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Moroccan art illuminates the light of Atlas Mountains plight

Hope after sadness: Moroccan art illuminates the light of Atlas Mountains plight
6 min read
02 November, 2023
Morocco leads the way when it comes to contemporary African art. At the 1-54 fair in London, Moroccan artists have used their platform to raise awareness for the Atlas Mountains villages, still recovering from a devastating earthquake in September.

In recent years, Morocco has attracted the interest of the contemporary art world like few countries in Africa.

Many Moroccan artists create work that helps them reflect on their identity, as Arabs, Muslims, Amazighs or Africans, as people living between the numerous influences of the Mediterranean basin and North Africa.

They also question their changed relations with Europe, which used to be centred on France and now has shifted to the UK and beyond.

One of the central points of this evolution is the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, launched 11 years ago in between London, New York and Marrakesh, which opened this year in the British capital from 12 to 15 October at the Somerset House.

The central piece for the fair was Amine El Gotaibi's Illuminate the Light, presented in collaboration with the MCC Gallery from Marrakech, in the courtyard of the iconic British art venue.

The monumental installation was inspired by the "raw material" of light, and made to reverse the notion of western civilisation bringing enlightenment to the “dark continent", according to Amine.

Change of perception

"The perception of Africa is changing but not fast enough," Amine El Gotaib told The New Arab. "I have built a body of work over the last decade dedicated to a bigger engagement with my continent and my country. My belief is that art plays a crucial role in changing perception."

He works on large-scale installations because the size means "the work can be shared with many people, it is inclusive."

El Gotaib has a studio in Marrakesh, “with an incredible team,” he says, “passionate about the message and materials we work with. The studio team are mixed in skill sets, like a laboratory. We work together to take a conceptual idea into materialisation.” 

Amine El Gotaibi's 'Illuminate the Light', the focal piece of the 1-54 exhibition at London's Somerset House [photo credit: MCC Gallery]

This monumental installation consists of geometric sculptures made of Corten steel and was inspired by the seeds of a pomegranate that vary in shape, representing the diversity of the African continent. 

Its purpose is that the experience the public gets of the installation shifts from day to night time on purpose: At dusk, the sculptures transformed into luminous installations.

Through light, the artist aims to encourage viewers to question the hierarchy of substances and their perspective, reinforcing his core philosophy that "out of darkness, light emerges."

"Light in this form is a medium. During the day, mirrors reflect natural light. At night the piece emits its own light and the refraction of this medium creates form. The message of this piece is about changing perception and this is what 1-54 has achieved and stands for in its message. 1-54 is the biggest African art event globally," the artists reckons. "It has built its own platform for profiling successful and emerging talent from the continent."

Portrait of British-Moroccan entrepreneur Touria El Glaouni, the founding director of 1-54 [photo credit: Jim Winslet]

This is largely due to the hard work of Touria El Glaoui, the founding director of 1-54.

"We are delighted to welcome more galleries than ever before with a significant number of galleries based on the continent," she said. “As a French-Moroccan, I am personally excited to see such a strong connection to Morocco this year. Our wonderful courtyard artist Amine El Gotaibi is one of the country's most exciting contemporary artists."

Renewed identity

A 2008 graduate of the National Institute of Fine Arts in Tetouan, Amine El Gotaibi is indeed a leading figure on the Moroccan contemporary art scene. The artist summons all disciplines for his large-scale projects in space and time and uses traditional mediums such as drawing, video, painting, and installation as well as mechanical engineering and travel. 

El Gotaibi also believes that "Africa has a light inside", so the piece is a statement of Afro-optimism. "It is about hope and optimism," he says. 

"My identity is within my work but the questioning linked to Morocco and Africa is universal. This questioning is about the history and the human contemporary condition," he adds. 

In light of the recent tragic events in Morocco, he also felt like reflecting on the suffering in his country.

The artist was at home in Marrakesh having dinner with friends in the garden when the earthquake struck on 8 September, his baby daughter sleeping inside. They managed to stay safe, but he now wants to focus on rebuilding the parts of the country that have been destroyed.

"What is important about this tragedy is that the population remains resilient and rebuilds strength and solidarity,” he insists. “The world will see that there is hope after sadness and light where there was darkness. This piece in essence was completed despite the tragedy and stands as a symbol of hope for the future light of Morocco and Africa."

United in hope

Since the earthquake, a group of Moroccan artists united to launch the platform Artists for Morocco, gathering creatives from the country.

Comprised of 26 established and emerging Moroccan photographers and artists, ‘Artists for Morocco’ is led by Moroccan GQ Middle East editor-at-large Samira Larouci, photographer Anass Ouaziz and designer Ismail Elaaddioui. Featured artists include Meriem Bennani, Yto Barrada, Mous Lamrabat, Ilyes Griyeb, and the famous photographer Hassan Hajjaj.

The funds generated by the online sales will be donated to two NGOs: Amal Women's Training Center, a Marrakesh-based women's charity delivering food to victims in need, and Rif Tribes Foundation, an NGO working to bring aid and support to the affected remote villages.

Hassan lives in London, where he moved with his Moroccan parents in the 1980s at the age of 13, but he too was in Marrakesh when the earthquake occurred.

Since the late 1990s, his film and photography work has been inspired by London's immigrant cultures has now toured the planet, made the front pages of glamorous magazines, and represented the colours of his native Morocco worldwide.

A recurrent guest at 1-54, Hajjaj joined the 'Artists for Morocco' initiative as well as a partnership with the fair to increase the aid.

"Hassan Hajjaj, with whom we have been collaborating for a long time now, donated two works to us," Touria El Glaoui said. "The first, Love Maroc, is auctioned by Christies in October, to raise solidarity funds. The second is a limited edition (40 copies), sold during the October edition of 1-54 in London. All profits will also be donated to associations working in the field."

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This piece, titled Keshmara as in Marrakesh in French back slang, features Karima, one of Hajjaj’s long-time muses, posing with a friend in an atmosphere full of joy, "to focus on hope," he teams told The New Arab

"It's a tough one to even find words to say something, I had so many people asking to help and how to help," Hajjaj first told the media, after the earthquake.

The limited edition of 40 prints, available for purchase from the bookshop at the 1-54 art fair, was for a minimum of £900 at the fair, with a give-what-you-want policy, should customers wish to donate more. All proceeds will go to Assafou Association, a non-profit focused on education for children and women in rural communities in Morocco's Atlas Mountains.

All the artists want to focus on rebuilding and hope Moroccans will not be forgotten in these very dark times. As El Gotaib's Illuminate the Light brilliantly invites us to believe.

Melissa Chemam is a French-Algerian freelance journalist and culture writer based between Paris, Bristol and Marseille, and travelling beyond

Follow her on Twitter: @melissachemam