Why you should care
Because society is shaped by art — and defined by how it treats artists.
Visit the tiniest hamlet in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco, three days’ walk from the nearest tarmac road, where people rely on produce from their small plots and meat from their animals, and you will find exquisite, hand-woven carpets, intricately carved doors and ornate cast-iron window grilles. At a village wedding, the men play the drums while women with tattooed faces dance and sing songs handed down from their Berber ancestors.
Art and culture are everywhere in Morocco, an integral part of daily life, but they are also starved for state support and funding. For a government grappling with social unrest, allegations of corruption and an ever-present threat from Muslim extremists, the arts are simply not a priority. And so it falls to cultural leaders, like Mohamed Amine Kabbaj, executive president of the Marrakech Biennale, to give a voice and a platform to Morocco’s artists.
What does this country of artists, situated at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and Asia, need to realize its cultural potential?
“Amine is an optimist,” says Abdelhamid Bousaadi, a young influencer on the Marrakech art scene and coordinator of TEDx Marrakech. “He can only imagine and accept the perfect program, no matter how dreamy or expensive it sounds. He is persistent and able to find solutions around financial problems.”
When Kabbaj enters a room, the first thing you notice is his energy. In his early sixties, he is an architect, a polymath, a contemporary art collector and, perhaps incongruously, an ultra runner, having completed what many consider the toughest footrace in the world, the Marathon des Sables, a dozen times.
His father was a merchant and his mother, unusual for the time, attained a high school education. Kabbaj was born in Casablanca and studied architecture in Strasbourg and Paris, explaining that he chose the field “because it brought me close to the artistic world and creativity, and it was also a job that had a lot of future for my country.”
That mixture of art and service has been Kabbaj’s MO from the start: He founded an architectural practice in 1992, contracting with the government to work on public housing development, moved on to high-end hotels and villas and then returned to his social roots by building hospitals in Morocco and throughout Africa.
And now, running the Marrakech Biennale has put Kabbaj squarely at the intersection of art and service — pushing him to the frontlines in the fight for greater support for the arts while also embroiling him in the debate over the event’s creative vision. Conceived in response to 9/11, the event was founded by Vanessa Branson, who saw it as a way to combat hatred and violence by drawing people together and to counter stereotypes from the region. Kabbaj joined the effort in 2012, and in 2014 it was named one of the top 20 biennales in the world by Artnet.
“Cultural leaders come in many shapes and sizes — academics, practitioners and enthusiasts,” Branson tells OZY. “Amine is the latter. He is an inspirational man [who] understands that the arts drive creativity, that creativity inspires innovation and innovation drives the economy.”
For last year’s Marrakech Biennale 6: Not New Now, Kabbaj chose to focus on artists from Africa and the Arab world, explaining, “I wanted to show that art, or rather culture, is no longer the preserve of the West.” Curated by Palestinian Reem Fadda, an art historian and associate curator at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project, the exhibit showcased the work of 45 Arab and African artists — a decision that attracted criticism from those who felt excluded.
Artist Gordon Davidson explains, “By consciously concentrating on the southern hemisphere … meaningful debate, networking and exchange of ideas, particularly at the international level, cannot take place if half of the world is excluded.”
The debate over its cultural direction and artistic vision, however, is not the most pressing issue for the Biennale: Rather, it is the lack of financial support. “We need real support from the government,” Kabbaj says. “All the other biennales are supported by the authorities, and we need it too.” With debts still outstanding from 2016, the 2018 edition has been put on hold. But Kabbaj is not feeling defeated; he says he plans to use the time to re-envision the Biennale seeking input from young creatives as well as the more established art community. “I’m going to hold a series of workshops to help decide: What is the Biennale? What’s it for? What’s the goal?”
Looking beyond the financial needs and creative mission of the Biennale, Kabbaj sees the future in education — and he wants art to be a fixture of the curriculum. “Today, culture must be taught like any other scientific or economic discipline,” he says. “It is through the places of teaching and from an early age that creativity is cultivated.” This is a tall task in a country with 32 percent illiteracy and where high school attendance is not mandatory. But Kabbaj, who boasts of bringing 4,500 public school children to the last Biennale, refuses to be swayed.
So, what does this country of artists, situated at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and Asia, need to realize its cultural potential? “Culture requires education and freedom of expression,“ states Kabbaj. But without support from the municipal authorities, potential will be only that. To hear Kabbaj on the subject, art is critical for the health of society, and his role is to ensure access to it. “The first leader of culture must be the elected representatives of the cities. They must reflect on the welfare of their citizens.”
Want more from Morocco? Check out this interview with reporter Alice Morrison for a primer on everything you need to know about the country.