MACAAL, a new museum set to become a thriving platform of discovery of African Art

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Entrance Macaal Museum Marrakech
Entrance Macaal Museum Marrakech

The international launch of MACAAL, Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden,  

Macaal, the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden is about ten minutes drive from the Marrakech Medina. Away from the hustle and bustle of its noisy old neighbor, the new museum is quietly and confidently gearing up to become a thriving platform to experience African Art.

It has been open since 2016, and has leveraged the launch of the African edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, to stage its international debut, with the temporary photography exhibition “Africa Is No Island.” It also featured, at the entrance, a tribute to the slain photographer, Leila Alaoui, tragically killed in a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso (West Africa). The upper floor is a glimpse into the Museum’s permanent collection through the exhibition “Second Life”, with about 30 artworks on display.

Africa is no island exhibition
Partial view of “Africa Is No Island”

“Africa is No Island.”

The exhibition is curated by Jeanne Mercier, Baptiste de Ville d’Avray, and Jeanne Mercier. The first two are the duo behind the online collaborative platform Afrique in Visu set up to promote the work of African photographers. For the past 12 years, their platform has operated as an incubator for African photographers, deploying workshops, portfolios reviews and exhibitions to help artists articulate a diverse, visual narrative of the African continent.

Africa Is No Island” is a snapshot of the organisation’s decade-long efforts. It unfolds along a carefully crafted path through the museum, moving from the theme of identity and representation to the topic of borders and finishes with the issue of archiving.

Who am I? It is an existential question that pervades art practices across all ages and all cultures. However, in the African context, the issue takes on a new dimension deepened by a history of slavery and colonisation to name just these two. In the past, the answer to the question “who am I” has often been formulated on behalf of and for the African people. The entrance to the exhibition showcases a diverse range of visual answers from an African perspective. Ishola Akpo, from the start, captures a practice steeped in tradition: the dowry in his native Benin (West Africa). A tradition today intertwined with imported elements of modernity: wax prints and gin. Both of them are symbolic visual reminders of the continent’s connection with Europe and Asia.

At times, the modernity has taken over and has all but erased the practices of facial scarification, the last remnants of which Joana Choumali captured in her “Haabre” series. Although from the outside, questions about the continent are lumped together under the “African” banner, her work also alludes to the issues of immigration and xenophobia among black African people. The people she photographed had emigrated from Burkina Faso to neighboring Ivory Coast. They could have blended in; if not for their facial scars, that marked them out as eternal foreigners, easy to be stigmatized and rounded up in a country that had, at a time, redefined identity within new, constrained and narrower boundaries.

But identity cannot be reduced to the confined length of a facial scar. It is of a fluid nature and evolves through times. It becomes stereotypical only when it is imagined as static and mummified in the representations, which is what Namsa Leuba tackles in her series of pictures.

The true evolving nature of identity becomes apparent in the second part of the exhibition with a young generation of Africans. In Baudouin Mouanda’s black and white timeless pictures, youths are wholly immersed in hip-hop culture, one that transcends geographies and languages. Whereas for others, the choice of modernity is tentative, almost like the unfit clothes that the character in Joanne Bardeletti’s picture is wearing. It is best summarised in the caption of one of the images, as “a state of being in-between spaces.”

Sarah Forbes, Ayana V Jackson
Sarah Forbes, Ayana V Jackson, 2016.

The last part of the exhibition deals with legacy. Straddling reality and fiction, the photographers start their metamorphosis turning themselves into hybrid surgeons and healers, piecing together through time and space various elements of history to create an alternative visual narrative. Lebohand Kganye operates at the juncture of performance, photography, and sculpture. She uses her practice to create a fictitious reality that explores the legacy of apartheid long after it was abolished. Elsewhere, Ayana V. Jackson has turned herself into the face of Sarah Forbes to redress the erasure of the real Sarah from the history books.

In the context of Africa, a continent that has long been claimed to have no history, these last works testify to its resilience; its ability to go back in time, no matter how far back, to examine and interrogate its past. It is a hopeful auspice, despite the challenges that lie ahead, including that of conservation and transmission of the cultural heritage.

“Africa Is No Island,” tells the tale of a rich and diverse continent. But this is no ordinary tale. It is a visual festival that depicts beautifully a plural image of Africa and showcases the talents of its story tellers.

Second Life exhibition on the 1st floor of Macaal
View of “Second Life” exhibition on the 1st floor of Macaal

Second Life.

The first floor of the museum features the exhibition “Second Life” that draws on the museum’s permanent collection. It is a visual reflection on the issues of recycling, upcycling and waste. It showcases the work of established artists such as El Anatsui of Ghana or Romuald Hazoume of Benin alongside emerging ones such as Emos Demeideros of (Benin) and the show-stopper installation of the Zbel Manifesto Collective.

Shielded behind the black curtain, the installation is an immersive experience of a dining room made of recycled waste. From floor to ceiling, from the dinner table to the wall, everything is covered with recycled waste. It is a visually arresting reflection on the excesses of our consumerist society. The installation stands in sharp contrast with Soukaina Aziz Al Idrissi’s Calibrated Composition III. An investigation into waste, our dependency on plastic, that has produced an ethereal and eerie series of woven artworks that draw on the country’s carpet-making tradition.

The inauguration of Macaal is part of a new trend that has seen several museums and galleries opening on the continent. From the Museum de la photography in Goree (Senegal) to the new gallery in Madagascar, it signals Africans’ ambition to narrate their own stories and create the infrastructure that fosters the growth of their art scene.

Marrakech is positioning itself to be a third contemporary African hub after Cape Town and its Zeitz Museum (the most prominent African Art Museum in Africa) inaugurated last year and Lagos with its series of Art events such Art X Lagos and LagosPhotofestival. The city of Marrakech certainly has a lot of assets that sustain that ambition. It boasts close links to Europe and Africa, a developed tourist infrastructure, a stable political environment and dare I say it, an architecture and design that are easy on the eye and incredibly Instagram friendly. (Yes, for better or worse, the social media platform is revolutionising the art world, but I will save that for another post).

However, most of this new venture and infrastructure are privately run and funded, and as the recently canceled Marrakech Biennale revealed, these events are vulnerable to the fortune and change of priorities of their sponsors. MACAAL is an initiative of the Lazraq family. Its president Othman Lazraq is the son of the real estate developer and Art collector Alami Lazraq. The family is said to have built a substantial collection of about 2,000 pieces over the past 40 years.

Their patronage of Art is set for the long term. Alongside the Museum, there is an educational outreach program to increase the local community involvement in Art. In a way, their initiative is reminiscent of that of Fondation Zinsou,” a pioneer Contemporary Art organisation based in Benin, which has transformed the art landscape locally and propelled the careers of some emerging Artists over the past 10 years. This is also where the touring “Africa Is No Island” exhibition is said to be heading after its Marrakech introduction.

In light of The Zinsou foundation’s impact, a lot more can be expected of MACAAL Museum, which is emerging in a better location and an environment more open to African Art. Their success will help Marrakech fulfill its ambition of becoming an International Art hub and will turn this quiet corner of the city into a vibrant art destination in its own right.

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