New Exhibition Brings Contemporary Morocco to Jerusalem

In 'Ziara,' featuring local and international artists brought together by their shared roots, curator Amit Hai Cohen aims to harness the force of the 'global social network' of Moroccan-ness to show the modern face of this North African culture

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From the exhibition “Ziara: Moroccan Common Wisdom,” part of the Jerusalem Biennale.
From the exhibition “Ziara: Moroccan Common Wisdom,” part of the Jerusalem Biennale.Credit: Artsi Mous
Khen Elmaleh
Khen Elmaleh
Khen Elmaleh
Khen Elmaleh

“I went in search of history in the village of Tizgui, which doesn’t exist on any map in the world. My great-grandfather, Shalom Amar, arrived there sometime in the early 20th century. His house was the only one in the village made of concrete, placed on top of the old brown Berber foundation – a sign of things to come: The new goes on top of the old ... sometimes it’s placed on it like a patch, creating a new aesthetic. A flowing river a few steps from the entrance door, within a huge natural setting. And next to the house, about 10 meters away, a mosque. God is great.”

That’s the beginning of the text that accompanies the exhibition “Ziara: Moroccan Common Wisdom.” The words are of Amit Hai Cohen, the curator, who starts with his visit to the village from which his grandmother and grandfather set out on their journey to the Holy Land. Ziara means visit in Arabic. In Morocco, Jews and Muslims also use this word to refer to holy sites such as the graves of the righteous and places of worship.

“After all, everything started from bare land or an arid desert. In Netivot, where I grew up, the horizon also showed nothing but sky,” Cohen writes. “But this emptiness, to which romantics stream to view its enchantment, is endless boredom for those who live there. It’s the ground from which you create fantasies, it’s the reason you yearn to escape to the city.”

That’s how Cohen weaves a connecting thread of Nowheresville between Tizgui, Morocco, and the southern Israeli town of Netivot where he was born and grew up. It’s the town where his grandfather and grandmother wound up, motivated by faith and the gravitas of religion. Because the idea and activity known as ziara are so present in Moroccan culture, plenty of people in Morocco are still convinced that the Jews left only to fulfill this mitzvah and will be returning to soon.

This belief, even if it doesn’t come up explicitly, is the reason why in most cases no one touches the Jews’ abandoned assets and remaining community institutions. “Once Moroccan Jews would dream about Jerusalem, come to it in masses. Now when it has become an everyday city, they go in masses to Morocco to search for holiness there,” Cohen says about the city where “Ziara” will be shown.

The exhibition, which opened on October 12, runs until November 28 at the YMCA building; it’s part of the fourth Jerusalem Biennale.

“Jerusalem, the site of the exhibition, is a ziara site for all the religions, and basically we’re inviting artists to come for a ziara. But a ziara can also be to your mother, to your home, to the Moroccan Quarter that was destroyed after 1967,” Cohen says, referring to the Mughrabi neighborhood that sat where the Western Wall Plaza now is.

“And people can also come to the exhibition for a ziara, though I don’t really think that art is sacred. Not at all. Maybe the opposite,” Cohen says, as if denying the holiness of the occasion. Cohen, an artist, musician and filmmaker, thought up the idea – an exhibition of modern Moroccan art, or as he describes it: “Moroccan wisdom.”

For the first time in the country, Jewish and Muslim artists from Israel, Morocco and the rest of the world will display their work alongside one another, connected by their shared Moroccan identity and its reflections in their art, aesthetic and worldview.

Cohen, the curator, has brought in a rich variety of artists from various fields, having them mingle in a single space, as is possible only for someone who rejects fixed definitions and hierarchical conservatism – in every aspect of his life. Artists in painting, film, sculpture, fashion design and cinema, not to mention YouTubers and international Moroccan Instagram stars, will all display their work.

Cohen calls himself “a systemic failure as defined by this country.” He has never been part of the Israeli academic world and his path in life is totally foreign to the local art world, he says.

“Because I don’t come from the art world – it’s actually totally foreign to me – I come without sentiments. It was really important to me to bring in things I like without really understanding what’s ‘in,’’” he says.

“I get bored quickly at important museums. On the other hand, I can spend hours watching YouTube clips of Gnawa boys or the story of Abir El Abed,” he says, referring to the music of the Gnawa people, who were brought to Morocco from west and central Africa as slaves, and a female singer from Tangier.

