Alya Sebti, independent curator, on the North African artistic situation

Alya Sebti on the North African Art Scene.Curator Alya Sebti started her career at the Paris Photo Fair dedicated to the Arab Countries and Iran, in 2009, and was then appointed as the Artistic Director of the 5th Marrakech Biennale 2014. Between 2012 and 2014 she initiated a cycle of online exhibitions with ArteEast on contemporary art in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Her latest exhibitions as an independent curator include: Youssef Nabil, Casablanca, 2011; Urban landscape, Moroccan Pavilion of the Amsterdam Photography Biennale, 2012; Equilibres/Ausgleich, Wentrup Gallery, Berlin 2014; Now Eat My Script with Mounira Al Solh, KW, Berlin, 2014; Casablanca, énergie noire, Mons, 2015; and Carrefour / Treffpunkt, Ifa Galerie Stuttgart, Berlin, 2015.
In the following interview, Sebti shares some insights about the North African artistic situation.


Conversation transcription below


Zing Andress Arraki, Mobilogy, questioning the usual, photography, 2013.

Zineb Andress Arraki, Mobilogy questioning the usual, photography, 2013.

Michela Alessandrini: Thank you very much for this interview, Alya Sebti.
Alya Sebti: Thank you for your invitation.

MA: Can you tell me something about contemporary art in Morocco and, more generally, in the North African countries? Did you notice a change after the Arab Spring spread?
AS: The first outburst, if we can talk about an outburst of contemporary art in Morocco, has been through the art market, actually. It started with the first auction house in 2002. When I talk about an outburst I mean reaching an international visibility. We started to hear much more about this side of the world in the light of the art market, when the auction house CMOOA opened. After the first one, four others opened. In 2007, a lot of galleries started to pop out in several cities including the economic capital Casablanca, Rabat, Tangier, Marrakech and Agadir, in some parts. And then, one to two years later, there started to be more and more exhibitions around the world which were also talking about art in this region.
I’m not saying it never existed before – there were very good galleries, like for instance the gallery L’Atelier in Rabat, which was very active in the 80s. There were already a lot of Moroccan artists who were exhibiting in many parts of the world, but only recently have we gained international attention, as in “let’s have a look at what’s happening in this region of the world”.
In some ways, it’s similar to what happened with Chinese art, Russian art, Indian art. It didn’t always arise out of the right reason, it just happened because we had this kind of concomitance, time-wise: on the one hand, within Morocco there is an increasingly dynamic art market and many market-connected initiatives started to open; on the other hand, the more institutional part of the international art world started to have a look at it. In 2009, there was this edition of Paris Photo that was dedicated to Arab and Iranian countries and a lot of galleries started to show artists in Paris who were coming from North Africa. Galerie 127 from Marrakech was also present there. In 2009, they also started to open non market-connected institutions. I would rather use the word “individual cultural initiatives” and “non-commercial” institutions. The first one opened in 2002, the Appartement 22 by Abdellah Karroum; a few years later, in 2005, Le Cube opened too, an art centre which is going to be 10 years old this year. In 2009, the Marrakech Biennial became a proper Biennial: it had existed since 2004, but that edition curated by Abdellah Karroum profited from the momentum and took the name and the weight of a Biennale. Somehow, it started to create a kind of balance between the art market’s expectations and the more critical/institutional ones. This is just to give you a little background on what has been happening in the last 10-15 years.
In 2013, the Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts – a private museum – opened. The National Foundation of Museums of the Kingdom of Morocco was established in 2011 and the National Modern and Contemporary Art Museum opened a few months ago. But still, there is a feeling – or at least I have it – that there is a big weakness on the non-commercial side of art. It means that many artists don’t feel supported if their work does not fit into the expectations of the market, which is a pity.
Personally, I’ve been mostly working with a cycle of exhibitions with ArteEast on Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The starting point was to question the notion of Maghreb. Unfortunately I could not include Libya in it, because at that time I did not have enough information, that’s why I decided to only focus on Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It was in 2012, so it was a two-year cycle of exhibitions, from 2012 up until 2014. It was also corresponding to this moment of the so-called Arab Spring. The starting hypothesis of this cycle of exhibitions was “what is the now made of?” Meaning, what is our everyday made of? What urgencies do we feel right now? What is this now everyone is talking about? What is our everyday like? Are there similarities or not between Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia? It was once again a way to question this kind of harmonious and common language between these three countries. The point was to show that, within this starting hypothesis of the now, a now that is made of the everyday, each one is dealing with it in a completely different way. It was also a way to say that there is no common cultural approach in the Maghreb, as much as there is not one in North Africa and in the MENA (Middle East North Africa). Of course, there are common points where we do meet, but each one has also its own specificities. These specificities might have nothing to do with the country itself so much as with the practice of the artist within a common thematic, such as the now. The first exhibition was on Morocco with artist Younes Baba Ali; the one on Algeria was curated by aria (artist residency in algiers) – Zineb Sedira and Yasmina Reggad – and it was showing the work of Mohamed Bourouissa and Amina Menia; the exhibition on Tunisia was by Wafa Gabsi, a curator living in Tunis that I met in Berlin at the time, who showed the work of Ismael Leamsi, Nidhal Chemekh, Meriem Bouderbala, Marianne Catzaras.
And then it all came back to Morocco with an exhibition of Zineb Andress Arraki and Hicham Berrada. Each one had a completely different way to deal with the everyday. It’s true that for the part on Tunisia there were a lot of works dealing with the post-Jasmine Revolution. In Morocco it didn’t appear a lot… Actually, it didn’t appear at all, in this exhibition. The exhibition was not about the so-called Arab Spring. On the contrary, curating about the everyday came from a will to establish a distance from the hastily stamped Arab Spring emergency and label, as if it were a unified movement across the Maghreb. We cannot compare the intensities of that moment in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. This exhibition cycle focuses on some artistic practices, keeping in mind the differential gap amongst each one.
For instance, Younes Baba Ali’s work tackles the notion of everyday; he puts a lot of irony and diverts the little objects of our everyday. Zineb Andress Arraki and Hicham Berrada have a common approach to what we call l’infraordinaire (the title of a book by Georges Perec, editor’s note), the by-no-means exceptional of the everyday, just to put more light on it and show the beauty and the poetry of what happens in our everyday, which we take no time to look at. Another extreme example is the case of Tunisia, where most of them – I’m not going to say all of them – had practices or works that were dealing with what happened in Tunis. This is because what happened there didn’t happen in Casablanca or in Rabat, for instance; this is why there can’t be a similar language or reaction, because the action was not the same at all. Major things happened in Tunisia, something happened in Marocco too – such as the new constitution – but no comparison is possible. From that standpoint, the sensitivity of the curator and of the artistic practice cannot be the same. If a change occurred after the Arab Spring, I think it only depends on each one, it depends on each artist and on how close each of them was to this moment of change, when it happened.

Hicham Berrada, Le temps suspendu #1, Installation, 60 steel needle 200x25cm, 2007.

Hicham Berrada, Le temps suspendu #1, Installation, 60 steel needle 200 x 25 cm, 2007.

All photographs: courtesy ArteEast