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The Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) in Marrakech has the pleasure to announce ‘Outsiders/Insiders?: Artists of Essaouira from the Fondation Alliances and Fundación  Yannick y Ben Jakober Collections’, a group exhibition open to the public from 11 March to 25 July  2021. This exhibition presents a vast selection of artworks by the singular artists of Essaouira, such as Mohamed Tabal, Ali Maimoun, Regragui Bouslai and Abdelmalek Berhiss, from the dual collections of Fundación Yannick y Ben Jakober/Museo Sa Bassa Blanca and Fondation Alliances. Exploring a  variety of mediums, previously unseen works, and archives, ‘Outsiders/Insiders?’ aims to reveal how this small port city, with its history of multiple influences, became the breeding ground for an atypical creative scene. 

Installation view of 'Outsiders/Insiders?' at MACAAL. Photographer: C. Ayoub El BardiiInstallation view of ‘Outsiders/Insiders?’ at MACAAL. Photographer: C. Ayoub El Bardii

Music, legends, handicrafts, religion, myths, poetry, architecture, multiple cultures and traditions are all themes associated with Essaouira. Once known by the Portuguese as Mogador, this port city lies at a crossroads of civilisations. Marked by Arab, Jewish, Berber and sub-Saharan cultures over the centuries, Essaouira has emerged as a laboratory of cultural coexistence where creation flows freely.  

Souri artists are eclectic, defying classification. Born in a region where no art schools would influence them, and with no academic training, they sought inspiration in the city’s concentration of multiple influences. In this way, these self-taught creators have successfully developed a singular visual iconography. Their painting style is both instinctive and thoughtful, simple yet rich, mysterious and eloquent. Their works share the qualities of fluid curves, profusion of forms, and rich colour. The repetition of undulating motion — inspired by water, breath, music and trance — evokes a jumble of anthropomorphic bodies, dreamlike creatures, and talismanic symbols. Manifestations of the art of perpetual movement and regeneration of forms, these works open the door to a world of mystery,  mysticism, and great complexity.

Installation view of 'Outsiders/Insiders?' at MACAAL. Photographer: C. Ayoub El BardiiInstallation view of ‘Outsiders/Insiders?’ at MACAAL. Photographer: C. Ayoub El Bardii

“Most of these artists invoke supernatural powers, for which they are merely instruments. They enter  a semi-conscious state that renders them receptive to energies beyond their capacity. This mode of  inspiration is certainly related to the religious practices that have woven together in Essaouira, such  as Sufism, animism, and rituals imported by the Black diaspora, in which trance and magic play a  major role.” Michel Thévoz, writer, art historian, philosopher, director of the Collection de l’Art Brut  (Lausanne). 

Whether they are inspired by architecture, multiculturalism, religion or the environment, these artists create work that resonates strongly with the city of Essaouira.  

In their process and in their practice, some Souiri artists have assumed the role of custodians of ancestral rituals and traditions. Boujemâa Lakhdar, researcher and director at the Musée des Arts  Populaires d’Essaouira, incorporated chiselled geometric figures into his sculpture, searching through books on folk magic to source the origins of this graphic symbolism. Via participative observation, he was initiated into the timeless practice of artisans, and was able to master and synthesise their ancient knowledge, which he transposed into astute artistic compositions. The painter  Ali Maimoun draws his inspiration from everyday subjects, combining them with figures from African mythologies. In doing so, he bears witness to traditional heritage, with its customs and rituals, while adding his own personal touch. 

Installation view of 'Outsiders/Insiders?' at MACAAL. Photographer: C. Ayoub El BardiiInstallation view of ‘Outsiders/Insiders?’ at MACAAL. Photographer: C. Ayoub El Bardii

Other artists cull from their own experience, using their environment as a point of departure.  Mohamed Tabal was initiated into Gnawa culture at a very young age, and he incorporates its rhythms into visual choreographies. His narrative painting speaks of Gnawa festivals and rituals as well as of daily life, in all its splendid diversity. Regragui Bouslai hails from the tradition of oral expression, and his storytelling is like visual poetry. His phantasmagorical works are gently naïve, suggesting that the world he paints is his very own Eden.  

Though discreet, the feminine side of creation is not forgotten. ‘Outsiders/Insiders?’ highlights the work of Regraguia Benhila, a leading figure of this informal pictorial movement. She is a free and singular spirit, the author of scenographic performances that overflow with sinuous lines. The schematic figures that appear in her works are like resurgences from night’s dreams, drawn from ancestral memory.  

Installation view of 'Outsiders/Insiders?' at MACAAL. Photographer: C. Ayoub El BardiiInstallation view of ‘Outsiders/Insiders?’ at MACAAL. Photographer: C. Ayoub El Bardii

Originally from the Marrakech region, Abdelkader Bentajar is the exception among the natives of  Essaouira. Nevertheless, his dreamlike paintings are steeped in the traditional colours of the city. The whites and blues of his works combine to construct limpid oceans and clouds inhabited by people and imaginary creatures.  

Leaning into a more contemporary interpretation of this artistic movement, the exhibition features an immersive scenography created by Moroccan architect and artist Othmane Bengebara, to offer a  literal invitation to journey into the frenetic and surreal world of these artists.  

“Without a shred of self-satisfaction or complacency, this event is and will remain both a milestone  and a moment that belong to a definitively curious Morocco, open to diversity and reconciled with all  forms of contemporaneity. A Morocco that now knows how to recognise and accept this life movement,  one which has expressed itself best through the freedom of creation.” André Azoulay, journalist, economist and politician, Advisor to H.M. the King of Morocco.

‘Outsider/Insider?’ is curated by Janine Gaëlle Dieudji & Meriem Berrada, scenography designed by Othmane Bengebara. The exhibition will be on view from the 11th of March until the 25th of July 2021 at MACAAL.

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