Marrakech Biennale 2014 faces anti-Israel backlash

“Anti-normalisation” groups are calling for protests at the Marrakech Biennale.

The Marrakech Biennale, taking place from 26 February to 31 March 2014, is facing threats of protests by “anti-normalisation” groups, in a backlash against the inclusion of Keren Cytter, an Israeli artist.

Marrakech Biennale 5, 2014 venue: Palais Badi. Image courtesy Marrakech Biennale Association.

Marrakech Biennale 5, 2014 venue: Palais Badi. Image courtesy Marrakech Biennale Association.

The Marrakech Biennale’s fifth edition titled “Where Are We Now?”, opening on 26 February 2014, has for a week been the target of “anti-normalisation” groups campaigning against the inclusion of an Israeli artist, Keren Cytter. The 37-year-old video and performance artist was born in Tel Aviv and has been based in New York since 2012.

An article on Morocco World News published on 13 February quotes the Secretary General of the Moroccan Observatory Against Normalisation, Aziz Hannaoui, as saying: “Cytter is from Tel Aviv, which means that she is an Israeli, and hosting her in Morocco is normalisation.” The movement called on all Moroccan artists to protest against Cytter’s inclusion.

Several comments also appeared on social media in opposition to Cytter’s inclusion in the Marrakech Biennale and many suggested the organisation of a protest ‘sit-in’ at the Biennale.

Hicham Benohoud, 'La Salle de Classe', (reference work), analog photography, 50 x 60 cm. Marrakech Biennale 5, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and L'Atelier 21.

Hicham Benohoud, ‘La Salle de Classe’, (reference work), analog photography, 50 x 60 cm. Marrakech Biennale 5, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and L’Atelier 21.

Biennale Founder Vanessa Branson, speaking at the opening press conference on 24 February, confirmed that Cytter’s works would remain in the event but acknowledged the sensitivity of the situation.

Obviously we’re an arts organisation and we want to celebrate everyone’s ideas regardless of where they’re from. But we’re also in a country where we have to be sensitive to some very strong feelings about Israel’s practices. (…) We responded [to the calls for protest] by sending out a very strong statement: we wouldn’t support an artist from an Israeli institution, but we welcome any individual. From an organisational point of view we’re [politically] sensitive, but we also have very strong views about our role.

What is “Anti-Normalisation”?

For Arab activists, “normalisation” refers to open relations with Israel in any field, including culture. In the summer of 2013, five political parties in Morocco – including the Justice and Development Party (PJD) currently in power – jointly sponsored two bills to outlaw “normalisation” with Israel, which would criminalise all forms of contact with the country. The Marrakech Biennale is facing the controversy at a time when the Moroccan Parliament is reviewing the bills.

According to a November 2013 article on Hareetz, an Israeli, English-language news outlet, “Morocco, which is ruled by King Mohammed VI, is considered one of the Arab world’s friendliest nations towards Israel.” The two proposed bills “have zero chance of passing because the king will never allow it,” said Jacky Kadoch, President of the Jewish community of Marrakech-Essaouira.

Joel Rubinfeld, a co-chairman of the European Jewish Parliament, condemned the bills as “a threat which could reverse Morocco’s extraordinary openness to Israel. The radicalism these bills reflect must not be allowed to gain the upper hand.”

Max Boufathal, 'Serment d'Hippocrate', 2008, (reference work), wire, rattan, enamelled copper wire, 90 x 60 cm. Photo: Claire Soubrier. Image courtesy the artist and Marrakech Biennale Association.

Max Boufathal, ‘Serment d’Hippocrate’, 2008, (reference work), wire, rattan, enamelled copper wire, 90 x 60 cm. Photo: Claire Soubrier. Image courtesy the artist and Marrakech Biennale Association.

Building bridges between cultures

The Marrakech Biennale identifies its mission on its website thus:

The Marrakech Biennale is a festival with the mission to build bridges between the cultures through the arts. We inspire outstanding artists from all over the world to create work that responds to the the magical environment of Marrakech.

The Biennale also lists its core principles on its homepage, among which are the following three:

  • to provide an equal platform for all independent artists regardless of their country of origin;
  • to support people regardless of origin or Gender;
  • to provide a collaborative platform for local, regional and international debate.

At the press conference, Biennale General Director Stefan Holwe said that the debacle “shows how important the overall event is, which tries to build connections and bridges between cultures. The event is still very relevant.”

In a recent article published on 13 Feburary 2014 in The Art Newspaper, Branson emphasised that, as a biennial based in Morocco, the event celebrates “the plurality of its roots” and believes in choosing artists based on their merits. She stated that, “Keren Cytter is participating in this biennale as an individual speaking from her own personal perspective.”

Alya Sebti, the artistic director of the biennial, told The Art Newspaper:

We hope that this controversy will not monopolise the dialogues leading up to and during the biennial. We look forward to the conversations inspired by the central question of this edition of the biennial, and we are proud to include Keren Cytter, like all of our artists.

The future of contemporary art in Morocco

The art scene in Morocco has been burgeoning in recent years and Marrakech has become one of the most sought-after destinations for art in the region. The Marrakech Biennale, now in its tenth year, has made great efforts to build bridges and foster mutual understanding and collaboration between regions in the contemporary art field.

Talking to The Art Newspaper, Alya Sebti revealed that, because of lack of funding, the Marrakech Biennale might be at its last edition this year. If the Moroccan art scene should indeed lose the Biennale and if the “anti-normalisation” bills were to pass, a question will hang over the concerted efforts in the arts to open up dialogues between cultures.

Keren Cytter was unavailable for comment.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related topics: Israeli artists, art and the community, biennales, censorship of art, events in Africa

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