Art in a global world: the Moroccan case





Toni Maraini




Half a century ago, before globalization
Rooted in the »Awakening« period that had stirred Muslim world, modern art emerged in Morocco as a vital movement around 1950. Aware of the challenging problems of their time, and confronted both to colonial ideology and local conservatives, artists turned towards Third World renovation spirit and 20th-century art movements whose investigations appealed to their own researches. Moroccan – and Maghreb – artists also discovered that Modern art had in many ways found inspiration in African, Oceanic and Eastern productions. As Macke had written in the »Der Blaue Reiter« Almanach in 1911, the Benin Bronzes, the sculptures of the Eastern Islands, the New Caledonian Masques as well as other once disregarded or ignored forms of art »spoke the same and powerful language of Notre Dame’s Chimaeras as forms speak everywhere an absolute language«. Such appreciation of differences within an universal framework was audacious and bridged the past to the present in a vision mostly ignored by Western common standards. Commenting the experience of »mutual discovery«, Mohamed Khadda, an eminent Algerian painter and critic, wrote that the pioneer modern North African artists had made a long circular journey back to what was modern in their own arts [1]. The issue was important. It gave dignity to affinities on an universal ground. Colonial ideology had labelled traditional North African arts as »minor«, »decorative«, »ethnographic«, and çindigenous’ artists, considered incapable of sophisticated research, were expected to produce naïf, picturesque, exotic works that appealed to colonial taste. It was thus not surprising that the first modern Moroccan artists and groups took a critical stand against this state of affairs in their works, theoretical writings, exhibitions and provocative declarations. They wanted to participate to the edification of a new society (secular and democratic) and a changing process that needed great commitment [2]. Among other things, they took part with some poets, writers and intellectuals to the creation of the first independent literary and art magazines which were to play an important role in the effervescent spirit of those years. When we say ‘independent’ we mean not in line with governmental official art policy. A challenging task. The debate on ‘national culture’ was mostly ideological and local art administrators held shows similar to the colonial »Salons«. This is why, during the ‘60s and ’70s, some artists organized their own exhibitions and activities. Enough, they said, with »folklore de bazaar«, Orientalist, commercial and regime painters. Enough with selling an exotic image of Morocco. Abstraction was highlighted as a field of free expression but artists pursued a variety of other researches and styles both figurative and non-figurative.
Thanks to some other avant-garde artists and groups (such as »Awshem« in Algeria), the art situation was similar in goals and independent projects in the whole of Maghreb and knew a short, yet intense, phase of inter-Maghrebian activities before the emergence of different regimes’ cultural politics. Engaged in original modern research, these artists and groups were also interested in revaluating the »essence« of some forms, design, symbols, images and colours of the afro-mediterranean past. The spirit of an »internationale des arts« was still enlivening Western art world and they artists friendly connected to some of its critics, galleries and museums. Their belief in an identity that did not exclude other identities can give some answers to today«s younger generations search of singularity within global »world culture«. Around the end of the »80s things started to change. In spite of much talk on »open societies«, frontiers (material and psychological) emerged on both sides reinforced by Western discourse on ethnicity and Clash of Civilizations. Unfolding in times of growing conflicts and disrupting wars, globalization has undermined the cosmopolitan project advocated by modern artists and intellectuals around the world. Internet has offered a new interconnection tool but the flow of events and information has not been equal between North and South areas of the world. The argument is not simple. Though in »Globalization versus Globalism: giving internationalism A Bad Name« has been clearly theorized in 1996 by Mark Ritchie as an opposition of contrasting goals and structures, the words »globalization« and »globalism« are often used with different interpretations. Even words such as »internationalism« and »universalism« happen to seem suspect when used within today«s discourse. »Some observers seek to understand whether if «world culture« is or not a »Troy horse« invented by the Western world to extend its hegemony over the »emergent« countries. In such a case, we would have a strategy of predatory economy along with a flow of […] »representations« associating universalism and neo-exotism« recently wrote Mourad Yelles, an Algerian writer and intellectual [3]. Can a new globalist awareness offer a different answer to such dramatic questioning? In focusing on the case of Morocco’s art situation we will try to consider some of these questions.

