Without a policy to promote and support local talent, Morocco will continue to lag behind in global art industries.
Rabat – Though Morocco has talented artists capable of propelling the country in the highest firmament of global art industries, the North African country’s cultural policies are still wanting in many regards.
“On Moroccan national television, we now watch American movies and Turkish TV series,” the prize-winning Moroccan painter and designer Houda Gueddari recently told Morocco World News at the Fez International Artists Gathering. “Morocco has no policy to promote its own artists. We turn on the TV and there is nothing to stimulate children’s intelligence or make the ordinary Moroccan a more cultured, educated, and informed citizen. Morocco’s political sphere is the first culprit.”
When asked why a country with Morocco’s rich artistic history and cultural heritage still finds it difficult, if not impossible, to claim a front seat in global art industries, Gueddari was anything but political.
Like other artists from developing countries and art critics, the Moroccan artist could have pointed an accusatory finger at the irresistible lure of America’s, or in general the West’s, dominant grip on global “cultural industry.”
Media and art juggernauts, it has often been argued, fuel an asymmetric global contest that sustains the West’s socio-cultural hegemony. As a result, countries like Morocco—and most of the developing world, for that matter—find their arts and ways of expressing their unique identities subsumed by an industry that thrives on uniformity.
But Gueddari chooses to aim her wrath at domestic political dynamics, continuously lambasting Moroccan politicians for their “lack of vision” in promoting and selling Moroccan art.
As far as she is concerned, this critique of Western cultural hegemony, however accurate, does not help to explain the dearth of cultural capital in the Moroccan public sphere. What, then, can we point out as the reason? Is it only domestic politics?
“Yes, obviously,” she replied, chuckling. But she hastened to add a bit of nuance: “I am aware that there are other things at play, such as families, schools, or the outside world. But in Morocco, everything passes through the government. Politicians are the ones with the power to change the course of things.”
Even if, at first sight, there is something substantively political about Moroccan art lagging behind in a global market, there is nothing fundamentally political about Gueddari’s “ways of seeing” and thinking about art.
True, Gueddari’s rhetoric is punctuated with moments of lamentation about Moroccan politics, but hers is fundamentally a devotion to the beauty and social significance of art, both for herself and Fez, the city where she was born and raised. In addition to supportive government policies, “Good art requires focus and dedication [from the artist],” she explained.
Of her activities in Fez, Gueddari said she now deploys the bulk of her artistic talents to ensure continuity and to “tap into the artistic sensibility of people who otherwise would not be interested in art.”
Asking “What can we do?” is to her far more effective and urgent than saying, for example, “Can we do it?” For her, art is about carving up universes of possibilities, imaginaries that enable and inspire social change. “We [artists] are constantly dreaming,” she says.
“Art made me who I am,” Gueddari told her audience on January 19 at the fourth International Artists Gathering of Fez. Art, she went on to argue, is about creating or expressing individualities engrained in the wider social context. While artists should not replace politicians, whose “job is to devise solutions to come to terms with social issues,” she suggests that art should create works that address society’s pressing concerns.
But art, as Gueddari sees it, is also about creating “art spaces,” places of “freedom, innovation, and inventivity,” as put by cultural theorist Lotte Arndt, one of Gueddari’s co-panelists at the Fez Gathering. Spaces, that is, where art can be felt, lived, and expressed. On that front, too, Gueddari leads by example.
Armed with her growing arsenal of international prizes, Gueddari has opened Fez’s first contemporary art gallery. The gallery is her way of “giving back” to her city. In addition to organizing cultural events such as painting and design workshops, the gallery seeks, according to its official website, “to promote artists of all kinds.”
While international prizes helped her public visibility, and her name has gained traction in the global cultural market, Gueddari’s artistic outlook has not really altered. She has remained the down-to-earth self-taught artist she was before success elevated her to unforeseen heights. “When I paint, I do not try to impress or seduce. Instead, I always seek to reflect my soul and the souls of all the women who inspire me,” she said in an interview with 2M, Morocco’s national television channel.
That was in late 2017, and one of her paintings, “La femme au Chapeau” (The Woman with a Hat), had just been nominated for the Dubai-held prestigious Global Art Awards.
At the prize ceremony in late November of the same year, she was voted among the 10 finalists. That recognition after her first ever attempt at an international contest helped the Moroccan artist stand out from the thousands of contenders from the four corners of the world who annually covet what she describes as “one the most highly regarded art accolades.”
Although Gueddari did not win in Dubai, the nomination was enough to kick-start her international career. “The Woman with a Hat” sealed the Fez-born painter’s spot among the world’s most revered painters. While 2017 marked her thunderous entrance into the coveted but very restricted universe of world-famous painters, it was 2018 that really came with a special torrent of accolades.
Between January and April last year, Gueddari’s life became a festival of recognition. On January 20 in Florence, she won the illustrious Leonardo da Vinci Prize International Art Award, arguably the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for painting.
That quintessential coronation as a trend-setting painter was followed by the Venice Biennale in March 2018 and the Fez Gate Prize in the Culture and Woman of the Year categories later in the same year.
Gueddari’s greatest achievement to date, however, is being listed in a booklet last year alongside the most inspiring and original painters of contemporary life. “To see my name alongside luminaries like Picasso and Salvador Dali was so humbling and gratifying,” said an effusive Gueddari at the Fez Artists Gathering.
For someone who focused on hard sciences in high school, graduated from university as a dentist, and did not take up painting as a professional endeavor until 2001, Gueddari’s recent deluge of success is not only “totally unexpected,” as she conceded, it is also dizzying. But as fame sinks in, the Moroccan artist strives to stay loyal to her calling: Doing painting that “speaks to the Moroccan experience.”
It would be simplistic and unfair to boil Gueddari’s painting down to a particular topic, but it is also accurate to point out that women—or their daily experiences—occupy a prominent spot in her work. In these times of deep political anxiety about gender roles and societal expectations, Gueddari sets out to confront and reassess a number of social codes.
As News New York put it in a short but densely lyrical piece, Gueddari’s work is saturated with bodies of “flourishing and thriving modern women.” Her paintings “[shout] the unspoken, the thirst, the pain, the anger to live freely,” the article added. While that assessment is right, it is, like the lyricism that underpins it, a bit exaggerated.
Far from being the paragon of the feisty feminist that many have come to expect from the MENA region’s “educated women,” Gueddari’s politics is more in tune with Saba Mahmood’s pious women’s movements in Cairo, Egypt.
Neither too conciliatory nor too provocative, Gueddari questions, challenges, and deconstructs Moroccan society’s emotions and certainties in her own way. Like herself, her paintings celebrate modernity without denying their underlying, perhaps authentic, “Moroccanness.” Gueddari’s politics, then, is about latent subversiveness.
Though she complains about Moroccan politicians for “stifling the country’s cultural debate” and condoning “dumb TV programs that harm Moroccan children’s creativity and intelligence,” Gueddari charges Moroccan artists with far greater responsibility. As they face ineffective and unsupportive government policies, Moroccan artists should take up the role of promoting their own art.
“Moroccan artists should not think fame and money first. That should be their last concern. Instead, they need to go out there, participate in cultural events without charging fees. They should go to people and try to establish themselves a base of people who know their art and capability. Everything else should come after that.”
Here again, Gueddari is not being a Pharisee; she lives by what she preaches. “When I established my art gallery, it was with the conviction that I would not make any profits in the first five years.”