• Zoltan Alexander

nº50 / 1:54 MARRAKESH 2020 / PART-I

What is behind the ochre wall? A three-day discovery at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair Marrakesh 2020. Interviews, reviews and the most prominent artists and art galleries of the last virus-free Art Fair.

Review by Zoltan Alexander



Interviews and featured galleries, artists by Zoltan Alexander

Interview with founder Touria El Glaoui of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (London, New York, Marrakesh)

interview with gallery owner Nathalie Locatelli of Galerie 127 (Marrakesh)

Followed by a selection of satellite exhibitions throughout the city: Hassan Hajjaj and Ismail Zaidy at Riad Yima (Marrakesh), Eric van Hove at Voice Gallery (Marrakesh), Nicolas Lefebvre, Sara Imloul, David Daim (Paris) and Denis Dailleux (Cairo) at Galerie 127 (Marrakesh)

Other artists and galleries will be featured in PART II. and PART III.

1:54 Marrakesh 2020 / © video by Zoltan Alexander ZOLTAN+MEDIA

I wonder if we have the right in our damaged society to enjoy beautiful moments and exceptions such as meeting artists, gallerists, curators and art lovers in order to guard against sentimentality. Maybe we should turn away from all known structures. What allows us to understand, to hope?

Writing about 1:54 is an easy job in London but not in Marrakesh. Whilst one could rigorously follow a short journalistic review format to cover art fairs, it is utterly impossible in Marrakesh; the mind wonders and breaks all known formats. The Fair is inseparable from the city and its people. The review turns into an ode.

Afternoon tea on the terrace of Royal Mansour, Marrakesh

No matter how many times you have visited Marrakesh, it will always make the heart beat faster. Upon arrival the hot air hits your face, the sun embraces the ochre city, the dusty pink, uni-colour buildings, the palm trees. It reflects on the pool of the Riads and makes Koutoubia Mosque solid red whilst the haunting muezzin invites you to pray.

The traffic noise drifts with the hypnotic Arabic music and goatskin-covered drums throughout the city. The air carries the steaming grills of fish, oil, burnt wood, a dizzying mix of citrus, magnolia and gasoline. In the narrow alleys of the Medina (the old city), one has to navigate cautiously between the crowd, stubborn donkeys, fast-speeding scooters, lost tourists, street performers and storytellers. Alongside the stores old men sitting in their traditional hooded caftans and fez accompanied by obedient pets and occasional tamed snakes.

When the night falls, you feel an opening up of life and most unusually stars appear in the clarity of the night sky.

Djemaa el Fna square / Photo © Courtesy of Siegfried Gehlhaar
The Medina / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA

The Moroccan circle, halqa, relies on storytelling, as well as improvisation and spontaneity. It has existed since the 11th century when Marrakesh was once a capital and medieval trading post. The city preserves the aesthetic glory of a forgotten time, it is magical, mesmerising and somewhere a bit dangerous as without noticing, it gets under your skin and you helplessly fall in love with its magic, never wanting to leave, it's a city that has seduced everyone from Winston Churchill to Yves Saint Laurent.

Photo © Courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj

Marrakesh is timeless, mystical, musical and alluring. Moroccans have preserved forgotten centuries. Despite rapid modernisation, the Medina, surrounded with a 16km red wall, is an oasis. A city-in-a-city with its labyrinths, there are no signs of a fast-paced world or any high-fashion brands.

Guéliz (the new city), on the other hand, is radically different with its kaleidoscopic spectrum of culture, traditional and industrious market places, large buildings, noisy wide avenues from the French-era filled with Moroccan and European cafés. Restaurants, bars, as well as art galleries and mainstream fashion stores complement its European-style new architecture.

Further East of Marrakesh, La Palmeraie, could be another city with its waste-space and glorious palm-tree scenery, hidden luxury spas and private villas.

Marrakesh has been attracting artists for centuries. The city has recently been rediscovered as a cultural hub. Visitors do not come to see camels and belly dancers anymore; only the appallingly dressed tourists who do not pay much respect to others around them anyway.

From top / a Berber / David Daim / Riad Serge Lutens

As Bertolucci once described in his movie "Thé au Sahara":

"Whereas tourists merely pass through on a fixed schedule and hurry back home without taking the time to savour the details, travellers belong no more to one place than to the next, move slowly over a period of time, weeks, months, sometimes years, as the mood dictates. Travellers need never return." In that respect, I am a true traveller.