Morocco, fifty years later
Fifty years later, what is the situation? As we say in Italy »what was chased from the door, has come back from the window«. A new very lucrative art market, sponsored by Europeans dealers, auctioneers, valuers and corporations, and by Moroccan dealers, managers, private and public institutions, is reintroducing naïf, picturesque Moroccan works and Orientalist paintings. The Auction Salerooms are half a dozen and are doing very well both with local and Western collectors. Since real Orientalist painters were rare in Morocco, works have been imported from France, England, Belgium, Spain and other places, as in the recent auctions of two of the most dynamic Salerooms in Casablanca, CMOOA (»Compagnie Marocaine des Oeuvres et Objets d’Art«) and »MemoArts«. The year 2008 Catalogue of »British Home, Auctioneers & Valuers« Agency in Marrakesh includes tens of picturesque neo-exotic works (both by Moroccan and foreign artists), figurative but also abstract-decorative. Auction Sales promote also modern art, mostly Moroccan and of a better quality and level. By increasing up to six or seven times the usual price, market has set a standard that makes it difficult for galleries to sell less visible and quoted - yet sometimes better - artists, or keep prices accessible to average buyers. Young artists have to adjust to this swinging market. »The opening of the first Auction sales since 2002 has certainly changed many things and highlighted the role of art works as an investment value« for Banks, Insurance Companies and private and public Enterprises, recently wrote a French journalist [4]. The magazine Jeune Afrique (N. 2548, Nov. 2009) has dedicated a long article to a »business that has become very successful in Morocco thanks to the dynamism of the Auction sales and the appetite of private collectors and public foundations«. Investment value has always played a role in art and many are thrilled in Morocco by such successful market. The question is whether »appetites«, media support and marketing handled by cultural operators are alone compatible with a reasonable market and basic artistic quality. As a talented Moroccan critic and artist, Mohamed Rachdi, wrote »we could say today that the only space left in Morocco to the art production is the market […] which decides what is valuable and what is not. Little attention is given to the real artistic and cultural quality and ideas« [5]. Some works happen to be a fake or a mediocre copy of previous prototypes, or a view of the Qasbah that can be bought in a bazaar, but this does not always seem to raise a problem. The »deregulation« of the market has gone too fast and the »deconstruction« of taste and judgement sustained by powerful campaigns. Few experts are seriously documented on history and sources of last century’s Moroccan production and the independent pioneer art and culture magazines with their critical and documented analysis have disappeared overcome by glamorous revues where works of different kind and quality get uncritical praise. So much that Mohamed Rachdi, in deploring the lack of serious contributions »sur une pensée de l’art« taking a critical stand on such questions, writes »it is about time to react«.
Of course, Moroccan art world has also its responsible managers, serious galleries and collectors, interesting exhibitions, good artists and some important foundations. The pioneer collections of private and public societies and enterprises (such as B.m.c.e. Bank, O.c.p., La Société Générale, O.n.a. and its Villas des Arts, Wafaa Bank) date back from the ‘70s and ‘80s and have done a remarkable work (acquisitions, commissions, catalogues, books, events and creation of their own galleries and exhibit spaces) thanks to the interest in the arts of some of their directors, their commitment in promoting »national« culture and to the role that was attributed to art and artists. Given the absence of a national Modern Art Museum (due, it seems, for next year), the above mentioned collections and initiatives, together with the materials and activities of all the independent past projects, are a documentary reference point. In the last years however fashion, taste, prices, discourse, cultural habits and codes have changed conditioned by new art marketing enterprises and a general world attitude to culture. As the director of one art gallery of Casablanca, the Nadar Gallery, has put it : »a tsunami has flooded our art scene, when it will fade away we will have to put bit and pieces together again«. Is this »tsunami« an effect of globalization? Is it an inevitable passage to »artistic globalism«? Or is »artistic globalism« an altogether different phenomena and project?

