world. ‘

‘The Other Story’ can be seen until 18 September at the Cobra Museum in Amstelveen.

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