Rabat – Two events highlight Morocco’s rising role as both a catalyst and a facilitator of African artistic renaissances, as well as the connector of the African art scene to the global connoisseurs. Morocco’s upcoming participation in the third annual “Morocco in Abu Dhabi” arts festival, which takes place March 6-19, highlights the growing political, economic, and cultural ties between Morocco and UAE, but also showcases the preservation of Morocco’s traditional arts.
In February, Morocco hosted a contemporary African arts fair called “Decolonize Always!“, which explores breaking down stereotypes and barriers to indigenous self-expression which rose as a result of colonial rule and culture. Two seemingly polar opposite events show the rich spectrum of Morocco’s growing role as a global player in an area previously relegated to the specialist collectors and the rare lovers of the exotic. Morocco is leading the way in mainstreaming and normalizing the idea of African art – and that is great for everyone.
Morocco in Abu Dhabi exhibit seeks to attract younger people, both to the exhibit itself and to heritage preservation efforts, featuring an entire gallery focused on Design and Youth. The African Arts fair featured an artist from Ghana, who, to contrast the limiting nature of colonial-era museums that no one visits, came up with an idea of a traveling exhibit with walls that can be broken down and folded away when the museum stops at a particular place. There are several likely developments to follow from these events. First, successful Morocco in Abu Dhabi series is likely to continue, growing and taking on new forms and idea with time. In the future, it may inspire local Abu Dhabi-based artists to experiment with fusion styles that will affect their own culture. The effects of this can already be seen thanks to the Moroccan artisans who work in UAE.
Second, Morocco’s craftsmanship will likely become increasingly international, with more opportunities to showcase folk arts in other parts of the Middle East, and around the world. Transporting these exhibits is costly, and would require major investments from governments or private institutions, but well worth it for the effects of cultural diplomacy as well as attracting tourists, customers, and expanding the appreciation of Moroccan art on a global level. Third, it could motivate more students to go into heritage preservation-related projects, and ultimately attract an infusion of funding that would improve the otherwise uninspiring educational system.
Morocco has a rich history and a spectrum of diverse artisanship; increased exposure would benefit tribes in rural areas, and provide an incentive for continuing these traditions, as well as improve local economies, with a possibility of an international customer network. Eventually, classes related to these arts could be taught in universities around the world and become an important part of world heritage, while influencing artistic movements, as well as interior designs and objects of decor in a more positive and interesting way due to the traditional yet unfamiliar roots, perhaps finally taking away contemporary art scenes from shock-based postmodernism.
No less interesting is the role Morocco can play in creating innovation in art inside Africa itself. Importantly, it facilitates the return to the roots of indigenous art and creates a space where new perspectives can flourish based on new paradigms and starting points. Nevertheless, the question here arises where complete decolonization can ever really happen – and whether it is desirable. Cultures influence each other – and regardless of how it actually started, that is how growth occurs. Arab empires once colonized what is now Morocco, subsuming local black cultures, and spreading across the continent.
Though they dominated over the indigenous cultures, their presence left an indelible mark, and Morocco’s rich and diverse cultural mosaic, and the tradition of tolerance, would not have evolved if not for having to deal with these experience, and figure out a way of coexisting peacefully among the different traditions that could have clashed, but ultimately ended up complementing one another. European culture, too, is an important mark that imbues Moroccan culture. Though the argument of how much influence should remain after France and Spain have withdrawn their presence, there is no denying that these influences are not only important to the creation of the multifaceted modern Moroccan identity, but are a source of pride for Moroccans who find their beautifully complex heritage unique and position to serve as connections between countries, cultures, and continents. Other African countries, despite whatever benefits colonialism may have brought, have a more challenging relationship with the past. More so than the physical burdens of what is perceived as one-sided and exploitative relationships with European state, decolonialization refers to the mindset free of foreign influence and finding pride in one’s own cultural heritage and traditions, particularly the original practices that were in place prior to the imposition of alien customs and rules.