On Postmodernism, globalism and globalization
To try to find an answer we must turn to world art market. The recent study of the British economist Donald Thompson »The 12 million dollars stuffed shark and the curious economics of Contemporary Art« (Aurum Press, London 2008) documents how media, consentient critics, free money speculation and smart marketing can make any work seem important and reach an out of scale price. Like the stuffed shark of Damien Hirst contended by two most world famous museums and collectors. In history, art has always had its excesses but never before for a stuffed shark. Set into a glass container which happened to be leaking, the shark was putrefying and had to be substituted by another stuffed shark, yet the work was sold for 12 million dollars. »Curious economics« indeed. To better understand, we must consider what authors like Jameson, Baudrillard, Habermas, Eagleton, Virilio and many others have been writing on postmodernism and its Art System. A System of »pastiche and parody« (Baudrillard, Jameson) taken hostage by standardized consuming codes and world economy where under the hegemony of market and cultural »mystification« (Eagleton), »anything goes«. Postmodernism in art and culture, of course, is not only this. Some have made a point in distinguishing its liberating and creative aspects from what has been called »reactionary postmodernism«, what Fredric Jameson associates to the »emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order – what is often euphemistically called modernization, pos-industrial or consumer society, the society of the media or the spectacle, or multinational capitalism« [6]. Some postmodern most controversial artistic aspects are thus interconnected with the spread of technological applications, economic capital flows and world cultural politics. It is against its homogenisation that authors like Isabelle Stengers have been advocating a »postmodernism of resistance«. That is »a counter-practice that seeks to question rather that to exploit cultural codes, to explore rather than conceal social and political affiliations« (Jameson). To critically question and explore the nature of facts in order to find more sustainable processes of global interconnection and international integration is, according to Noam Chomsky, a form of »positive globalization«. In two interviews of 2002 and 2005 published online by, Chomsky esteems that the interpretation of the term »globalization« has been conditioned by »the dominant propaganda systems which have appropriated the term »globalization« to refer to the specific version of international economic integration that they favour« while »advocates of other forms of globalization are described as »anti-globalization«. In other words, the positive globalization that many people from every corner of the world basically advocate is often dismissed as »no-global« while it represents a real trans-national movement. His concept of »positive globalization« corresponds to »positive globalism« intended as a network of international organisms that guarantee the rights of peoples and sustainable economic, ecologic and cultural world politics. Whatever the interpretations, cultural counter-practices to the devastating effects of »negative globalization« are considered necessary. Globalization has claimed to offer a new formidable platform of interrelation, and this is true. Yet it has also globalized clashes, predatory economy, disinformation and stereotypes that have fuelled psychological tensions, fundamentalisms, »negative resistance« and reciprocal misunderstanding of what cultural identity could/should be in a globalist perspective. This is a crucial question. As the historian Fernand Braudel has pointed out in his writings »there is no unilateral History«. Thanks to their »plural« history and ever-going mutual process of »taking/giving« as well as to their potentially universal language – a symbolic and semantic language rooted in humanity’s »structures anthropologiques de l’Imaginaire« (as Gilbert Durand has put it) - arts can handle both diversity and affinities. A better knowledge of such basic processes can help to understand today«s challenge of developing an »artistic globalism« different from commercial homogenisation, unilateral »world culture« or neo-exotic caricature. On the other hand, from Hellenistic period to the Enlightenment, from cosmopolitan Central Europe to Modern Art »inter-nationalism« and its movement of World Citizens, as well as from other periods, cultures and civilizations around the world, we received legacies of visions, wisdoms, ideals, philosophical principles, legal and diplomatic tools to meet and negotiate. Even if based on an altogether new reality, globalism is not a »new« project. It fulfils an old »cosmo-polis« dream balancing territorial singularities and a metaphysics of world unity.

Morocco: art in a » globalist versus globalized« world
Economical, technological, political globalization (»mondialisation«) has been largely debated throughout the Maghreb. It suffices here to quote the eloquent expression »mondialisation non negociée« used by an Algerian economist in deploring the disrupting socio-economical and political effects on Algeria of »non-negotiated« uneven world economic rules [7]. When considering globalization from a positive point of view the accent is put however on more negotiable exchanges and positive interconnections, as many young do placing in them great hopes and expectations. The opportunity to gain visibility, attention and support from international forums, groups and organisms has favoured, a Moroccan sociologist says [8], women associative movements and independent Human Rights Groups. This can be said of a number of local associations and cultural, social, and research projects who have entered the global network from the »positive globalization« door. Yet the most contrasting aspects of globalization are increasingly questioned and debated. Particular