Visual Arts in the Maghreb. Perspectives and Stances

María Elena Morató

Journalist and art critic

The dynamics of contemporary art have always been in the frontline and therefore are one of the most controversial debates, whose rules seem to change with each generation. What is actually changing is the perspective through which its distinct parameters are approached, from the purely aesthetic to its role as an agent of social mobilisation and its impact on the human environment of communities. At present, art is surpassing many limits it had maintained in recent decades and has achieved an unusual freedom of movement, thanks to the theoretical eclecticism and a certain chaos of modes and forms with a surprisingly refreshing effect. This could be an ideal moment if we manage to avoid new pigeonholing and manipulations.   

Management and Visibility

When analysing the expected state of the visual arts over the next few years, one word unanimously runs through the smallest towns to the biggest capitals: controversy. It is not an artistic current that is shaking the world of art and bringing about mobilisations in the sector, but rather the management of the exhibition venues, from Barcelona to Algiers, Tetouan, Madrid, Tunis and Casablanca.

Based on different cultural realities marked by socio-political histories of disparate paths and forcefulness,[1] it is ever surprising that today the same problems, shared by the different countries of the Mediterranean area, tend to be identified, focusing on how art is becoming visible to society and how the consideration of the status of the artist, the way the profession is treated and the tax system applied to art directly affects the development and invigoration of the communities.

However, while in Spain art is confronting a resilient crisis and harmful tax cultural policies, with the consequent market recession, Maghreb countries follow their own paths and aspirations, with an impasse in Tunisia, growth in Morocco and recovery in Algeria.  

Identifying Realities

We have recently spoken about the role of contemporary art as a social interlocutor, as this is its real contribution to society in the early 21st century. Through a redefinition of the meaning of the old concepts of “art” and “contemporary”, it clearly positioned itself before the challenges of the changing societies and globalisation. A renewed social activism emerged while art opted resolutely for a course that was far more ethical than aesthetic.

The last ten years have been a period of restructuring framed and brought about by constant and diverse upheavals that displaced concepts and led to the emergence of new issues. These upheavals were caused by a reality that broke the status quo and by a series of wholly unpredictable events. Repositioning theories, re-reading contributions, redirecting approaches… the prefix re- has been essential for us when approaching and understanding the state of creation and criticism. An attitude, that of questioning everything, which should be inseparable from both the creative and analytical disciplines.

Creation does not advance but moves cyclically, under the force of social realities that also move cyclically

All this has generally facilitated the abandonment of partial readings that in a not-so-distant era were regarded as universal truths, such as the lineal evolution of art. Today, at last, we have realised that creation does not advance but moves cyclically, under the force of social realities that also move cyclically. The mirage of a contemporaneity, which was considered definitive and whose contributions were also seen as irreversible, collapsed together with the mirage of the years of plenty. The reality (realities) has gradually imposed a certain theoretical wisdom that involves the acceptance of diverse levels of the relationship art and creation with the most immediate reality… its diverse nuances… and its diverse parallel readings. Myths such as that of progress and overcoming aesthetic stages as a unidirectional path are increasingly less well regarded. The confrontation of artists, works, groups, schools, and so on, thanks to professional meetings, biennales or international exhibitions, has prompted a restructuring of the theoretical corpus and an overcoming of the contradictions of position and discourse that were becoming clear with the passing years.

After several periods of relative commercial prosperity (not forgetting that art, as some veterans of the sector argue, has always been in crisis) in our self-satisfied Europe, which dictated art trends and pronounced on European and foreign work, the moment has come to turn the tables, both from the point of view of analysing the artistic phenomenon and leadership of the different creative currents. The activity carried out in the southern Mediterranean is increasingly taking on a greater role and consideration, due to the visibility given to it by both Europe and Mediterranean countries themselves. Moreover, we are witnessing a new current of cultural self-affirmation, brought about by the recent social movements through North Africa.

On North-South Dialogue

Let’s start by dissecting this stance. Everyone understands that the initiative of dialogue emerged as an act of “deference” by the north, which for many years has held the reigns and created the rules of this unequal and unbalanced dialogue. In the visual arts, both critics and creators from that South which presented itself as the reflective part of the mirror have had to make a great effort to slow down and begin to overcome that dynamic, which relegated them to second place: critics, by establishing a new starting point through the revision and recovery of their own history, the artists, by freeing themselves from certain pigeonholing labels imposed on them (but accepted) from outside.