How is that really reflected in the exhibition?

“My natural inclination was to cause chaos, to expand the fields as far as possible. I imagined an exhibition that’s something like rabbis from Essaouira, who were ritual slaughterers, sculptors and poets, and were also known for their unique humor.

“As far as I’m concerned, in the Moroccan sphere they are all artists and they all do everything. That’s why I also turned to people who have never displayed at an exhibition, like historian David Guedj and Lazar Makhlouf al-Mahdi, a young Moroccan who decided to learn Hebrew. He will also come to give a Torah lesson in Moroccan.”

A good place for Instagram

In addition to those who have never taken part in an exhibition, there’s another hot and controversial medium in the art world, Instagram, which offers worldwide fame and millions of followers to artists holding a smartphone camera. For example, l4artiste (Ismail Zaidi), known for his award-winning Instagram account, will be showing his breathtaking photographs.

Cohen calls l4artiste and Fatima Zohra Serri “foundations of Instagram.” “The Instagram wall is a curating device that I like, and I tried to transfer it to the exhibition in the quantity of photos and appearance. The transition to full-size photos, and not square, is a decision of the artist. But with the wooden structures we built we’ve maintained the grid structure, a reminder of the Instagram structure,” he says.

“The art world today is being created on Instagram; I feel a part of this. There are no power structures there. So in addition to artists like Mohamed Elbaz, who opened the biennale in Rabat this month, I wanted to display artists who work in the Instagram sphere as well, and to give them an equal place.”

There is an equal place among veteran artists such as Izza Genini, an admired Moroccan filmmaker whose movies will be screened on white sheets with content linked to the work of Amina Azreg, a fashion designer and historian who will also display her works. These in turn explore the unique clothing identified with Moroccan Jews – an aesthetic that stemmed from the Dhimmi-law restrictions against Jews until the 19th century.

There will be works by Israeli artists like Shlomi Elkabetz in a lovely video work that was filmed in Essaouira, Morocco, where the Elkabetz family has roots. In it you can see a local boy reading in Arabic and French “Ronit, I love you, I want you,” referring to Ronit Elkabetz, the award-winning Israeli actress, director and scriptwriter who died in 2016.

There will also be international collaborations such as Artsi Mous – a collaboration between Moroccan-Israeli designer Artsi Ifrach, who has lived in Marrakech for years, and Moroccan photographer Mous Lamrabat. There will also be archival material on Morocco under the sponsorship of a Palestinian archive, and archival material collected by Guedj, the historian, from the National Library in Jerusalem. Among the artists exhibiting, the motif of the ziara is repeated in their works.

“Mohamed Mourabiti, whom I consider one of Morocco’s greatest artists, sketches tombstones in his works and also visits them, including those belonging to Jews,” Cohen says. “He even built a tombstone at the entrance to his estate in a village near Marrakech, for his friend the Jewish philosopher Edmond Amran El Maleh. Mourabiti’s works have a direct link to works of Jewish artists who will display at the exhibition such as Aniam Dery, a Jerusalem artist who’ll be building a real grave in the center of the exhibition space.

“If Mourabiti and Dery deal with the grave itself, filmmaker Moran Ifergan gives us a documentary glimpse at the other side, the living, the female worshippers who visit the graves. For example, the work by Mohamed Arejdal, who carries with him a suitcase in the shape of the region where we live – Palestine or Greater Israel, depending on who you ask – is basically a challenging version of the ziara.

“His suitcase can’t come to the exhibition because it’s on display elsewhere, but then we realized that the video where you see him traveling with it is powerful enough. If his suitcase arrived in Jerusalem it would be chaos, a black hole, a place that collapses into itself. It’s a good thing it ended up this way.”

There are other interesting characteristics of the ziara.

“Yes, there are the boats of Jack Jano that hang in the exhibition space and fly to the dream of ‘we have arrived’ [in the Holy Land] but also are somewhat reminiscent of immigrant ships. It’s his immigration too; he’s a kind of immigrant artist, but in the Moroccan sense. In other words, he loves Israel, but, for example, he curses the art world all the time. Recently he burned a lot of his works, filmed that, posted it on Facebook and wrote: let Israeli art burn. When I saw that I said to myself that he has to be in the exhibition.”

