culture development in (Southern) Morocco

These last months I had to the explain the situation concerning contemporary culture in Morocco to different foreign institutions, from the Middle East and from the USA. It is not easy because you have to explain a complex context and at different levels. 


social context

The oasis of Tighmert is considered one of the three gates of the Sahara desert (the others are M’hamid El Ghizlane and Rissani), 15 km away from Guelmim, the capital of the Guelmim-Oued Noun region, in the south of Morocco. A region with low density of cities, villages and population and with a lack of infrastructures, overall in the oases, important questions to understand the social context. Furthermore, the complexity of social organisation in southern regions is a key element, in both terms, bad and good ones, because everything (when I mean everything, is really everything) revolves around the tribes, despite the ignorance of that reality on the part of governmental authorities, misunderstandings that provoque quite a lot of problems, and suffering, to local population, specially young people. Unfortunately this is one of the main problems in Morocco, it seems authorities do not understand their own country so they cannot answer to youth’s demands and needs. However, when considering southern communities, it becomes more dangerous because you have to add the lack of knowledge about the history, the place, the culture and about the reality of Moroccans living south of the Hight Atlas mountains.

Morocco is a very centralised country (despite the regionalisation project installed in 2015) with the power divided between the King and the Government and concentrated in the main cities (Casabalanca, Rabat, Marrakech and Tangier). Outside these areas, nothing is important, at least from a culture and social point of view. If an artist is not living in one of those cities, he does not exist for the medias, for the authorities and for the main culture institutions. It does not mean there is no culture in the south (or in northern rural areas), on the contrary, there are so many, but they are not known, and when they do, they are considered as folklore rather than culture, while they are the means used by tribes to transmit their stories, which conform the history of Morocco and even the history of its neighbours (African and European ones). Music, dance, poetry, architecture, crafts… show ways of life, one for each tribe; Berber, Arab, Saharan, Jewish, Draua... This social context is a treasure for a country, at least it should be, but it requires time, efforts and attitude to understand the complexity of each tribe, the relations between them and those with the authorities, that is the reason why governance is one of the main challenge national and regional authorities must face, but also the tribes must adapt themselves to the new regional organisation, working for the sake of all and not just for theirs.

There is another key element to understand the social context in the south, the desert. We cannot disassociate the desert from its societies because everything is related; sociology, agriculture, architecture, water, economy, culture, education, heritage, geography, geology, history… you need to understand all of them to really apprehend the desert, questions that maybe in a big city are not important due to the urban environment that isolates people from nature, but in desert regions where dimensions, in space and in time, change radically and where there are even several “worlds”, those with sedentary people limited by the oases (now also by concrete buildings) and those with nomad people, limited by mountains, valleys and plains. It is not easy to explain, and to understand, these relationships and overall the existence of these “worlds” because most of the time, people coming for the first time (tourists but also authorities from the north) can be blinded by the beauty of the landscape, the kindness of people and the romanticism transmitted by movies, also by prejudices, without taking their time to understand where they really are.


culture policies

In Morocco, most of the contemporary culture activities are still funded by foreign (European and Arab) institutions because there really is no cultural policy, either nationally or regionally. It is not difficult to get money from some foundations and European culture institutes, but only if you meet certain requirements; if you are in a big city (Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakesh or Tangier) and if you know how to fill an application, because unfortunately the culture proposal it is not the most important aspect. You can have been developing a project for years but if it is in a small village, in a distant region and you explain it without following the logic of the administration, you will have no options. I do think European cultural policy is mainly on diplomacy and bureaucracy, but not on culture. During decades, mainly French and Spanish institutes have been developing culture in Morocco and they have been the reference. Depending on the person who run the centre in each city, the culture policy could be imposed with arrogance or it could be adapted and integrated to the needs of the local society. Nowadays, most of these institutions still think they are the only culture actors in the country, without being aware that beyond their worlds, Moroccan society has established a whole network of independent cultural centres, despite the difficulties, giving rise to an extremely interesting and contemporary culture scene, which is completely unknown to European cultural diplomacy, therefore their calls for proposals and their criteria for choosing projects are sometimes far from reality and outdated.

Moreover, it is very dangerous their idea that culture must be considered as an industry, because it does not suit to Morocco, where public cultural investments do not exist (and if it exists is just for great events). An imposition of this kind of industry by rulers can make the entire network of independent cultural institutions disappear, where the economic profitability and the bureaucratisation of cultural management (explained as professionalisation of the sector) could prevail over creativity and artistic education. We should differentiate between culture and entertainment and we should be focus first on developing the society using culture as a tool and letting entertainment set its own industry, but do not call it CULTURE.

Morocco has an opportunity to work out its own cultural policy where the key factor should be culture and not just economy. I do not mean culture activists and operators must work for free but if we just consider business terms, “culture” will remain just in big cities and rural areas and small cities will continue to be isolated in all terms. On the other hand, since central government does not know the reality of the country, a partnership between regional governments and culture activists is needed (the association Racines was doing an incredible work organising workshops and gathering authorities, civil servants and activist), keeping several levels of interaction with the population; museums, events (biennales, art fairs), art galeries, independent cultural centres, associations… (without forgetting that the real artistic creation resides in the small and independent structures rather than the museums). The problem appears when there is not even a regional cultural administration running and artists and activists should maintain their commitments to society in their neighbourhood or in their villages, without financial support until regional governments function fully. We can complain the absence of cultural policy but we cannot give up and abandon the youth, not now.


being an artist in Morocco

One of the most common discussions among contemporary artists in Morocco is how difficult it is to make a living, causing numerous artists to give up the idea of starting, or continuing, their own artistic careers. It is true that the lack of cultural policies or the (supposed) disinterest of society for contemporary cultures are difficult obstacles to overcome, nevertheless I do think there are other underlying problems Moroccan artists have to face that depend on their position towards the society in which they live, a society subject to multiple contradictions, just like artists do. They must solve their own dilemmas, traumas, pressures, contradictions… and at the same time they must create and they must earn some money to survive. Few people realise they must first initiate a quest for their own identity, as citizens, as artists and as persons, sometimes it is a painful research, an incomprehensible decision on the part of their families, friends and colleagues, however, that quest can provide multiple and unexpected tools and clues to develop their works as artists leaving and working in Northern Africa.

Religion-secularity, tradition-contemporaneity, young-elderly, individual-collective, privacy-public, authorities-people, repression-freedom, Europe-Africa, South-North, immigration-emigration, Arabs-Berbers, cities-villages, rooting-uprooting, culture-folklore…

These are some of the subjects artists must face every day, sometimes all at once, that is why it is difficult, very difficult to be an artist in Morocco; but it is also so passionate to discover ourselves, as individuals and as a community, to share our researches with the others and to help those who never doubt anything, to keep moving forward, to make our societies more contemporary. To achieve this purpose, I always ask myself, do we really need a cultural policy? At least as it is understood in many others countries. Maybe another strategy is possible…

Ceuta, October the 8th, 2019

Carlos Perez Marin

These are some thoughts after my experience co-organising Caravane Tighmert and Sakhra, in the rural areas of Tighmert (Guelmim) and Moulay Bouchra Al Khamar (Taounate)

Credits images: Carlos Perez Marin