In 2003 the Algerian historian Nadira Laggoune said: “Today, in Algeria as in other places, judgement of art is defined in relation to visual attitudes and analyses from the North, and the criteria of the validity of Algerian (or African) art are established in Europe, specifically in France.”[2] This is what the Algerian theoretician and painter Nourredine Ferroukhi called “Westernism”: “Right now we must recognise the globalised artistic scenario, which gives an important place to Arab artists, preferably those from the diaspora, or born in European countries […]. A model worthy of being questioned by what we may call ‘Westernism’. Indeed, what is defined in Europe is built upon Orientalised stereotypes characteristic of the western Orientalist tradition. These are the East and the Arab world produced in the West through the prism of the diaspora.”[3]

The first to fall (thanks to the concurrence of the most important events in Dakar, Cairo, Alexandria or Sharjah, which have proposed new forms of reading) was geographical compartmentalization, relentlessly blurring all dividing lines that would involve some form of frontier, mental or physical. The multiplication of journeys and exchanges of creators from all disciplines led to a symbiosis in which it was no longer clear where the limits were, or where the more frequent influences and/or multiple and crossed interferences started or ended. Creation today, both in the North and the South, goes beyond frontiers and limits; no one is from a single place. Therefore, multidisciplinary and hybrid creation is ceasing to be an aesthetic stance (unfortunately, it has often also been a mere resource à la mode) to become the new cross-border language, intelligible to all because it includes all.

Creation today, both in the North and the South, goes beyond frontiers and limits; no one is from a single place

This long process has been experienced in southern countries as a kind of “aesthetic decolonisation”, thanks to the progressive enhancement of the features of cultural identity (although not unique) and the validation of the local as something also universal. This is also applicable to mobility; until recently, relations between Maghreb artists involved intermediation by Europe, which meant, in the end, an invisible tutelage of validation.

With respect to this, Miguel Amado commented in the last ARCO art fair[4] that there is still a certain symbolic dependence of the South on the North and that “a South-South relationship is necessary as a counterweight to the North-South link, where reflections and experimentations around the practice of curating in, from and for Africa involves the development (or enhancement) in these countries of their own artistic systems, from art schools and museums to galleries and markets.” Shaking off a dependence sometimes provokes scars, as Cécile Bourne-Farrell said when talking about the Daba l’Maghrib festival[5]: “Often, contemporary artists from Morocco, as well as from the Maghreb, establish a conflictive relationship with their country, which they love and reject equally, so that […] critical distance appears as the only possible channel for the work of many of these highly talented contemporary artists to be visible in their countries and abroad.”

In this line of horizontal dialogue of affirmation, the fourth Orient’Art Express festival, held in Oujda (Morocco) in 2013 and specifically aimed at Maghreb countries, invited people “To think without frontiers” under the title “Espace ouvert, espace fermé”, as did the recently created Tunis Biennial of Arab Contemporary Art, to which we will return later.

Adapting to a Shifting Reality

We could find other examples, but a good illustration of what art currently offers us (both the work and the stance of artists and approaches of curators) is in the catalogue of Mediterranea 16, the Biennial of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean, held in 2013 in Ancona (Italy)[6] and which throughout 2014 is holding a series of post-biennial events in cities such as Genoa, Marseilles, Athens, Split and San Marino (with special attention to the small states or micro-areas in Europe). We consider especially interesting the fact that it is a non-commercial biennial, so it can be illustrative to compare its selection criteria with those of the major international (and also regional) art shows. The presentation of this biennial states: “In the current Mediterranean context, the uncertainty of the evolution of our societies […] put in danger the creation of exchange where making home for divergent visions”, or also “In present times [this geographical area] is characterised by a strong social, economic and political complexity that strikes in different, and in many cases dramatic, ways almost all Mediterranean countries.” The team of curators has a mission to promote a critical reflection on the traditional systems of information and knowledge, questioning their vertical institutionalisation. The catalogue analyses the circumstances and contradictions facing not only artists, but also curators, viewers and organisations themselves. Thus, this catalogue focuses on the individual, the interaction between people and their role in society, the training and knowledge processes, the communication problems and dialogue dynamics, as well as art as a sometimes mute visual testimony of stories and circumstances.

