Villa des Arts in Casablanca

No Room for Contemporary Art

When the Villa des Arts was opened a few years ago, the Moroccan metropolis finally had an exhibition space worthy of comparison with similar institutions in Europe. But in Casablanca itself, it has faced massive resistance. Beat Stauffer reports

photo: Beat Stauffer
Sylvia Frei-Belhassan is recognised as one of the leading authorities on current Moroccan art

​​Casablanca is a noisy and chaotic metropolis that's steadily encroaching on the flat land that surrounds it. Amidst the industrial zones, the wealthy suburbs and the frighteningly large belt of slums, attractive places are few and far between.

They can be found, though – and most of them date back to the first half of the 20th century, when architects from half of Europe found ample opportunities to practice their art here.

One such gem from bygone days is the white Art Déco villa on the Boulevard Brahim Roudani. Flawlessly restored, and set in a large, well-tended garden, this cubical building outshines the assorted eyesores of the surrounding area. It's the Villa des Arts, built in 1934 as a businessman's private residence, and now used as a cultural centre and exhibition space.

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By focusing on contemporary art, the Villa had hoped to acquire an international profile

​​The villa is currently owned by the ONA Foundation, one of the biggest industrial holding companies in the country. The Moroccan royal family are the company's major shareholder. This splendid edifice is a worthy setting for the foundation's own collection of works by Moroccan artists; but ONA also plans to organise its own exhibitions.

A home for contemporary art

Sylvia Frei-Belhassan, a Swiss citizen who has been living in Morocco for more than 40 years, played a decisive role in the realisation of this project.

Even during the planning phase, she managed to convince those in charge at ONA that the villa (at that time unoccupied) would be an ideal location for the new cultural centre. In 1996, she began working closely with the foundation; shortly thereafter, she was placed in charge of the project.

After an intensive planning phase and two years' work converting the building, the Villa des Arts opened its doors in June 1999. Casablanca now had an exhibition space that gained attention throughout Morocco as well as abroad.

With Sylvia Frei-Belhassan, the people at ONA had made an excellent choice. An arts administrator married to a Moroccan, she had studied ceramics at the Zürich Kunstgewerbeschule (College of Arts and Crafts) in the 1960s, and she is now recognised as one of the leading authorities on current Moroccan art.

Fatima Zohra Akalay, a professor of literature, attests to Frei-Belhassan's decisive contribution to the development of contemporary art in Morocco, her exceptional ability to discover and foster young talent, and her excellent reputation in informed circles. Others speak of the Swiss administrator in similarly glowing terms.

Developing Moroccan public's interest in modern art

Sylvia Frei-Belhassan spent 20 years working for one of the best galleries in Morocco's capital, Rabat. During this crucial period, she built up a network of contacts and developed her professional expertise. Today, she still takes pride in the way she managed to develop the Moroccan public's now-enthusiastic interest in modern art.

In 1991, however, the gallery "L'Atelier" in Rabat had to close its doors for good; Ms. Frei-Belhassan says she had a wonderful core audience that simply lacked the funds to purchase artworks.

A few years later, the people who run ONA approached her and asked her to take over the development and management of the Villa des Arts; she didn't hesitate for long. She dreamt of an "espace" – a home for present-day culture with the emphasis on contemporary painting, sculpture, installations, videos, architecture and design.

Nothing of the kind had existed in Morocco hitherto, and it seemed self-evident that such a place would also take an interest in developments beyond the country's borders.

Therefore, Ms. Frei-Belhassan also sought to collaborate with reputable European museums. For the first exhibition, entitled "L'Objet Desorienté au Maroc", she succeeded in gaining the cooperation of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

For the show that followed, on contemporary textile arts, she worked with the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid; and for an exhibition on architecture in Casablanca from 1900 to 1960, she won the partnership of the giant French energy concern EDF.

An abrupt ending

And then it all stopped. Although the 25 exhibitions organised by Sylvia Frei-Belhassan had been very well received in Casablanca and in the art world as a whole, ONA's powers-that-be said that the energetic arts administrator was too "elitist", that the exhibitions were too expensive and – above all – that too few Moroccan artists were having their work shown. Following the terrorist attacks in Casablanca, demands were also made that more be done for young people in the banlieus.

This was something Frei-Belhassan also regarded as important, and she had been in fact fighting for it for years; but at the same time, she felt it couldn't be made to fit into her exhibition concept.

"It's an illusion to think one should bring these young people from the Bidonvilles to an arts centre in the inner city", says Frei-Belhassan. Instead, she feels, one should approach these young people on the outskirts of the city, where they live (often with no prospects whatsoever), and initiate cultural activities there. This, however, would require particular concepts and – not least – financial resources.

What seems to have escaped the people at ONA is that the Villa des Arts had succeeded, within only five years, in becoming a beacon of contemporary culture in Morocco – and therefore also a significant source of prestige for ONA itself.

The conservative-Islamic influence on modern art

In any case, Sylvia Frei-Belhassan was not prepared to bow to her sponsors' concepts: in Autumn 2004, she left the institution she had herself built up. Her successor remained in office for barely six months, and then the Villa was closed. A few weeks ago, a new exhibition was announced – dedicated to "les arts traditionels".

It's not the only time something like this has happened in Morocco. In the Musée de Marrakech, too, the director was recently "released" from her duties because the museum's sponsors felt that she had been focusing too strongly on contemporary art. They replaced her with someone who placed the spotlight on traditional arts.

For Sylvia Frei-Belhassan, this return to tradition is an expression of the resurgence of conservative-Islamic circles in Morocco. It is accompanied, she says, by a reawakened interest in the so-called Orientalist painters; these are practically the only kind of pictures bought by Casablanca's "bourgeoisie" right now, and contemporary art hardly has a chance.

She describes the financial situation for young Moroccan artists as more precarious than ever before, with almost all talented artists of the younger generation leaving the country – because, in Morocco, "there's simply no place for them".

The arts are not a priority

After years of observing and helping to shape the Moroccan arts scene, Frei-Belhassan also sees major deficits in other areas of Moroccan cultural life. She says that the art collegel in Casablanca is of a low standard, and stuck in the thinking of the 1950s.

In most schools, she says, there is no art teaching worthy of the name. Sylvia Frei-Belhassan sums up the outlook with resignation: art is the least of this country's priorities – and, in a way, she says, she can even understand this.

The Moroccan media have become noticeably freer in recent years, and new laws governing the family and women's rights signify that substantial social progress has been made.

Sylvia Frei-Belhassan's somewhat pessimistic assessment of the Moroccan cultural scene contrasts with the image of a resurgent Morocco cherished by many in Europe since King Mohammed VI came to power.

Isn't it fair to say that a new civil society has come into being, and that it manifests itself in thousands of independent alliances and associations? Frei-Belhassan agrees that this is true of Moroccan society as a whole, but says that little of this can be felt in the country's cultural scene.

She sometimes has the impression that Moroccan society has "fallen asleep", and she would like to shake the country's decision-makers out of their slumbers. The King, she says, has a great deal of good will – but he alone cannot possibly master the great task ahead.

Beat Stauffer

© 2005

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily NZZ.

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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