Wednesday 16 October 2019

Marrakech: Art of the Red City

Desert Star

Known as the Red City because of the pinkish-red walls that are to be found everywhere in the municipality, Marrakech is a vibrant mix of art and architecture, old and new
Known as the Red City because of the pinkish-red walls that are to be found everywhere in the municipality, Marrakech is a vibrant mix of art and architecture, old and new
The installation of Zbel Manifesto features the work of photographer Leila Alaoui.
El Badi Palace

Gemma Fullam

Gemma Fullam takes a trip to one of North Africa's most extraordinary cities.

'And this is Vanessa.'

As I shook the hand of the faultlessly elegant woman to whom I was being introduced, despite being distracted by the Eden-like beauty of the hotel gardens of La Mamounia in which we stood, I couldn't help but register the powerful presence she emanated; she resembled a warrior queen, clad in white.

It was only later I learned that 'Vanessa', was, in fact, Vanessa Branson, sister of Richard and founder and president of the Marrakech Biennale (she also owns Riad El Fenn in the medina; 'el fenn' means 'art'). But then, as I was also to discover, that's the kind of place Marrakech is, especially during the Biennale, now in its sixth incarnation, titled Not New Now - you  never know who you're going to bump into.

Marrakech and art make for an intoxicating mix; Biennale 6, which runs until May 8, is a meeting of culture and concept, history and modernity, ancient and ephemeral; a place where the past, the future and the present collide to form something exhilarating and inspirational. I'd been to Morocco before, to the ancient city of Fez and the art deco delight that is Casablanca, but it was my first time to experience the singular vibe of Marrakech.

My base for the duration was the opulent Sofitel Marrakech Palais Imperial, a five-star property located in the chic Hivernage district, walking distance from the bustling medina, the central square of Djemaa el Fna and the many historic sites of the city.

The installation of Zbel Manifesto features the work of photographer Leila Alaoui.
The installation of Zbel Manifesto features the work of photographer Leila Alaoui.

It had recently snowed, so, greeted by a landscape juxtaposing the snow-capped Atlas mountains and vivid red desert sands, it was easy to see why Churchill had a life-long love affair with the 'Paris of the Sahara'. In 1943, during a break in talks, the British PM insisted Roosevelt visit Marrakech, and once there, had the wheelchair-bound President carried to the top of the tower from which Churchill liked to paint, to see the sun set over the city. "It's the most lovely spot in the world," Winston is reputed to have said, as the sky turned fiery. Next day, he painted The Tower of Katoubia Mosque, his only wartime artwork; he subsequently gave it to Roosevelt, and it's now owned by the Jolie-Pitts.

What the British Bulldog would have made of Biennale 6, who knows, but there is much to delight and intrigue, and, in an inspired master stroke, all of the main shows are located in heritage sites.

I began my artistic odyssey in the Bahia Palace, located in the Jewish Quarter of the medina ('medina' simply means 'city'). The ornate palace was built in 1866 for Si Moussa, a former slave, and completed around the turn of the 20th Century; as it was built by different people, its layout is somewhat higgledy-piggledy, but it is all the more delightful for that. The decoration throughout is exquisite, with Italian marble, carved stucco, intricately painted wooden ceilings and richly hued zellij (mosaic) abounding.

It's interesting to view art in such a decorative setting, as opposed to the 'white cube' gallery environment. Rather than clash, or drown each other out, the art and the location enhance and enrich one another; the pairing results in the whole being more than the sum of its parts, and almost becomes another artwork in itself.

There is much to see here, and it would be impossible to list all the delights, but my favourite piece in the Bahia was Rachel's Tribute by Eric van Hove, an Algerian artist who lives in Marrakech. It's a Caterpillar C18 engine, each piece crafted by one of 40 Moroccan artisans in mother-of-pearl, ceramics, mosaic, copper or enameled mouldings. The result is a beautiful object, but the story behind it is dark. The engine is what powers the D9T, a vehicle used by the Israel Defence Forces to raze homes and towns in Palestine. In 2003, Rachel Corrie, an American activist, was crushed to death by a D9T when she placed herself between it and the house of a Palestinian doctor.