In Maghreb countries, governments mostly regard artistic practice with distrust and usually prioritise potentially subversive aspects before any other consideration, such as the appreciation of art and culture as development elements. Hence the low interest in both the figure of the artist and the projection and promotion of their work. Charlotte Bank and Delphine Leccas[7] provide us with some insight into these North African issues and their direct consequences for artists: “In the effort to keep culture and art under strict control, contemporary artists were largely kept away from official, government grants. The invisibility of contemporary artists was kept in place by the fact that many international institutions worked with local partners who were either the ministries of culture or institutions close to the governments. The Arab revolutions might have the potential to change this […]. However, it is still too early to assess the effects of these upheavals, as the cultural policies of the new governments appear quite contradictory at the moment.”

In Maghreb countries, governments mostly regard artistic practice with distrust and usually prioritise potentially subversive aspects before any other consideration

On the issue of patronage, in the Maghreb criticism of events sous le haut patronage has intensified in recent years. In these countries there is a call for independent management as the only way of achieving plurality and excellence, and (so longed for) direct subsidies from the authorities are interpreted as the clearest expression of state control. It is also true that the haut patronage mainly focuses on heritage projects and therefore others must depend on international foundations (such as the Anna Lindh Foundation and the Young Arab Theatre Foundation) or private sponsorship. It seems that the latter, present in Morocco, has vanished both in Algeria and Tunisia.

At this point, delimitation is necessary. Although it is true that borders, in terms of the language of creation, have almost no effect, there are nevertheless differences, and very notable ones, between Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco that must be taken into account to understand the greater or lesser presence (and therefore effect) of their artists internationally.

Three Maghrebs. Three Paths

Morocco is currently the country with greatest vitality and presence, both at a national and international level. The work being developed for so many years by the schools of fine arts in Tetouan and Casablanca and forums such as that of Asilah have had some effect. In recent years, many art galleries have been opened and private projects and venues have emerged which have shaken the artistic scene, fundamental to helping an art market in full expansion. We could cite examples such as Les Abattoirs in Casablanca; L’appartement 22, Le Cube and La source du Lion en Rabat; Espace 150×295 in Martil, or art residences such as Al-Maqam in Marrakech or Trankat Street in Tetouan. The Moroccan exhibition reality has started to enjoy good health, as shown by initiatives such as La Nuit des Galeries (held eight times) to bring art closer to residents.

Speaking about this country, the Tunisian art critic Rachida Triki stated[8]: “In Morocco there are more galleries and public and private exhibition venues. There are museums, which is incredible. Moreover, events such as the Marrakech Festival contribute to creating a dynamic. In Morocco there is also, and very importantly, art criticism with a bigger presence than in neighbouring countries and it contributes, through the publication of journals and monographs, to creating an artistic life.” Indeed, both the Marrakech Biennale,[9] created in 2004, and the Marrakech Art Fair, created in 2010, and many other events in several locations in the country have played a major role in invigorating the region.

The Moroccan exhibition reality has started to enjoy good health, as shown by initiatives such as La Nuit des Galeries (held eight times) to bring art closer to residents

The designation of Algiers as the 2007 Arab Capital of Culture was for Algeria a wake-up call that enabled its sleepy artistic panorama to begin stretching. Until then, the art market was almost non-existent. Few artists continued active, perhaps because many had “resigned” owing to the great instability experienced by the country. A whole avant-garde had disappeared as a result of the tragedy (some into exile, some dead, explains Nadira Laggoune). It was therefore urgent to find a way out of this situation of stagnation, a counterpoint to the unmoving Algiers Museum of Fine Arts, which from its viewpoint seemed to dominate (anchored in an early 20th century) the entire creative scene of the city.

In these circumstances, the slow recovery of creation coincided with the emergence of new expressive media (video, photography, installation) so that Algerian art re-emerged with a visual revolution. Although visibility is not yet well-structured, many artists are struggling to find a forum to exhibit their creations, with the uncertainty (caused by the isolation of recent years) about living up to what is created abroad. Thanks to these very few outlets we can glimpse an optimistic tendency to a personality without complexes, overcoming biased art history (told from the European West) that bewitched previous generations.

