The lush grounds of a golf club in the outskirts of Marrakesh are now home to one of the only museums dedicated to African art on the continent. The Museum of Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), privately-owned by a non-profit organization, had its official opening in February of this year. The museum aims to showcase the work of established and emerging artists making art related to Africa. Apart from a big contemporary art museum that opened last year in Cape Town and a few privately-owned galleries that have sprung up, there are relatively few places where African art can be seen on home turf.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) – What’s Showing Now
Two exhibitions are currently on show. The first, called Africa is No Island, brings together the work of 40 photographers in a meandering sequence of rooms where the experience is supposed to be similar to wandering through a medina. “Photography is the medium of the current generation,” says Janine Gaelle Dieudji, the museum’s Exhibitions Director, explaining why they chose to focus on this art form. “Even someone who isn’t familiar with art can find personal relevance in an image,” she says. At the same time, photos are often the only historical records in places where there isn’t much of a written culture.
The show highlights the identities of different African countries as well as the connection between them. With many nations plagued by a past of colonialism and oppression, there is a growing movement among Africans to reclaim their history and tell their story in their own voice, for example through art. And despite different cultures across the continent, traditions are often similar.
Photographer Joana Choumali documents scarification in Burkina Faso, a practice that is dying due to modernization, by taking portraits of a few remaining people with these facial decorations. It involves making superficial incisions on the skin with stones, glass or knives to create permanent marks as a way of recognizing people from one’s tribe. “It’s the same idea as tattoos on Berber women’s faces in Morocco,” says Dieudji, “where the ink markings are a form of adornment with symbolic meanings as well.” Since Morocco became an Islamic country several centuries ago, the tradition has declined since it is against the religion to modify the human body. Today, the motifs are often incorporated into weaving or temporary henna tattoos instead.
The art upstairs takes on a much more playful tone in the exhibition Second Life, which primarily features work from the museum’s permanent collection. Artists use found objects to create their pieces and give them new meaning. Gas canisters are creatively used to make African-style masks in work by Romauld Hazoumè, an artist from Benin who explores the black market for fuel in his country and the use of these plastic canisters to smuggle it. A throne constructed from weapons also carries a political message as artist Gonçalo Mabunda, an anti-war activist from Mozambique, portrays the relationship between arms and power while also creating a beautiful new object.
Perhaps the most enthralling piece is a dining room entirely covered with packaging waste. The installation, put together by Moroccan artists of the Zbel Manifesto, Ghizlane Sahli and Katia Sahli and Othman Zine, is mesmerizing to look at while also confronting the consequences of household garbage. It’s reminiscent of the piles of trash one often sees amidst beautiful landscapes in Morocco.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) – General Information
Exhibitions aren’t the only reasons to visit MACAAL though: the museum also aims to function as a cultural center where people can attend workshops and events and get into the habit of engaging with art. In addition to frequent school visits, there have also been sessions for Moroccan women and migrants. During the holy month of Ramadan, the museum hosted a ftour, the meal eaten in the evening to break a day of fasting, where artists were invited and women came to play traditional music. “Ramadan is a time when people are meant to come together,” says Dieudji. “It was a big party and each person contributed to the warm atmosphere,” she says.
Future exhibits should see more emerging artists as the museum staff often travels to discover new talent. Ahmed Chiha, for example, is a self-taught Moroccan artist whose painted bamboo sticks immersed in sand form part of their collection. On a continent where people are known for their resourcefulness, and coming up with creative solutions using limited means, they are sure to uncover more unique and creative voices.
About the Author
Sandrine Ceurstemont is a freelance science writer currently based in Morocco. Her interests range from bizarre animal behaviour to the unknowns of the vast world underwater to new robots. Since living in Morocco, she has become interested in local innovations and has written about one of the world’s largest solar power plants in Ouarzazate. She frequently writes for New Scientist and the BBC.