Biennale 6 has much within it to provoke; throughout there are themes of activism, post- and neo-colonialism, identity, conflict and struggle. It is impossible to be "just a receptacle to beauty" as curator Reem Fadda, in her press conference speech, warned us against.

El Badi Palace
El Badi Palace

Biennale 6 is dedicated to French-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui, who, in January, was murdered by terrorists in Burkina Faso, where she had been working on assignment for Amnesty International. Alaoui's early photographic work is on show in the L'Blassa venue, in the Gueliz district, as part of the Parallel Projects strand of the Biennale, and in a very modern meta twist, on the street outside L'Blassa, her work also features in the arresting installation work of Moroccan collective, Zbel Manifesto. Alaoui's images from her astonishing series The Moroccans form the sides of a massive four-metre-high cube, which is set in a sea of rubbish; the symbolism represents the polluted minds of her killers, and the connection between the base Earth and the divine above.

It may seem like high-falutin' stuff, and indeed, some of it is, but for me, one of the best aspects of Marrakech Biennale 6 is that all of the exhibitions are free of charge (some heritage sites charge a nominal entry fee, but entry to the exhibitions themselves is gratis) and there is also much art on the street; both elements are designed to take the elitism out of art and open it up for locals to enjoy. So you can take it or leave it, or make of it what you will, but it's there, it's present, right in the midst of the everyday, and that, in turn, makes it the most democratic of biennales.

One much-loved local hangout is the idyllic Menara Gardens, with its serried rows of ancient olive trees, surrounding a central pavilion and water reservoir, which is used to irrigate the still-cultivated groves. It's a place where friends come to chat, families bring children to play, and lovers find a secret spot to kiss in the shade of evening. It's about three-quarters of an hour's walk from Djemaa el Fna, but a taxi can be had for about 30 dirhams, depending on your haggling ability.

The Gardens is home to what is, for me, one of the most moving and relevant pieces of art of the entire Biennale: Current Power in Syria, by Khaled Malas, an artist, historian and architect from Damascus. The work takes several forms; a book (an artwork in itself) outlining the project; an installation in the Menara Gardens; but in the main, the work is a working windmill in Syria itself that supplies electrical power to an unknown source (Malas prefers not to say for fear it would become a bombing target). The windmill is "an act of creative resistance, one that 'takes the power' literally".

He was setting up his installation in the pavilion when I arrived, and explained the genesis of the work. "Because of the ongoing war, power was cut off to many Syrian settlements and they began to use plastic pellets, which they made from remnants found in rubbish or rubble. They burnt the pellets in furnaces - a dangerous process that produces toxic gases - and this way, made a type of fuel, similar to diesel, which they were able to use to power stand-alone generators.

"A blacksmith in a village, tired of this, built a water wheel in an open sewage canal. He is able to run a generator with this; 14 months later, there are 40 water wheels operating in that area." Malas chose to go with a windmill rather than a water wheel. "Because I'm a historian . . . I wanted to tie this project in with the longer history of energy production in Syria. I chose four stories [the telegraph; the tram; the dam, and torture]." Truly, this is art making a difference.

Of course, man - or woman, come to that - cannot live by art alone, and the Red City teems with incredible eateries and tea houses. In the medina, I fell head over heels in love with the gorgeously green (tiles, plants, doors; all shades from emerald to olive are here) Le Jardin, which played host to a Biennale after-party. During the day, the 17th-Century mansion - which is a sister property to the equally tasty Cafe Des Epices and Nomad - serves organic foods in the shaded courtyard, while at night you can catch old black-and-white movies in what is an utterly romantic setting, among the lush greenery of the garden. See


Also in the medina is the newly opened restaurant La Famille, which opens daily until 5pm. It's located on the street that runs from the Bahia Palace to Djemaa el Fna and is a little oasis of calm and delicious food away from the hubbub outside.

Or, if you fancy being entertained by traditional belly dancers (warning: they are rather sexy) as you dine on traditional Marrakech cuisine, Le Salama (40 Rue de Banques, just off the main square) is the place to go. The food just keeps coming, and it's incredibly delicious, with much of it veggie, although there's no shortage of meat dishes, either. There's a lovely roof terrace here, too, if you fancy pairing a glass of Moroccan red (it's excellent) with a sunset to die for.

