Yesterday, the fifth Marrakech Biennale opened in Morocco, showcasing the works of over forty contemporary artists, both local and international. The theme of this year’s iteration of the artistic festival is a question: “Where are we now?” It is answered through a mix of exhibits of visual arts, cinema, literature, and performing arts, all of which will run until the end of March.
So, where are we now? Apparently we are at the point where five Moroccan parties, including the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD), have sponsored two bills to outlaw relations with Israel. And the Marrakech Biennale, founded in 2004 and celebrating its 10th anniversary, is therefore proceeding under a cloud of controversy—thanks to the inclusion of an Israeli artist, Keren Cytter.
Last week, The Art Newspaper reported that Morocco’s anti-Israel lobby was objecting to the participation of Cytter–a highly-acclaimed 37-year-old Israeli video artist, born in Tel Aviv and now working in New York. The paper quoted Azziz Hanawi, the secretary general of the Moroccan Observatory Against Normalisation, who told the local newspaper Al-Akhbar Al Yaoum that “The official program of the festival introduces Keren Cytter as an artist from Tel Aviv, which means that she comes from a Zionist occupied body, and inviting her is a ‘normalisation’ and a crime.” (The term “normalisation” refers to open relations with Israel.)
Following these accusations, Vanessa Branson, founder and president of the Marrakech Biennale, issued a statement in the festival’s defense, saying, “One of the biennale’s founding pillars is to build connections between cultures by using the arts to stimulate debate. We look forward to welcoming everyone to take part in this rich, open, creative, constructive stew of ideas.” She added: “As an artist, Keren Cytter is participating in this biennale as an individual speaking from her own personal perspective.”
In the weeks leading up to the event, the Moroccan Observatory Against Normalisation has called upon its supporters to protest outside Biennale venues. I asked Hicham Khalidi, curator of the visual art section, if this has actually happened. It’s still early, but “so far nobody showed up in front of the Bank Al Maghrib and we didn’t even hear about this,” he told me. Khalidi also maintained that the public response, as well as the press’ response, to Keren Cytter’s work has been “positive and interested.”
Cytter herself, however, has opted to avoid the controversy by not flying in to attend the festival in person, even as her work is on display. As of press time, she preferred not to comment.