The gallery owner Mamia Bretesche[10] stated in the catalogue of the 2nd Mediterranean Biennale of Contemporary Art of Oran: “But, what do we need for Algeria to become a leading international artistic pole? […] There is already a well-established crucible of artists, and the public is waiting, but the link between the two is broken because of the lack of a real policy of support for artists and exhibition spaces […]. Only the diaspora artists, the one way ticket represented by international galleries, are visible in the major international fairs and can forge ahead.”

After having enjoyed an extraordinary activity in the field of arts for decades, Tunisia was shaken by a revolution (three long years ago) of doubtful direction and even more doubtful outcomes that kept artistic creation in a very delicate situation. In this country, the focus is now on the post-revolution. The doubts about the social reality move and intertwine with those concerning the evolution of contemporary language in a socio-political environment which is not yet very clear. Culture, despite the large number of people involved, seems to have become the least pressing of concerns. An even more worrying fact: the creation in mid-2013 by a group of intellectuals of the Revolutionary Cultural Movement as a response to the continuous aggressions against cultural expressions reveals a lack of connection between art and power, with a growing marginalisation of the former since the revolution. Disenchantment hangs over the people of culture,[11] so much so that the Art-Tunis association has been created to support Tunisian contemporary art.[12]

The exhibition Rosige Zukunft, held in Berlin in 2012, explained in its catalogue that since the revolution of the previous year, an essential part of Tunisian artistic production was created in the public space (the street) and on the screen (internet), which showed that the conflicts latent under the dictatorial regime reappeared in post-revolutionary times. Problems such as freedom of speech were also a central part of the conference on contemporary art organised in December 2012 by the Tunisian Federation of Visual Arts, concerned about the violence against artists and their works.

Venues such as the Galerie Aire Libre in Tunis, El Marsa, Kanvas, Artyshow, Le Violon Bleu or the recovered Centre National d’Art Vivant in Belvédère park offer their venues to the art of new creation. Essia Hamdi, director of the Centre, comments: “Today the artistic scene is very, very dynamic, thanks to the changes fostered by the revolution […], what is new is that Tunisians with a certain economic power are beginning to support local artists. The revolution has reconciled Tunisians with the contemporary creation of their country.” And this has happened even though there is not yet a law for foundations.

Another event[13] revealed the lack of a cultural policy giving a role to foundations and patronage in the promotion and conservation of the arts. While the Fondation Attijariwafa Bank in Morocco had 286 partnership projects, there were none in the Tunisian financial institutions, even though, as Kamel Lazaar noted, “the Tunisian panorama is very rich, full of notable artists, and there is an extraordinary artistic effervescence. However, there is a lack of subsidies for artists to develop themselves […] I am convinced that the Maghreb has many assets which are not sufficiently valued.” Amidst this disconcerting situation, we witnessed in December 2013 the creation of the 1st Tunis Biennale of Contemporary Arab Art, thanks to the initiative of the Union of Tunisian Visual Arts with the support of the Ministry of Culture, to promote Maghreb art and its specificities.

Where Are the Contemporary Art Museums?

One of the oldest demands in the field of art in the Maghreb is that of contemporary art museums. Consequently, several generations of artists have found themselves without a public space of recognition. If we limit ourselves to the capitals, the only one still in operation is in Algiers,[14] which opened in 2007 when it was the capital of Arab culture and has hosted the International Festival of Contemporary Art (FIAC) since 2009.

Meanwhile, Rabat is completing its new National Museum of Contemporary Arts. What will be the first institution created according to international museum regulations is proving to be an interminable undertaking, and has already been postponed several times.[15] Morocco has around 50 museums, only 16 of which depend on the Ministry of Culture. The National Foundation of Museums was created to recover, re-organise and make them accessible. We should not forget that since 1990 Morocco has had the Tangiers Museum of Contemporary Art[16] and since 2012 the Tetouan Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.[17]

Rabat is completing its new National Museum of Contemporary Arts. What will be the first institution created according to international museum regulations is proving to be an interminable undertaking, and has already been postponed several times

Meanwhile, Tunis has been demanding its own museum for decades for the 12,000 works acquired and deposited in the basement of a palace in Ksar Said. This project seems to have been postponed sine die, after the announcement that the building that should have housed it will be used for other purposes. Contemporary art in Tunisia, which until very recently was off the agenda, now seems to have a new opportunity thanks to the agreement between the government and the Union of Tunisian Visual Artists to create the aforementioned Biennial of Arab Contemporary Art.

