Interest in contemporary and modern African art has gained momentum in the past few years, with dedicated auctions and art fairs following suit. But so far relatively little of the action has been in Africa itself. Now, Marrakesh, with its proximity to Europe, relative stability and healthy number of French-speaking retirees and second-homers, has become the latest corner of the world to be adopted by the art market.
Last month the ballroom of the swanky La Mamounia hotel hosted the launch of a Marrakesh edition of 1-54, the dedicated African contemporary art fair that opened in London in 2013 and New York in 2015. Despite its diminutive size (17 galleries exhibiting), the fair attracted planes full of international art crowd players, as well as locals, all dressed to the nines for its VIP opening.
It’s hardly difficult, however, to persuade the art tour to come to one of the world’s favourite destinations in February, and the jury is still out on whether or not this is or can become a meaningful market. It’s certainly not a natural trading hub, hindered from the start by its currency, the Moroccan dirham, which legally can only be traded within the country. Touria El Glaoui, the Morocco-raised founder of 1-54, organised dirham-convertible accounts for exhibitors during the fair, but there are another 51 weeks of the year.
Local gallerists are under no illusions. “I hope the fair will change the market in Marrakesh,” says Nathalie Locatelli, who has run Galerie 127 for 12 years. “Right now, all the cultural initiatives are principally organised by foreigners, the majority of people with money seem to prefer buying from overseas and our artists all seem to move away.”
Locatelli has exhibited at the 1-54 fair in London and New York, in order to meet this overseas market, but says she didn’t feel the need to show in Marrakesh as the fair brought visitors to her show of photographer Daoud Aoulad-Syad. Other gallerists see this aspect as key. “I’m a huge supporter of the fair because this market will only grow if it comes from within,” says Cécile Fakhoury, who runs a gallery in Ivory Coast and was showing at the fair. “Right now, there aren’t enough buyers in Africa, certainly not enough locally to run a gallery.”
Outside and inside the 1-54 art fair in Marrakesh © Adnane Zemmama
Marrakesh has not been helped by its stuttering public sector. A museum dedicated to photography and designed by David Chipperfield has been in the pipeline for several years but has yet to appear, and the elephant in the room this month was the missing Marrakesh Biennale. After 14 years of producing the critically acclaimed event, founded by Vanessa Branson, sister of Richard Branson and owner of Marrakesh’s El Fenn hotel, organisers had to pull the plug on this year’s edition when the funding didn’t come in. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI is hugely supportive of its arts scene, including as a collector, but, Branson says: “This is an emerging economy, there’s only so much a king can give to the arts while there are calls to improve education and healthcare.” She describes him as “giving patronage but not funding”. Branson believes the biennale will return in 2020 but says: “It’s time for the next generation to step up.”
Othman Lazraq, son of hotel developer Alami Lazraq of Groupe Alliances, is aware of the challenge. He is director of the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (Macaal), which opened in 2016 and was founded on his family collection. “Marrakesh’s market is very small and there are artists we need to bring to a wider audience,” says Lazraq. “Families don’t go to a museum or gallery on a Sunday like they do in New York or London.” He adds that prices for art need to be kept at realistic levels. “You can’t put an international price of €30,000 on contemporary art.”
It’s all relative, though. Of the continent’s 54 countries, only 12 have more than one commercial gallery dedicated to contemporary art, according to Mandla Sibeko, director of the FNB Joburg Art Fair. There are even fewer museums. The continent’s first major space dedicated to contemporary work, Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, opened only last year. Morocco now has two contemporary museums (as well as Macaal, there is the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rabat, backed by the king) while Marrakesh alone boasts about 10 substantial commercial galleries, including Galerie 127, David Bloch, Comptoir des Mines and Voice Gallery in the city’s industrial quarter of Sidi Ghanem — about as many as in much more populous cities such as Mumbai.
And for now, appetite for African art certainly isn’t going away. Morocco boasts its own star, Hassan Hajjaj (who moved to the UK in the 1970s) while artists such as Romuald Hazoumè (Benin), Abdoulaye Konaté (Mali) and Gonçalo Mabunda (Mozambique) are among those who have been featured in 1-54’s fairs and are in Macaal’s collection. All have had prestigious international showings and, on March 28, works by Hazoumè, Konaté and Mabunda will appear in Sotheby’s African art auction in London (a sale that will now be held twice a year). French auction house Artcurial raised an impressive €3.5m from 73 lots at its third auction in Marrakesh in December (up from €2.2m in 2016).
The bulk of the market for African art is unlikely to be in Africa for some time but while its artists are on the up, such pockets of activity will continue. Plus, says Hannah O’Leary, Sotheby’s head of modern and contemporary African art: “If you look at the continent from an economic point of view, money concentrates in South Africa, Nigeria and Morocco. That can’t be ignored.”