Cultural unity, religious tolerance, and ethnic diversity may seem like lofty goals for an art exhibition, but those are the premises that underlie two blockbuster shows to feature Morocco in Paris: “Medieval Morocco: An Empire from Africa to Spain” (“Le Maroc medieval, un empire de l'Afrique à Espagne”) at the Louvre and “Contemporary Morocco” (“Le Maroc contemporain”) at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA). Both the medieval and contemporary exhibitions share similar messages of Morocco as an open and tolerant society situated at the crossroads between Europe and Africa. “Medieval Morocco” was designed to show the majesty of the country's cultural patrimony, concentrating on the period from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries, featuring approximately 300 objects borrowed from mosques, Qur'anic schools, libraries, and museums in Morocco, Spain, Mali, Egypt, and beyond. Morocco's King Mohammed VI, known to be a patron of the arts, made a hefty monetary donation to the Islamic wing of the Louvre in Paris. As many of the objects included in the exhibition were on loan from Morocco's most sacred spaces, it is likely that the exhibition would not have occurred without the backing of the King himself. Held at the same time was an exhibition meant to capture the vibrancy of Morocco's current artistic scene: “Contemporary Morocco,” which included works by more than eighty living artists, writers, designers, and architects spread over four floors of the IMA.
The curating team of Yannick Lintz, Bahija Simou, Claire Delery, and Bulle Tuil-Leonetti organized “Medieval Morocco” according to chronological periods with each section, concentrating on a specific ruling dynasty, including the Idrissids, the Almoravids, the Alhomads, and the Merinids. The exhibition was meant to decenter the history of medieval Mediterranean exchange, which typically focuses on Europe, by telling it from a Moroccan perspective. Using similar objects to illustrate the power and might of each Moroccan dynasty, most sections included a large pair of bronze-covered cedar doors and a cedar pulpit (minbar) as anchoring works (Fig. 1). These were supplemented by the inclusion of gold coins, handwritten manuscripts, luxury textiles, and ceramics, as well as wood and stucco architectural fragments. While the artworks were given detailed explanatory labels by the curators, the exhibition began to feel repetitive due to similar art objects in each historical section. However, the inclusion of early twentieth century photographs by the Neuredein Brothers, Gabriel Veyre, and Boris Maslow helped to contextualize objects within the landscape of Morocco.
Curators used a purple wall color and low lighting throughout the exhibition, thereby signaling objects of royalty, power, and wealth. Upon entering, one was greeted by an immense thirteenth century copper-alloy lamp from the Qarawiyyin Mosque in Fes, one of Morocco's most revered mosques and home to the oldest continually functioning university in the world (Fig. 2). Located in Fes's old city (medina), I found myself trying to imagine how this lamp could have been removed from its home in the mosque's nave and transported through Fes's narrow, winding city streets.
Labels in the exhibition included an object's date and place of production, its provenance (where it was discovered), as well as its current location, illustrating how successive Moroccan medieval dynasties extended their empires across the Mediterranean and into Africa south of the Sahara. For example, a twelfth century stele inscribed in Arabic was attributed to Almeréa, Spain, despite the fact that it was found near Gao, Mali (Fig. 3). Another example is the bronze griffin, which was mounted on the Cathedral of Pisa in the early twelfth century and remained there until the nineteenth (Fig. 4). Its original date and site of production remains unknown, although scholars typically attribute it to Spain. It was decorated with Arabic calligraphy but may have been commissioned by Christians using motifs inspired by Islam. It most likely was taken as war booty by the Republic of Pisa after a successful battle.
Curators of “Medieval Morocco” sometimes acknowledge problems of attribution on labels by adding a question mark after an object's place of production. However, they miss an opportunity to address the circumstances by which objects circulated across the Mediterranean and how meanings given to such objects would have shifted and changed as they crossed into different contexts. For example, the bronze griffin had a device placed inside to produce sound but its original context remains unknown. It took on another meaning when it was placed atop a Pisan cathedral where it possibly served as a war trophy. It was redefined as a work of art and named the “Pisa Griffin” when it was transferred into a museum context (Hoffman 2001).