Indeed, colonial expectations and boundaries, people like the artist from Ghana, feel place limitations on the possibilities of creative self-expression which are inline with the rigid European social expectations. The theme of Decolonize Africa! then refers to the practice of undoing the damage and liberating from the social and cultural constraints. What does the re-imagining of African traditions in the light of modernity look like? That is what the art fair is set to explore, celebrating a wide spectrum of African artists across three continents. Marrakech, with its rich tradition of multiculturalism yet close ties to the land and local identity, is the perfect place to host one of them. Until now, the Western media has devoted little coverage to such events. In the imaginations of most Westerners, Africa remains either an exotic yet inaccessible world, or a continent of victims with vestiges of abuse left over from centuries of foreign invasions, or for some, still, a distant and dangerous place where 54 countries all blur into one, with each portion more threatening than the next. The series of art fairs may do something that no supposedly objective Western coverage has been able to achieve – demystifying Africa and bringing it down to a human, accessible, and easy-to-understand level.
Bringing Africa to every home is something to aspire to. Because ultimately, the more people can touch a culture, the more they can see beyond stereotypes, fantasies, and rumors, and break down the internal barriers that prevent them from reaching out and exploring the country or the region. It means they understand something about the individuals and traditions and why they express themselves in a particular way. And it means that their own world has just gotten a little bigger and a little richer. When I visited Morocco for the first time, the first question my friends and family asked me was whether it’s safe to go. Aside from the fact that no one bothered looking up crime statistics, nor Morocco’s geography, and the exceptionally safe and stable Morocco appeared to be no different than the war-torn DRC – it surprised me how little interest there seemed to be in any other aspect of my travel.
No one’s concern was about the weather, the climate, the infrastructure, the bureaucracy, the accommodations, the ability to interact in English, or the single most important issue that ACTUALLY matters – the food. That African countries, even the safest ones that attract millions of tourists every year, are reduced to fears about crime statistics, ultimately means that those countries and their culture are nothing more than just dots on a travel map to most people, and there is no incentive for them to put more effort into learning more until they get enough information to peak their interests. Travel stories and photos from friends are one way to do this; but bringing down a little of the country right where a person can see it, touch it, participate a little, and want to see and do a lot more of it, is really the way to go. If a society is not used to traveling or not yet open to the idea of physically exploring a particular region, introduction to that culture within their comfort zone is one step towards getting them out of their shell.
Thanks to the forces of globalization, US music, fast food, big fashion brands, and moves have touched most of the world in some capacity. Big urban areas in the United States, like NYC, proudly boasts of dozens of Moroccan restaurants (also, a few Ethiopian, maybe one or two Egyptian and Tunisian, and maybe a couple of Western African ones), and proudly display some traditional arts in an assortment of museums. University students can take hundreds of classes on just about any culture, and musical tour groups come to the city all the time; one needs only to look. Still, unless one already has friends from a particular culture, making the exploration of something that is slightly off the beaten path a priority amidst all the other events and distractions is not easy. And in most of the country, outside the major cities, even that level of exposure does not exist.
For that reason, these arts festivals play a central part in peope-to-people cultural diplomacy, in building the bridges that even a conversation might not suffice right away. People who are not open to conversing with individuals from another culture out of fear, biases, discomfort, or simply not knowing what to say and how to say it, will find fewer inhibitions in observing a beautiful dance, hearing an appealing song, or handling an intricately crafted object.
For that reason, “Decolonize Africa!” has a potential to make the kind of global impact even social media with its instantaneous connections between users from all over the world cannot make as effectively. Without the downsides of misunderstandings, or simply stumbling into the wrong people, arts festivals bring the visuals that just makes one stop, think, enjoy, or question without having to agonize about the implications of this or that statement or comment. Hopefully, this exhibit will tour far and wide, and comes to the US, and not just to NYC but to the deepest corners of the country where there may not be all the biggest museums, where Moroccans or other Africans are unheard of, where everything people know about African countries is from the news and the Internet, and where there is an opportunity to make the biggest impact simply by appearing, being, and allowing the communities to enjoy and to ask for more. Conversations build bridges, but arts open doors, and hearts.
Morocco is increasingly in the best possible place to do both.