Artists, Free at Last?

Until now we have explored the dynamics of art. But what is happening with artists themselves? How are they facing their own creative challenges? How do they interact and combine their personal desires with the “demands” of the environment or, in some cases, their militant belligerence towards it? The liberation of artists has been (and to a certain extent, continues to be) a long and difficult path that has confronted them with phobias and philias to some degree imposed by the prevailing thought currents, by the surrounding social and political realities and by their own personal and family situation within society. We are referring to the aesthetic current, which on many occasions has acted as a coercive yoke, although artists are not very aware of this. We are also referring to the geographical realities, in which being from the North or from the South implied different degrees of manoeuvrability, aesthetic freedom and projection; we are alluding to the visual references and to the consideration of them as internal, external, borrowed or revived. And we are referring, finally, to stable or transitory realities, to the fact of being resident, a traveller or an emigrant, given that all this conditions both the creations and their later readings.

Today, when modernity no longer exists and neither does contemporaneity (or at least it is different and multiple), artists have more than ever freed themselves from the tyranny of labels

Today, when modernity no longer exists and neither does contemporaneity (or at least it is different and multiple), artists have more than ever freed themselves from the tyranny of labels (this obsession to classify), of words (terminology sometimes makes us lose the conceptual perspective), of beauty, commitment, critics, mediums and tools, and can do whatever they want. We hope that there are no new labels and that the art market does not over-absorb the new energies.


[1] I am referring to the issue of the post-colonial syndrome, until not so long ago highly present in both former colonies and former metropolises; I am referring to the European stability that existed until very recently and the indisputable position of its artistic production as a herald of contemporaneity; I am referring to the dark Algerian decade, or the Tunisian “revolution”.

[2] Laggoune, N., “Spécificités Algériennes”, in African Contemporary Art. Critical Concerns, Paris, AICA Press, 2003-2007.

[3] Ferroukhi, N., “L’occidentalisme : une certaine pratique de l’art contemporain arabe. Arts dans la mondialisation”, Paris, Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, 2008.

[4] Meeting “Comisariar África (En, Desde y Para)”, ARCO, Madrid 2014.

[5] “Focus Maroc : Disjoindre les évidences du Maroc Contemporain”, in L’art même, no.57, Brussels, Chronique des Arts Plastiques de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, 2012.

[6] The Biennial of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean, a member of the Anna Lindh Foundation and of Culture Action Europe, is a network founded in Sarajevo in 2001 during the holding of the 10th Biennial. It is made up by an international committee of independent contributors, currently comprising 58 members from 17 countries that work with key figures and institutions from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, with special emphasis on the Mediterranean diaspora.

[7] Bank, Ch. and D. Leccas, “La contemporaneità de chi?”, in the catalogue of Mediterranea 16, Ancona, 2013.

[8] Interview with Virginie Andriamirado in Africultures, 27th July 2010.


[10]“Biennale d’Oran. Une démarche culturelle et citoyenne”, 2012.

[11] See Szakal, V., “Between criminalization and marginalization. Art remains a counter-movement in Tunisia”, at //, 13th March 2014, or “Tunisie: la liberté de création, trois ans après la révolution”, at //directinfo (Tunisie), 17th January 2014.


[13] 2ème Rencontre du Maghreb des Arts “Le mécénat culturel au Maghreb, rôles et enjeux” of the Fondation Kamel Lazaar, Musée National du Bardo, Tunis, 10th May 2013.

[14] Musée National d’Art Moderne et Contemporain d’Alger (MAMA).

[15] International Council of Museums (ICOM).

[16] Renamed since 2006 as Galerie d’Art Contemporain Mohamed Drissi.

[17] Tetouan Centre of Modern Art (CAMT).