Objects exchanged across the Mediterranean and into the Sahara suggest that medieval Moroccan empires engaged in open dialogue and exchange across cultural and religious boundaries. However, this is an idealized vision of the past, in which difficult aspects of history are sometimes glossed over. While curators considered trans-Saharan trade, they avoided discussing Morocco's involvement in the slave trade. They did address the puritanical tendencies of the Almohad Dynasty, which spread a conservative version of Islam. In order to do so, they included a twelfth century manuscript written in Hebrew by the renowned Jewish scholar Moshe ben Maimone, who was born in Cordoba but went into exile in Egypt to avoid forced conversion to Islam. To stress ethnic plurality, they emphasized the Berber (Amazigh) heritage of Morocco's medieval dynasties, including a manuscript written in both Arabic and Berber by one of the instigators of the Almohad reform movement, Ibn Tumart. Significantly, contemporary nomenclature was adopted using the word “Berber” interchangeably with “Amazigh.” The term “Amazigh,” which means “free person” in Tamazight, the Berber language, is preferred by activists engaged in ethno-political movements to counter Arabization policies established by Morocco during the postcolonial period.
One of the crucial differences between the organization of the exhibitions at the Louvre and the IMA is that the latter used thematic rather than chronological divisions. This allowed social issues affecting Moroccans today to be highlighted. Dividing the exhibition into thematic sections, the curators Jean-Hubert Martin, Moulim El Aroussi, and Mohamed Metalsi included Sufism, emigration, interrogating of conventions, the questioning of beliefs, and responses to the Arab Springs. As these themes suggest, contemporary artists engage with difficult topical concerns, including migration and religious extremism. For example, Leila Alaoui's powerful six-minute, three-screen video installation entitled Crossings (2013) was filmed from the imagined viewpoint of a migrant crossing the Sahara, capturing the psychological and physical stress experienced as one makes the harrowing journey from Africa south of the Sahara to northern Africa and eventually to Europe (Fig. 5). Artists also boldly addressed gender. Fatima Mazmouz's Super Oum (2009), meaning “Super Mother,” featured photographs of the pregnant artist wearing nothing but high-heeled leather boots, a leather bikini, and a black ski mask while striking action poses caricaturing a superhero. These photographs, along with videos by Nadia Bensallam and Randa Maroufi that capture the harassment of women on the street by men, addressed restrictive gender conventions that limit the physical and social mobility of women.
Another female artist of note is Safaa Erruas, whose installation The Pillows (2005) occupied a prominent corner of the exhibition (Fig. 6). Erruas mounted numerous white pillows onto two walls that at first glance resembled the white, flat-roofed buildings typical of the Tetouan cityscape, her hometown. However, upon closer inspection each pillow had been cut, ripped, and partially repaired by bandaging or stitching with silver wire; some were covered with metal spikes. The use of pillows, items of softness and comfort associated with domestic spaces, when treated as such suggest unresolved suffering and acts of aggression against the female body.
Many contemporary male artists have been inspired by women's popular culture, such as henna designs. Farid Belkahia, who once directed the École des beaux-arts in Casablanca, consciously desired to break down the dichotomy between fine art and craft, stretching skin over curvilinear canvases that he painted with henna (Fig. 7). Belkahia died a few weeks before the opening of the exhibition, and his art and that of his peer Mohamed Melehi serve as the only historical references to the development of a modern art scene in the 1960s. Instead, the majority are young, emerging artists, both academically trained and self-taught.
While religious arts dominated the “Medieval Morocco” show, numerous monumental works in the “Contemporary Morocco” exhibition could be understood as uplifting and positive expressions of faith. For example, Younès Rahmoun's octagonal white dome installation, Zahra Zoujaj (2000), stands out as one of the memorable pieces of the exhibition (Fig. 8). Rahmoun, inspired by Sufi thought and practice, created a structure that resembled a Sufi shrine and posted a sign that invited visitors to remove their shoes before entering the installation, as if they were entering a sacred space. Inside the dark interior, one's attention was immediately drawn to the numerous glass lamps arranged in a pattern to evoke the honeycomb (muqarna) ceilings found in Morocco's medieval mosques and Qur'anic schools, as well as the Alhambra in Granada, Spain (Fig. 8). Rahmoun carefully mounted seventy-seven lamps to the ceiling to symbolize the seventy-seven branches of the Muslim faith. God is light, according to Sufi philosophy, and Rahmoun presented us with meditative and hypnotic artwork that suggests Sufis who use repeating rhythms and chanting to escape the mundane world and enter into the spiritual realm.