To be honest, finding somewhere in the labyrinthine medina is largely pot luck - my sense of direction is questionable, to say the least - but there are so many beguiling spots that it doesn't really matter if you can't find your original destination; often, what you stumble across is better.

If kitsch is your bag, then not far from the main square, you'll find Riad Yima, the shop/gallery/tea room of the Moroccan Andy Warhol, the 'Pope of Pop Art' and purveyor of 'Marrakitsch', Hassan Hajjaj. A self-taught artist who once worked in Woolworths, Hajjaj's work - much of which comprises reclaimed materials - is now highly sought after by collectors and museums, and, because he divides his time between London and Marrakech, you're likely to find him home, should you drop in. See

It's vital, though, when you visit the medina, to take the time to get lost. Utterly, completely, gloriously lost. Inhale the intoxicating mix of mint mingled with cinnamon and star anise; get a little light-headed from the heady traces of hashish lingering in the dust-speckled air, as you wend your way through the serpentine streets, past souk after souk: leather, glassware, jewellery, ceramics, olives, slippers, lighting, perfumes, spices, shawls, shoes, carpets, reptiles . . . it's all here. Immerse yourself in the pulsating throb of it, at least once.

And, after I did, it was back to the Sofitel for a leisurely swim in its glorious pool, and, one dickying up later, it was off to Le Palace, a mere hop, skip and a jump from the hotel. It is, hands down, the most romantic restaurant I have ever had the pleasure of dining in. Inside, it's dark - always a boon when you're the wrong side of 40 - with a vaguely 1920's ambience: bevelled mirror panelling, black walls, flickering candles atop silver candelsticks, huge crystal chandeliers, button-back, red-velvet chairs and countless golden bowls of peony roses. The food was as divine as the setting: think carpaccio of sea bass to start, followed by magret de canard and orgasm of chocolate to finish (OK, I made the last one up, but you get the idea!).

Marrakech is unlike anywhere else I've ever been; it has a uniquely bohemian vibe that captivates; it's chic; it's classy; it's old; it's new; it's laid-back; it's frantic; it's vibrant and tolerant and cosmopolitan and ancient.

And, as I stood at the pool in the Crystal Pavilion of El Badi Palace, with the swallows swooping and soaring around me, the storks nesting in the red ruins, and the work of Oman artist Radhika Khimji, a deflated parachute, draped like a giant jellyfish on the palace wall, I felt I had become what curator Reem Fadda had set out to achieve with this Biennale: part of a "living essay" filled with "living art".

Go and experience it yourself.

Getting there

Marrakech Biennale 6,  see

Hotel: Sofitel Marrakech Palais Imperial: double room including breakfast, €200


For flights from Ireland: Ryanair, see

For more information on Morocco, see

Take three: top attractions

El Badi Palace

Its name in Arabic means 'the incomparable palace' and El Badi is certainly that. It was built in the 16th Century and is now largely a glorious ruin, but nonetheless it retains a palpable aura of majesty and mystery. The elegant ceramics of Algerian artist Rachid Koraichi, sitting on plinths amid the still water of the Crystal Pavilion, segue seamlessly with the serene surrounds. Art within art.

The medina

The Marrakech medina could be considered an artwork in itself. It's a 700-hectare working medina (some medinas exist purely for tourists; this is not the case here) with the open-air theatre that is Djemaa El Fna Square at its heart - you can't get lost; just ask for the square - while sights, smells and sounds  assault the senses at every turn. You will find exquisitely crafted goods here, particularly in leather. Be sure to haggle!


Superflex is a group of three artists who live and work in  Copenhagen. The group's video work for Biennale 6,  Kwassa Kwassa, is a powerful piece that deals with themes of post- and neo-colonisation in Mayotte, a group of islands off the coast of Africa, and the furthest outpost of the EU; it mirrors the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe. The work is located in the atmospheric vaults of the Koutoubia Mosque.

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