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The international press has been abuzz recently about plans to open the privately funded Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts (MMPVA). So far, the attention has primarily come from Anglophone media, due perhaps to English’s dominance as the contemporary art world’s lingua franca and the choice of US-American collector and patron, David Knaus, to lead the museum.
Slated to open its building, designed by British architect Sir David Chipperfield, in 2016 at the edge of Marrakech’s Menara Gardens, the MMPVA aims to become "a cultural epicenter in the region; its location will serve as the heart of a multi-point star drawing scholars, students, and visitors from around the world." Architectural plans show four levels housing galleries, a theater, café, bookstore, and educational facilities while its collection will focus on three subjects: Architecture/Design, Photojournalism, and Fashion/Culture . In the meantime, MMPVA has made Marrakech’s Badi Palace its temporary home and project space. The inaugural exhibition, 10 Contemporary Moroccan Photographers, opened on 20 September 2013 with photographs from its permanent collection by Yto Barrada, Carole Benitah, Hicham Benouhoud, Ali Chraibi, Yasmina Bouziane, Hicham Gardaf, Hassan Hajjaj, Lamia Naji, Leila Sadel, and Daoud Aoulad Syad. On 1 November, this exhibition relocated to the Sofitel Marrakech, an exhibition sponsor, to make way for the next project: a residency and exhibition curated by Simon Njami with five photographers from Magnum (Abbas, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Mark Power, and Mikahel Subotsky) that begins 8 November 2013 and coincides with the museum’s international inauguration.
The Museum’s articulation of its mission in Marrakech and the broader Moroccan and African contexts raises crucial questions at this early stage. Its online press material states: "With a rich program of exhibitions, education and cultural exchange[,] the Museum will be the first such institution on the African Continent and will broaden the artistic experience across cultural boundaries to form greater understanding and tolerance" . Certainly, fostering greater understanding, tolerance, and cross-cultural exchange through exhibitions and related educational programming are ambitious and important goals for art museums worldwide and there is not a surplus of institutions supporting artists and arts education in Morocco. But claiming to be the continent’s first risks minimizing the many public and private institutions and initiatives across the continent that are deeply invested in their local contexts and communities . Happily, its September 2013 press release moves away from this tone, clarifying that MMPVA "will be a significant addition to Africa’s cultural landscape" and, at six thousand square meters, the world’s largest photography museum .
Nevertheless, these initial claims beg the question of how MMPVA’s stated goals will translate from broad mission into specific programming once open to the public. Issues of translation and the public are particularly crucial given the museum’s predominantly Anglophone orientation in a country where the official languages are Arabic and Tamazight and where French and Spanish are much more commonly spoken than English. No where is this more evident than on the first page of the MMPVA’s online project overview when the museum’s name in Arabic appears backwards, as if to be read from left to right rather than right to left.
Meanwhile, the numerous photographs of veiled women illustrating MMPVA’s promotional materials raise a different set of questions about how the museum will frame the history of photography of and in Morocco. Doing so will require attending carefully to the ways in which the history of photography in Morocco cannot be disentangled from that of colonialism and Orientalism. And not only. Also at stake is contributing to writing and preserving the history of Moroccan photography made after the country’s independence in 1956 in ways that look beyond canonical Western European and U.S. art history – as the press material’s citation of Susan Sontag, Ansel Adams, and Pablo Picasso would suggest – to the rich histories of art and photography in Africa and the Arab World. At the same time, given the museum’s private and corporate support, it will be worth watching how it chooses to navigate the priorities of its funders with its responsibility to its public.
These concerns are as much challenges as they are an exciting opportunity for MMPVA as it develops its curatorial and educational programs and clarifies its mission in anticipation of its 2016 opening. MMPVA has the potential to make its local public and artistic community – and not just expats, tourists, and the global art world – a priority and to displace, rather than reaffirm, the centrality of the Euro-American canon to modern and contemporary art and photography history in Morocco and elsewhere. Let’s hope for such an institution. For that, indeed, would be a coup for Marrakech, for Morocco, and for the rest of us.
Presidential Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in art history at Northwestern University (Evanston, IL USA) and a 2016 Camargo Foundation Fellow.
10 Contemporary Moroccan Photographers
El Badi Palace, 20 Sept. - 31 Oct. 2013
Sofitel Marrakech, 1 Nov. - 1 Dec. 2013
Exhibition of Magnum Photographers
8 November 2013 - 1 February 2014
MMP+ at El Badi Palace