SOAS University of London

Beyond the Myth

Moroccan contemporary art is a recent phenomenon dating largely from the second half of the twentieth century.   Though frequently exhibited throughout Europe, particularly in France and Spain, it is largely unknown in Britain.  Beyond the Myth is an opportunity to share a discovery; a chance to present a major exhibition of Moroccan talent to British audiences for the first time.   The lingering image of Morocco is still one of exotic harems, camels and kasbahs; a leftover of 19th century Orientalist paintings.   But Morocco has moved on.   The artists working in Morocco today take their inspiration from a wide variety of sources and this exhibition is an attempt to reach 'beyond the myth'.

The exhibition makes no attempt to define Moroccan Art, it simply hopes to reveal something of the scope, the innovation and the exuberance of artists working in Morocco today.   It is rather a subjective selection of works by twelve dynamic Moroccan artists; each absorbed in his own creative universe. The aim was to present the work of the twelve in depth, by including a number of pieces for each. The participants span a geographical and generational range; they also explore a cross section of media embracing painted canvases, drawings, collages, sculptures, installations and video art. 

The works exhibited here speak a decidedly international language.  And yet many also celebrate something inherently Moroccan in their choice of iconography.   For example, Fouad Bellamine explores the classic form of the domed cube found in Marabouts or burial places of holy men which are dotted about the Moroccan landscape.  All of his works are untitled and the subject matter serves only as vehicle for him to construct and at times explode this form through his experiments with light and the gestural use of paint.  Mustapha Boujemaoui’s collages are centred on the theme of the traditional glass of tea; a convivial subject and fundamental feature of Moroccan daily life, but in these works the artist paradoxically uses the physical presence of tea to depict his subject.  In many of his painted sculptures Hassan Slaoui evokes memories that magnify the cherished items of things past.  In this exhibition he resurrects battered and long abandoned notebooks and the ancient astrolabe, a magnificent instrument first developed in the Islamic world and formerly used for measuring the altitudes of stars. 

Other artists explore materials and subject matter that refer to the life around them.  Farid Belkahia uses stretched animal skins as ground upon which he paints with only natural pigments to create his erotically suggestive signs and symbols.   In a very different way, Khalil El Ghrib enhances the materials others have thrown away.   Mildewed scraps in the process of decomposition are used to create his ephemeral works that will, like us, eventually disintegrate. Hicham Benahoud, formerly an art teacher in a middle school in Marrakech, uses his willing students as models for his walls of photographs, and in so doing gives these young an air of vulnerability. 

Some works allude to the human form and man’s predicament.   Mohammed Kacimi, the poet, philosopher and painter, draws on all his gifts to come to terms with reality and man’s place in the universe. His canvases are as much about life’s larger questions and his own sense of being, as is his poetry. The figures that people his canvases are illusive, in flux, with a rhythm of their own.  Mohammed Abouelouakar, a visionary who trained as a film maker in Russia, packs his large paintings of the Tower of Babel with dreamlike fantasies that speak a universal language; his foreshortened figures in agitated movements foretell world events about to unfold.  There is certainly a human dimension to the works of Abdelkarim Ouazzani, but he speaks in an innocent, whimsical and often humorous voice.  He has lived most of his life near the Mediterranean, and perhaps this lightens his spirit.  Even in his Tribute to his friend, the painter Mohamed Drissi who died this year, the artist chooses to celebrate the joy of life, and like his other works in this exhibition, he defines large areas of space in painted lines of primary colours.   

Labied Miloud’s subject could be said to be painting in dialogue with itself. The two styles of his offered in the exhibition contrast the black geometric canvases with those flowing ovoids of colour found in his more recent works.  Safaa Erruas is a conceptual artist who eliminates all colour but white from her work.  From snippets of silk paper, needles and metallic wire she has devised a piece three metres in length; its very fragility causes the play of light and shadow on the work to be altered.  Mounir Fatmi is at the cutting edge of art with his use of video technique.   His video demonstrates some of the paradoxes of global icons.

The concept and title Beyond the Myth struck a chord with the participating artists who met in January 2003 in Casablanca, to discuss this first exposure in London. They raised the issues of the north-south divide; the mainstream versus marginalized art; western versus non-western sensibilities. They often felt excluded from the international art scene because western art exhibitions and markets were self-perpetuating. Although they desired to pursue their art freely, without extraneous concerns, they were frequently pigeonholed by the West to fit an Arab-Muslim entity.

On the political front, there was considerable anxiety about the prospect of war with Iraq. While Britain was at war with Iraq, the artists felt that they could not participate in an exhibition in London.  Beyond the Myth has therefore had to be moved from its scheduled opening on 16 April until 27 May 2003.   It is hoped this exhibition will go some way towards opening doors and removing barriers which continue to confront artists from the Maghreb, as well as breaking down some of the unwelcome and inaccurate stereotypes of the Islamic world which have arisen in the wake of September 11th.

Beyond the Myth is under the High Patronage of His Majesty, King Mohammed VI of Morocco.   Although this exhibition benefits from official support and funding, the curators were entirely independent in their choice of artists and works.  The exhibition was organised and curated by a ‘troika’ consisting of Sylvia Belhassan, the Director of Villa des Arts, Fondation ONA, Hassan Slaoui, one of the participating artists, also been responsible for the design of the catalogue, and Arlene Fullerton, wife of a former British Ambassador to Rabat, herself a former Curator of the Brooklyn Museum, New York and the originator of the concept of Beyond the Myth.