Artistic director, Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden, Marrakech; head of cultural projects, Fondation Alliances, Casablanca
Meriem Berrada is evangelical about bringing new audiences to the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) in Marrakech. ‘In Morocco, there are many different social backgrounds that co-exist but don’t mix. The big challenge was to make all of these different demographics gather in a museum space. I believe culture is the perfect bridge,’ she says. Berrada has served as artistic director of the museum since it opened in 2016; her responsibilities include organising exhibitions and overseeing the public programme. She highlights the ‘Couscous and Art’ initiative as a way forward: ‘Once a month, we invite about 40 people to share couscous in the museum’s gardens while talking about art in an informal way. We mix up very different communities: artists, curators, construction workers, Marrakech taxi drivers.’
MACAAL houses the 2,000-strong collection of the Lazraq family, begun four decades ago by Alami Lazraq – founder of the Groupe Alliances firm, one of Morocco’s largest real-estate developers; his son, Othman Lazraq, is president of the museum and a collector in his own right. The 900 sq m private museum opened in 2016 and had its international launch in 2018 with ‘Africa Is No Island’, a group photography show which brought together works by 40 artists from the continent and its diaspora. Other significant shows overseen by Berrada include ‘E-Mois’ (2017–18), a survey of works drawn from the Lazraq collection that explored the links between Moroccan artists and artists from elsewhere on the continent across several generations.
‘There were very few contemporary art museums on the continent so at first, it was important to anchor MACAAL in its pan-African dimension, showcasing artists from the continent and its diasporas,’ Berrada says. ‘It is interesting to see the African art scene through so many different gazes, from Nigerians to South Africans; for them, there’s pride seeing this museum, seeing their artists.’ Earlier this year, the museum put on an exhibition titled ‘Have you seen a Horizon Lately?’, featuring international artists such as Akira Ikezoe of Japan. ‘We did not want to become ghettoised,’ Berrada says.
MACAAL is part of Fondation Alliances – the charitable foundation run by the Groupe Alliances company – which Berrada has led as cultural project manager since 2012. ‘I was interested in joining an independent, not-for-profit initiative, engaging in project development,’ she says. Previously, she studied cultural management at the INSEEC school in Paris before returning to Morocco to work at the Casablanca-based auction house Compagnie Marocaine des Œuvres et Objets d’Art in 2011. ‘I wanted to be part of the unique cultural dynamic happening [in Morocco] at that time,’ she says.
Under the umbrella of the Fondation Alliances, in 2013 Berrada launched La Chambre Claire, a photography competition for emerging African photographers. ‘The idea was to give impetus to emerging photographers in Africa, allowing them to have their first solo show at the Fondation Alliances space in Casablanca. The format has changed and we now support structuring initiatives on the continent.’ Berrada is also in demand as a curator outside Marrakech; as part of the Africa 2020 cultural season in France (now scheduled to take place from December–July 2021), she has organised a major show at the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration, Paris, entitled ‘Ce qui s’oublie et ce qui reste’ (‘What is forgotten and what remains’; 9 March 2021–11 July 2021).
In 2017, a fundraising campaign led by Berrada raised enough money to support a residency programme run by artist Younes Baba-Ali and his Limiditi Temporary Art Projects association. ‘The problem is that there is no public funding in Morocco to sustain such initiatives, so we found an alternative way to raise funds. Seven artists offered to donate works [for a selling exhibition], we then convinced 33 more, received 137 works and subsequently saved the residency,’ she says.
How Berrada takes MACAAL forward in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is key. ‘In the first months of reopening [from December], it will be much more local; we hope to do more with the artisans and craftspeople who have suffered significantly from the pandemic and the borders shutdown. We have to empower that sector and make it sustainable. We have to re-think the whole model or lose our important heritage,’ she stresses. But then, Berrada has already been instrumental in developing far-reaching new initiatives that are quietly transforming the cultural sector in North Africa. Her Bootcamp programme, for instance, provides an intensive training course for leaders in the region’s contemporary art sector, with the aim of delivering the next generation of innovators. Berrada says, ‘There are more and more people working in the visual arts field here but we don’t have the proper training and tools to make the ecosystem consistent and sustainable; I wanted to address their needs and aspirations, bring them together and help them meet the relevant mentors. Mediation is everything.’