While “Medieval Morocco” used rare and magnificently crafted objects associated with royalty and religious life to remind the visitor of the splendor of Morocco's history, “Contemporary Morocco” features a more egalitarian vision. Undoubtedly, this speaks to the influence of curator Jean-Hubert Martin, known for his controversial 1989 exhibition “Les magicians de la terre,” which featured many self-taught “non-Western” artists alongside academically trained ones from Europe and the United States. In addition to cutting-edge multimedia installations, “Contemporary Morocco” included such self-taught artists as carpenter and painter Said Ouarzaz. Ouarzaz created a table and a bench with a bird-shaped backrest, which he decorated with a multitude brightly colored splatters of paint (Fig. 9).
In the room where Ouarzaz's work was displayed, numerous hand-knotted carpets were hung on a wall painted a deep orange hue (Fig. 9). The display primarily featured carpets made of synthetic materials or repurposed fabric. I immediately recognized these textiles as boucharouette, meaning “one of rags.” These handmade textiles are largely made of synthetic materials or repurposed pieces of wool. In southeastern Morocco, where I did my doctoral research, these primarily function as bedding and, as people associate them with poverty, many refuse to make and use them, believing that they could bring misfortune to a household. However, the IMA exhibition surprisingly brought these textiles into the museum context, even including the name of weavers on accompanying labels. In general Moroccans themselves do not value these textiles, but the museum's emphasis on them leads me to suspect that this display might reflect the influence of a collector. If their inclusion was done to emphasize the creativity of rural women, hanging many of them together on an orange-colored wall did them a disservice. The display evoked a Moroccan souk (market) and signaled that they be considered examples of folklore or craft, rather than be given value equal to works by academically trained artists.
Upon exiting the IMA, I noticed that museum personnel was in the process of writing the words “Nous Sommes Tous Charlie” (“We are all Charlie”) in bright red, referring to the recent Charlie Hebdo shootings. The colorful vertical banners hung outside the IMA were written in Hebrew, French, Arabic, and Tifinagh (the Amazigh/Berber script), the latter referencing the 2011 recognition of Tamazight as one of Morocco's official languages alongside Arabic. I went to have tea in the massive nomadic-style tent designed by the architect Tarik Oualalou that was installed in front of the museum's entrance (Fig. 10). Inside was a Moroccan disc jockey spinning music to an enthusiastic crowd of Moroccans who had attended the show. Exhibitions concentrating entirely on Morocco are rare, even in France, where art exhibitions typically feature Algeria rather than its neighbor to the west. Moroccans living in France not only visited both exhibitions, but the dance party in the tent revealed that they celebrate and express pride in these Paris-based exhibitions.
The exhibitions’ shared goal to present contemporary Morocco and its historical dynasties as tolerant, inclusive, and pluralistic are simultaneously their strengths and their weaknesses. While the medieval exhibition carried an idealized message of dynasties that united people of various ethnicities and faiths, art displayed in the “Contemporary Morocco” exhibition problematized some of the concerns faced by Moroccans today, including the harassment of women, trans-Saharan migration, political corruption, and religious intolerance. That artists working in Morocco addressed these issues contributes to a thought-provoking and successful exhibition at the IMA. The exhibition, which was extended three months after its initial closing date, provides a much-needed positive representation of North Africans after the Charlie Hebdo shootings of January 2015. As a pair, “Medieval Morocco” reminds us of Morocco's deep historical engagement in the arts and “Contemporary Morocco” acknowledges Morocco's social challenges as well as expressing hope for the future.
The two exhibitions are accompanied by catalogues: Yannick Lintz, Claire Déléry, and Bulle Tuil-Leonetti (eds.), Maroc medieval, un empire de l'Afrique à Espagne (Paris: Coédition Hazan/Musée du Louvre éditions, 2014; 434 pp., 350 ill., €49) and Hoda Makram-Edeid, Sonia Recasens, and Hugo Martin (eds), Le Maroc contemporain (Gand: Editions Snoeck, 2014; 183 pp., €25)