A Visit to Marrakech’s Contemporary African Art Museum with President Othman Lazraq

"I’m not a militant, I’m not an activist, I’m just engaged. And I’m pretty sure that’s the only, only, only way for Morocco and for Africa to become a hub and to attract people–not only for the belly-dancers but for the culture."

Sarah Goodman
Sarah Goodman is a freelance writer and photographer based in Rabat.
A Visit to Marrakech’s Contemporary African Art Museum with President Othman Lazraq.
MACAAL President Othman Lazraq lighting “Un Dîner en Ville,” an installation by the local collective Zbel Manifesto, showing a dining room set with forks, knives, and used plastics that represent a week’s worth of consumption in Marrakech./ All photos by Sarah Goodman/Inside Arabia

The outside world often classifies Morocco by identifiers such as “Arab” or “Mediterranean.” In other contexts, Morocco may be used as an exemplar of a Muslim-majority nation. However, in 2017, Morocco rejoined the African Union after a 33-year absence. As Morocco begins to play a bigger role in pan-African politics, the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) represents another example of an internal alignment of Moroccan and African aims. MACAAL is notable for firmly positioning Morocco as an African nation and placing Moroccan artists within the panoply of African art.

On February 23, MACAAL celebrated its first anniversary as North Africa’s first contemporary African art museum and the second on the continent. (The first was the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art in Cape Town, known also for its distinctive grain-elevator shape, which opened in 2017.) Launched locally in 2016, MACAAL held its international debut on February 27, 2018, coinciding with Marrakech’s turn hosting the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair.

MACAAL’s president, Othman Lazraq, showed me around the museum last year. In person, Lazraq is tall and commanding. Trained as an architect, he organized the interview spatially, leading the way from room to room and extending his considerable wingspan as he gestured between the museum’s different pieces. The son of Moroccan construction magnate and art collector Alami Lazraq, Othman grew up in a family of collectors. (“I was born in art,” he says archly.) Speaking to me in English, he occasionally leavened our conversation with French and Arabic phrases, intimating the different spheres and communities between which Lazraq moves fluidly.

A Visit to Marrakech’s Contemporary African Art Museum with President Othman Lazraq

During our tour, Lazraq shared a glimpse of MACAAL through his eyes, his goals for the museum, and his ambitious program. His purpose, then, was to generate interest, excitement, and awareness within not only younger generations but also older ones. And, he added, “just to be recognized as a reference and a platform for emergent, unknown, and forgotten artists.”

This is an excerpt of my interview with him:

SG: How is the museum able to help emerging artists?

OL: As an institution, we can reach different types of people. It’s neutral because you don’t pay, you don’t buy the works. It’s just you and your imagination coming and dreaming here. We want to be a space where the only language is art and [where] there is no commercial relation between the seller or art dealer and the artist and the collector–you’re on the same level as everyone.

Twice a month, we organize couscous for 40 people. Anyone that comes that wants to eat couscous [can] come here. We did it with the migrants in Marrakech. All the gardeners of the golf course, with the maids. We did it with people that would never put their foot in a museum, [who would be] so afraid that ‘we’re not going to get into this.’ Of course, we have to. Who [else] is going to do it? We have free shuttles for people from the city that bring them here to the museum. We have a shuttle going to the surrounding areas here, bringing people [to MACAAL].

And this is how you create a community. [He laughs.] I’m not a militant, I’m not an activist, I’m just engaged. And I’m pretty sure that’s the only, only, only way for Morocco and for Africa to become a hub and to attract people–not only for the belly-dancers but for the culture–what we’re not known for: culture and art.

This is why it’s important for us to show art from our continent: people have to understand that we have this creativity here. And that you could be an artist if you want. You have a museum now that might, maybe, buy your art and show your art. You have an audience. A lot of people abandon it because no galleries show [their work]. It’s not just about showing art, it’s about what you create around it.

SG: What kinds of things are you trying to “create around” MACAAL?

OL: We want to be not only a voice but also to be very impactful. If you don’t do palpable, physical things, people will never follow you. This is why we’re here. If you don’t embody it, don’t stay. I always say that. Don’t stay! It’s not only opening a museum and giving coffees to people. It must also have a social impact on people’s lives, because people outside will never come if you don’t go and get them.

So now we have couscous, we have shuttles for free, we organize jam sessions, we organize pop-ups, we organize cocktails, we organize “Open MACAAL,” the first week of the exhibition and it’s free for everyone.  

SG: What kind of outreach do you have for emerging artists? And emerging artists from other countries on the continent?

OL: We signed a partnership with the School of Visual Art in Marrakech (SAV) and we’ve received a lot of interest from them. We also work with them a lot on our videos, for example. We try to find the links, but we also have workshops [and] MACAAL Lab.

I don’t have the network yet to reach students internationally. But we received this group of three students–people from New York. And they asked, ‘opening an art museum in Morocco and using a European standard, is it working?’ Actually, no! You have to adapt yourself to a context. And the context we have is completely different from other countries in the world.

I can’t compare it to other museums, to other institutions, to other exhibition spaces. Our museum is unique. What we’re doing is unique. You come here, there’s a soul. You come in, you feel [at] home. And that’s important.

We wanted to make it three times bigger, the space. But why? What we do here, it’s kind of a school-museum. We teach people (I love this word, by the way: “School-museum.” I’m going to use it more!). We teach and we educate people. First, what art is, [then] what contemporary art is, and then what African contemporary art is. We have a big challenge. It’s not easy, but the challenge is here and I’m so happy to take it [on]. I can’t wait. It’s only the beginning.

A Visit to Marrakech’s Contemporary African Art Museum with President Othman Lazraq

 

“We’re happy to see people’s faces, people’s smiles,” he says as we leave the upstairs exhibition space of MACAAL.

The Future

MACAAL represents a new type of museum, a project that could not have existed in its present form ten years ago, not only in terms of the partnerships enabled by a new political landscape, but also with regard to the young, social-media savvy, multilingual, multicultural individuals manning MACAAL’s operations. These changes are embodied by Lazraq, himself just thirty years old, as well as by the entire MACAAL team. (Lazraq also assures me that the majority of his team is female: “I only have women on my team. And the women I have, they’re fighting [for this]! This is their home!”)

A groundbreaking, iconoclastic report released on November 21, 2018, estimates that foreign museums outside the African continent hold between 90 to 95 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage, and suggests that international institutions must now grapple with the far-ranging implications of cultural restitution. MACAAL represents a space for artists of the continent and can achieve visibility and recognition on African soil.

NOTE: “Un Dîner en Ville” has since been replaced with a new exhibition, “Material Insanity,” which is running from February 26 to September 22, 2019.