Defiance. It’s a concept that comes to my mind throughout the conversation with Cohen. For example, there’s the idea behind the exhibition, this “Moroccan-ness” that connects us Jews and Muslims – from Jerusalem, Casablanca and Paris.

In the local context it’s almost a revolutionary idea, the kind that offers liberated autonomy, sovereignty within a situation of non-sovereignty – internal emancipation in an area that denies rights and erases and excludes identity, history, language, aesthetics and all the assets that in another place assume a different meaning. On the other hand, in light of all the above, apparently simply being a Moroccan is enough to be considered an act of defiance.

Narrowing the Ashkenazi story

“Israeliness has narrowed the world of images for Moroccans in this country. Their visual environment has become a housing project and pastry dough. It basically has turned us into niche artists, lacking the ability to dream, and whose lives ... range from home to the grocery store,” Cohen says.

“Moroccan-ness is in effect a system of codes, a global social network. It’s the way for a kid from Kiryat Gat to reach the outside world. It’s also your ability to conduct yourself in Muslim surroundings as a Jew and to remain whole.

“In the same way that Israeliness has reduced Moroccan-ness, the exhibition wants to reduce Israeliness, and within it the Ashkenazi story, to its proper dimensions. The preoccupation with the Ashkenazi problem has made us forget that we have bypass routes based on historical sources of over 70 years.

“We are talented, cohesive and good-looking. Moroccans have a lot to teach those who live here. In Israel and worldwide we have a long history of struggle and a sense of justice. Part of the idea is to bring wisdom to the place.”

This reduction to a housing project and pastry dough goes hand in hand with the preoccupation with Morocco as something that’s entirely in the past – as if from the moment Jews left, the country stopped existing in the Jewish narrative. Certainly in the Israeli narrative. In contrast to this conservative viewpoint, which preserves and serves certain national narratives, the exhibition demands that we continue to maintain this connection rather than sever it. If all this isn’t an act of defiance, certainly it contains subversive elements.

“In the past year, as part of my work as a musician as well, I’ve started to feel a general disgust with conservative forms of ‘tradition’ and preoccupation with Moroccan culture as if it were necrophilia,” Cohen says. “I had a strong desire to bring my world of images to something concrete. There’s some issue of dealing with Morocco or the exile in the mirror of the past, as if the past 60 years were nonexistent.

“Moroccan Jews may once have been good at arts and crafts, but today they have an iPhone and are engaged in conceptual art and hip-hop. The connection with [founder and director] Rami Ozeri of the Jerusalem Biennale was formed naturally. I didn’t see that happening in the context of supposedly liberal secular circles. Judaism is a strong link to Moroccan-ness.”

How difficult is it to produce such an exhibition when most of the participants come from a country that at least overtly doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel? To what extent does it undermine the context that’s based entirely on blurring physical and mental boundaries?

“First of all, bringing artists from Morocco is an insane bureaucratic process when it comes to visas. Another problem was to bring art works from Morocco to Jerusalem. The Moroccan government has recently made the laws for exporting art much stricter, and we had to either produce some of the works here – which also limited us to certain media – or load them onto trucks belonging to a Moroccan company that drove for four days to France because overland supervision is less strict.”

Some of the artists have brought their works with them in a suitcase; one is bringing a bundle of sheepskins.

In a situation that piles up difficulties and puts up walls and fences that mark the boundaries of what is possible and permissible, Cohen insists on ziara, on the Moroccan connection, on the identity that he has been exploring from every possible angle for years, and that lets him remove artificial boundaries.

Our Moroccan-ness is a possibility for a parallel universe – a universe, incidentally, that exists and is happening. And ziara is another arena where it’s taking place. “In a parallel universe, Muslim Moroccans are reformulating their yearning for the Jews in research, culture and language,” Cohen says.

“And in the world of Instagram, where political operatives and conservatives who sanctify tradition have no power, it’s suddenly possible to see the connection between Haim Butbul’s electric guitar and Issam’s hip-hop; between the photos of the roofs of Marrakech through the eyes of Ismail Zaidi to the modesty of our grandmothers, who hung up endless laundry on the hot balconies of Netivot. In this wide world, Moroccans everywhere are creating a profound visual language that’s becoming a single piece of wisdom.”

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