The ever increasing number of biennials around the world has sparked countless dialogues within the art world about what these massive international events are doing – for both local and global art, the hosting communities, and the participating artists. We spoke with Karen Milbourne, curator at the National Museum of African Art about the recent Marrakech Biennal and participating artists Marco Guerra and Yasmina Alaoui.
Paddle8: How has the Marrakech Biennal shaped the city and its arts community?
Karen Milbourne: The Marrakech Biennial is only in its 5th year and I do not think it has had the time yet to shape the city. It does, however, take advantage of transitional sites (like the theatre) and new sites as they are developed (such as the venue for Marco and Yasmina’s exhibition) that suggests future developments will hopefully integrate the arts. There was a lot of concern within the Moroccan fine arts community that they were not more involved in this past biennial.
P8: What do you think are the key factors for a successful biennial?
KM: Biennials take time to evolve individual character and niches and there are different yardsticks for success: economic, quality of art, innovation in art, local impact, etc. The number of biennials is only on the increase, even with Dak’Art and Havana taking place this May, both Benin and DRC (in Lubumbashi) are planning to launch new biennials this autumn. For me, a successful biennial means getting to see new artists and artworks that I might not get to see otherwise. I go for the artists, not the party or social scene (but I imagine this is how a lot of the art gets sold and is important for the business of biennials). It helps when there is a real integrity the theme and a process for vetting the quality of the official “off” projects.
P8: How have biennials grown and evolved in the past 10 years? How do these changes affect the curator’s role?
KM: Biennials are a great organizing principle under which one can meet a number of artists and arts professionals in a concentrated amount of time. They are great for the first contact but are no substitute for studio visits. They also certainly play a part in the increasing “cult of celebrity” for certain curators.
New York based Marco Guerra and Yasmina Alaoui are partners and collaborators who participated in the Marrakech Biennale Parallel Project “BIENNALE OFF” in which Marrakech-based architect Amine Kabbaj invited seven artists to create seven “totems”. Each artist was then paired with a local craftsmen to reinterpret and channel each artist’s vision via traditional Moroccan themes, techniques and materials.
Guerra titled his 5 portraits of women ”Cacerolazo,” a reference to a popular form of political protest during the 1970s in Chile. Each portrait was a mosaic of 119 individual Polaroid fragments assembled into a singular image of a woman wearing the Haik, the traditional Moroccan garment of Essauira. Each woman holds a symbol of revolution: a soft stone, a rose, an apple. According to the artist, he is paying homage to women as a source of renewal and positive change. His artisan-collaborative totems with lamp maker Rachid El Mansouri took the form of a metal and glass grid echoing the 119 tiled polaroid images. When backlit, the silhouettes of the Haik wearing women was visible through the panelled glass compartments.
Alaoui found inspiration in Islamic sacred geometry and particularly the 14-point star pattern. She used photo paper, ink, pencil and collage to create elaborate surfaces on her individual totems. The collaboration between Alaoui and the local artisans added a third dimension to her work with each totem rendered in hand carved plaster and wood with metal and bone inlay delicately carved into a lacy relief. Viewers were struck by Alaoui’s interpretation of a familiar geometry re-imagined into an abstract landscape with the artisan’s material mastery.