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African Museums

In the ancient Moroccan city of Marrakech, a house in the old part of town is given over to the exhibition of photography. The Maison de la Photographie was founded by two collectors, both of whom were pursuing images of the colonial era. Rather than continue to compete for the photographs – those founding documents of the colonial enterprises of the industrial age – these men decided to work together. The museum is the result.
Already this story sounds strange to American ears. We are accustomed to museums newly founded as public treasure houses of the immensely wealthy. The Rubells gentri-busting an old Cuban barrio in Florida, the Walmarts in Arkansas – these are the newest palaces of contemporary art. New historical museums? I can't think of any since the Chryslers (re)founded colonial Williamsburg and Henry Ford in Dearborn rendered homage to the rural past his industry destroyed.
Who were these collectors? One can find out easily enough. But their names are nowhere in evidence within the museum or in its brochures. Instead, the museum is arranged around the photographers, the artists who produced the images tourists sent back by colonial post. These are classics in black and white, from the days when photography was only about light and shadow. North Africa is the kind of place where a hooded or veiled figure near an arched doorway, or a local street crowd under a scrim of palm fronds make an instant dramatic composition.
The museum itself is something of an industry, appropriating and replicating the businesses of the artisans they celebrate. The founding collection includes thousands of glass plate negatives, which the museum reprints today. These modern prints are cheap compared to the estate reprints of classic moderns I see in galleries. So there is a business here, supplying homes, restaurants and hotels with decor.
We came to the Maison after visits to the great Ben Youssef madrasa (Islamic school), a vast structure surrounded by other buildings in the densely packed medina, or old city. To reach the museum we hired a taxi. Google maps is useless here. The photo image reveals a district that winds like intestines. Nearly all its streets are unmarked, and teeming with touts and pretend guides. (Typical ruse: everywhere you want to go they say is closed today, then lead you to a relative's store.)
The taxi ride was memorable. We agreed a price, and our driver hobbled over to his crummy vehicle. He drove out of the city walls, through clouds of motorbikes, bicycles, donkey carts and pedestrians, then back into the medina. He drove at a steady clip through the impossibly narrow streets, passing people and motorbikes by inches. Once we had to slow for a knot of people arguing and clutching at one another. A man was pushed up against the walls. As the car passed him I saw his bloodied neck and anguished eyes staring after his assailant. The cab halted when it could go no further, and the driver explained that our destination was a few meters further on. Immediately a man behind us loudly proclaimed that he would guide us the rest of the way. Our driver looked worried...
All of this street drama and impecunious interaction is wearing. Still, a trickle of tourists find their way to the magnificent madrassah. This monument of early modern learning has been recently restored. The courtyard is impressive, but the warren of students' rooms, from the best to the worst, was most amazing to me. Despite the apparently rigid symmetry of this highly decorated structure, every simple room was different and individual. They breathed the character of their Renaissance-era inhabitants.
A museum of Moroccan art was close by. It is official. Photographs of its opening ceremonies and the European royalty who visited were prominently displayed in the first rooms of an impressive palace with a magnificent courtyard, all recently restored. But the galleries are skimpy, the gift shop was closed, and already some exhibits are in disrepair. An 18th century tunic sags like a scarecrow, its seams splitting open. We spent more time in the cafe outside, watching people arrive in bunches, and several couples with their official guides. Finally I was glad we had not hired one. You could, as our guidebook declares, have a well informed university student. It seems you could as easily be assigned an overbearing ignoramus.
The Maison de la Photographie was our last stop. After absorbing the exhibits, we lunched on the roofop terrace. The identical lunch – a chicken tajine, served in the ubiquitous peak-roofed clay pot – was wonderful, and the view splendid. A plastic brochure advertised an outing, a trip to a “Berber village eco-museum.” A half day, a whole day, what you like. The Maison seemed so well-run, so normatively institutional, and we were by now so weary of the street hustles we determined to go.
We arranged with the young man at the desk to meet in front of the post office the next morning. There Mohammed guided us to a stand of “grand taxis,” the four-door sedan cars that carry passengers to the villages around Marrakech and beyond. He arranged our fares to the market town of Agram, where we were to meet our guide to the village museum in the nearby Ourika valley.
We paid for an extra place so my gangly limbs would not be squashed. (On the way back we would buy the whole back seat; the price was modest.) We then settled back to watch the countryside unfold. Outside the city walls, more walls, and a parade of trees laden with bitter oranges. Flat, dry, red buildings, kilometer-long walls, and equally expansive sparse but well-kept gardens. New cookie cutter housing developments, and distant construction cranes hovering over more of the same. Large garish resort hotels. A brand new water sports park! Olive orchards. Rows and rows of workshops in metal and architectural elements. Pottery stands. Donkey carts loaded with manure. Children hustling goats across the road.
In the market town we met Khalid in the grandest cafe in town. An expansive terrace overlooking a valley of olive orchards roofed with a tent-like canopy. Pigeons peeked out from its rotting joints. Although he was suffering some days with the global flu, Khalid was jolly and welcoming. We climbed into another vehicle, the “collective taxi,” like an airport shuttle bus. This one filled and filled and filled until it seemed it could fill no more. Seven people – large women and children – filled the back seat. Then a few people climbed in standing.