Maybe journalism should be similar, sentences conceived in their own time and rhythm, remote from impossible deadlines and rushed publishing. Maybe journalistic writing should be more like storytelling, personal, analytical, philosophical and fact-correct rather than a race. It's a language which is not fully ours yet. Our present time will tell.

"Loop" by Ismail Zaidy / Photo © Courtesy of Ismail Zaidy l4artiste
Lantern maker / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA
Souk district / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA
Riad Edward / Photo © Courtesy of Riad Edward
Courtyard at Serge Lutens Foundation / Photo © Courtesy of Serge Lutens Foundation
"Berberliner" by Deborah Benzaquen / Photo © Courtesy of Deborah Benzaquen
La Mamounia / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA


La Mamounia, renovated by Jacques Garcia, a jewel of Arab-Andalusian architecture, hosts the third edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in Marrakesh. The Art Fair starts days before its public opening with preview days and private dinners allowing art collectors, curators and journalists to meet and engage in a conversation with artists and galleries.

In 2017, the spotlight was on Cape Town due to the launch of Zeitz Mocaa, the world's first dedicated contemporary African art museum, which firmly made the city into a cultural hub, however, a continent of 54 countries and over a billion people urgently needed more than one international art hub. It is only now that Marrakesh gains a wildly respected international role in art, thanks to founder of the renowned 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, Touria El Glaoui.

La Mamounia / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA

Fact Check One

  • El Glaoui's voice is heard from London to New York and Marrakesh

  • The first Marrakesh edition was inaugurated in 2018 with the participation of MACAAL, the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden and the opening of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakesh

  • The 3rd Marrakesh edition was between 22-23 February 2020, at the opulent La Mamounia Palace

  • In New York, the 6th edition was going to open between 8-10 May 2020, at the Caldwell Factory

  • In London, the 8th edition between 8-11 October 2020, was going to be running alongside FRIEZE week at Somerset House

Fact Check Two

  • Touria El Glaoui was born in Marrakesh, daughter of Hassan El Glaoui, a painter of figurative scenes of horsemen and landscapes; granddaughter of the last Pasha of Marrakesh, Thami El Glaoui, following a 300-year-old dynasty over the Berbers

  • El Glaoui's career began in the banking industry, has organized and co-curated exhibitions of the work of her father, Hassan El Glaoui, before founding 1:54 in London, in 2013

  • El Glaoui is the founding director of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair London, New York, Marrakesh

  • Touria El Glaoui is fierce and determent

Amazigh woman by Jean Besancenot / Maison de la Photographie Marrakesh / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA
Amazigh woman by Jean Besancenot / Maison de la Photographie Marrakesh / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA

Omar Berrada, writer and curator: "Rejoining the African Union in 2017, after a 33-year absence, with a stronger economical presence there's a serious interest in reclaiming a sense of belonging on the continent, which wasn't the case five-ten years ago."

Nathalie Obadia, Parisian art gallery owner: "The advantage of Morocco is also its stability when many African countries are in uncertain situations."

One, who has never yet attended 1:54 in Marrakesh, could make the wrong presumption that the Art Fair looks a little bit like African art for a mainly white, European audience who only come to enjoy the winter sun in the idyllic surroundings of the idyllic La Mamounia Palace.

How wrong is that!

Whichever way you look at 1:54, it is unquestionably a diverse and vibrant international art fair portraying the multitude of contemporary art and artists of Africa and its diaspora. The Fair draws a reference to one continent and fifty-four countries (1:54) that constitute the African continent and it is designed for those looking to gain a deeper insight of the continent's diverse art scene and art market. The atmosphere is very specific here, Marrakesh offers a full scene mixing a strong spirit of celebration and elegance, very different from London or New York.

The Art Fair and its hors mur satellite exhibitions have already attracted a new kind of visitor, the one that looks beyond the incense-laded souks that speak so heavily of Morocco's past, towards its future as one of the loudest voices in the African art world.

"Random #4" by Artsi Ifrach and Mous Lamrabat of ARTSIMOUS / Photo by © Courtesy of Voice Gallery
"Dounia #2" by Artsi Ifrach and M