attention is given to information and media. A recent inter-Mediterranean project for independent cultural journalism, Tahqiq Sahaf, writes »[independent journalism] is a free antidote to the misunderstanding and reciprocal ignorance of our realities that globalization tends to extremely simplify« [9]. Responding to such growing need for critical analysis, the coming issue of Horizons Maghrébins, a well documented magazine directed by the Moroccan Habib Samrakandi and published by the University of Toulouse le Mirail in France, will focus on today«s state of affairs of the media in the Maghreb considering political censorship, credibility of information, news corporations, freedom of expression, cultural and artistic communication and Internet. Quality of cultural journalism and freedom of media are important for art as well as Internet which much contributes to interconnecting processes. Early in the »90s ISOC-Maroc (Moroccan association affiliated to Internet Society, a non-profit, non-governmental organism) was created to promote Internet both in private and public context and convince the government of its importance. Thanks to the modernization of infrastructures and the access (1995) to the global technological network, Morocco – as documents the 2009 CNUCED Report (see - is the second country in Africa, after Tunisia and before Egypt, South Africa and Algeria, for Internet diffusion. From North to South of Morocco, and reaching peripheral areas, websites, blog, forums and information of all sorts are a kaleidoscopic world in expansion. To counterbalance the effects of imported services and contents, the challenge is to make and produce local valuable sources, structures and contents. Internet information on art history and modern and contemporary art and artists often happens though to be very uneven in quality, data and sources. In this context, an increasing number of artists are opening their own site and blog, or enter Face-book and other networks. In some cases, a foundation in the name of an artist (like the recently born »Kacimi Foundation« in Rabat), a virtual/real gallery in a studio (like Abdellah Karroum Appartement 22 in Rabat) or an art news magazine (like Mag Infos Maroc have been created to offer more consistent documentary sources and events. But Internet has its limits and a sequence of individual websites may remain a supermarket of images and news if not embedded, as it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, within a wider framework. This is why, as Rachdi writes, a »pensée sur l’art« in touch with reality, society and cultural issues must receive more attention and support. Some challenging arguments concern the relationship with Western Art System, the present art market and cultural situation in Morocco, the necessity of serious art criticism and interdisciplinary intellectual collaboration, the search for local/global free creative inspiration and exchanges. The patrimony of the past is, once again, investigated as an antidote to standardization. Given the great changes in society, traditional arts are much in decline yet they still play a semantic role. In 1999 the Exhibit L’Objet Désorienté (Villa des Arts, Casablanca) gave a very interesting view of some young artists work on this theme. Another exhibition, À la recherche de nos Atlas secrets (Actua, Casablanca 2002), conceived by the association Amrash within a global support campaign to »mountain eco-cultural development« gathered some very good artists around the theme of the Atlas. Can we consider these arguments of »artistic globalism« concern? They express cultural commitment and a quest for an »open identity«. Identity is a much abused concept but it becomes more clear when forms and imagination speak the language of art without having to renounce to roots and memory or to turn to neo-exotic ethnicism. Evolving at the crossroad of Civilizations, Maghreb has always been a rich »plural cultural space«. In spite of the turbulent emergence of dogmatic fundamentalism, regimes« politics and globalization’s effects, it has produced, and produces, some works and ideas that bridge boundaries, open to inter-nationalism and offer creative artistic contributions. But as Zen Buddhism says, »to have a clapping sound you need two hands«. »Artistic globalism« remains an incomplete project and a vague formula if not supported by shared principles and goals, reciprocal knowledge and a new world process of negotiated coexistence. When Mohamed Rachdi writes »it is about time to react« he refers to the Moroccan situation yet it expresses the need that many feel throughout the Maghreb to resist in a plurality of creative ways both from a local and a globalist perspective.





1 Mohammed Khadda, Feuillets épars liés. Essai sur l’art. Algier 1983, S. 44–45.
2 Toni Maraini, Città avanguardie, modernità: Casablanca-Rabat e la genesi dell’avanguardia moderna nel Maghreb, in: M. Camboni, A. Gargano (Hg.), Città, avanguardie, modernità e modernismo. Macerata 2008, S. 269–286. Siehe auch Écrits sur l’Art: Maroc 1967–1989. Rabat 1990.
3 Vgl. Mourad Yelles, Einführung in »Métissage maghrébins«, in: Crasc (Hg.), Insaniyat, Revue Algérienne d’Anthropologie et de Sciences Sociales, Nr. 32–33, 2006, S. 7 (
4 Alice Célerier, Du Marché de l’Art au Maroc, in: Maroc Premium Magazine, Nr. 10, 2008, S. 109.
5 Vgl. Mohamed Rachdi, De la nécessité de la pensée sur l’art, in: Journal d’Activités de la Galérie Nadar, Nr.1. Casablanca 2008, S. 1–3; außerdem in: Maroc Premium Magazine, Nr. 10, 2008, S. 101.
6 Vgl. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism and Consumer Society, in: Hal Foster (Hg.), The Anti-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture. Washington 1983, S. 113.
7 Ghazi Hidouci, im Interview mit H. Bravin und B. Ravenel, in: Confluences, Méditerranée, Le Maghreb face à la mondialisation, Nr. 21, 1997.
8 Aïsha Belarbi, Le mouvement associatif femini, in: Prologue, Revue maghrébine, Nr. 9, Mai 1997, S. 30–31.