The bus dropped us outside a village that seemed as if it had arisen from the dirt some centuries ago. On the carefully tended hillsides we could see more villages. Almost immediately children began to appear, eyeing us in curious wonder. As we climbed through the steep streets, another group of Europeans wandered by and chatted in French with Khalid. The museum is French; my partner speaks Spanish. I have some German, but hier geht's nicht. Khalid spoke with us in a mash of three languages, delivering his longest speeches in French to Francois, another visitor who had arrived by car.
We first visited with some women who were baking in one of the communal ovens that serve different groups of families. This is the same arrangement as another desert people, the pueblo-dwelling Indians of the North American southwest. Women and girls bring their prepared dough to cook, then sit around talking. The fire tender offered us bread and jokes.
The Berber museum is housed in the former chief's house. This building is the village's grandest, and overlooks a rutted plaza with a thick, polled eucalyptus tree tethering a steer. It has been newly restored as an adjunct of the Maison de la Photographie, down to a little gift shop with the same reprinted plates and postcards. Khalid explained the exhibits exhaustively, detailing the function of objects, the symbolism of carpets, and the significance of the architecture.
Some days before we visited the Jardin Majorelle endowed by the late designer Yves Saint Laurent in the new city of Marrakech. That is where, some miles from the old city, you find all the new hotels, the cloned European chain stores, nightclubs, etc. We walked the several kilometers there, past parks and a co-op market. Along one bleak and dusty road near the garden and museum, we were accosted by an older man on a motorbike who informed us that the garden was, sorry, closed today. However he could put us into a taxi to a special Tuareg market nearby that was open only this day of the week. The medina of the old city, he told us, was full of frauds. “They call it the white chicken market,” he said. We, the tourists, are the pollos blancos.
Although we had by now already been plucked twice, I was intrigued. My partner refused. We would walk on. “Spanish women!” the man scoffed, “They are hard, like Moroccan women.” He sputtered off on his motorbike. The museum was around the corner.
The Majorelle was begun in the 1920s by Jacques, an emigre French painter in the late orientalist mode, and a dedicated collector of plants. Saint Laurent bought the place, and continued Majorelle's habit of opening the gardens to the public. The former house was reconfigured as a museum and opened in 2011. It is given over to spectacular collections of Berber objects. Wedding jewelry from various tribes is displayed in vertical vitrines in a room with endless mirrors and a ceiling of tiny lights like the night sky of the desert. A large and well-appointed gift shop with elegant merchandise and discreet attendants adjoins the displays.
Although both represent somehow a physical form or remembrance of different regards, the contrast between the two “Berber museums” could not be more stark. Jacques Majorelle was an orientalist painter in the classic mode – black nudes and views of the souk, desert towns, and robed figures at markets. The garden itself is claimed as his best work. (He branded a color there, “Majorelle blue,” which looks suspiciously like Yves Klein Blue, aka YKB.) The garden is the artist's living homage to the land, its air, plants and birds.
Saint Laurent derived inspiration from Morocco, much as Majorelle derived his subjects. And, finally, the rich and immensely successful designer's ashes were scattered in Majorelle's garden. While the garden and museum are open to the public, they are not for the common people. Gaps in the fence give glimpses of the neighbor's garden, which seems even more luxurious. So far as I am aware, there are no “free days” at the Majorelle. Even Khalid our guide in the village had not seen it.
The Maison de la Photographie's two museums – the one in town and the one in country – seem more responsible to the subjects which inspired the art. The “eco museum” supports a living community, a pottery village with apparently contented inhabitants and a great deal of new construction. On the other hand, it is little known. The Jardin Majorelle is a global tourist attraction.
As a first time tourist to Africa, it is unfair for me to draw conclusions. I can simply observe that the institution “museum” here has very different functions, and comes from very different traditions of state, art and artisanship. It is difficult to conceive of Morocco's traditional artisans building reputations and businesses anywhere near the scale of Saint Laurent's. The student of Christian Dior who introduced designer ready-to-wear both occupied and created a special economy of fashion which is most apparent in the many global chain clothes shops of Morocco's new city.
The anonymous artisans of Morocco are esteemed for their characteristic production. The village Khalid showed us specializes in pottery. His father makes a signature item, an effigy of a wild boar of the mountains, painted black with used motor oil. A few of the dirt-floored buildings contain industrial kilns, and potters working electric wheels. They are turning out – not highly individualized product with glazes from native stone, like the powder Khalid made from rocks he picked up behind the village, but identical machinic looking objects that could come from China.
Europe looks to the state to provide cultural services and funds. The great museums – like the Louvre and the Prado – descend from royal collections, and they still fulfill courtly or state roles in regular ceremonial functions. The state museum of Marrakech, and the historic buildings there certainly operate as social centers for the courtly elite. But they do not seem to fulfill the tutelary role of European museums, nor the traditional pedagogical role of those in North America.
The great museums of the U.S.A. also descend from rich people's collections. The republican state played a comparatively minor role in their development, mainly through the tax advantages gained in the disposal of wealthy estates which continue to swell museum stores, and the permissions and maintenances they gain to build their houses.
The museums of Marrakach at this moment are in a fascinating moment of development. The best – to this Euro-American's eyes – comes from an alliance of artists, collectors, and, in the case of the Berber village eco-museum, the subjects of the colonial gaze themselves.
Photo: Anonymous; caravan in Marrakech, 1920

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