On the request of the Alternative Art Guide Irene de Craen, journalist and director of Hotel Mariakapel in Hoorn, The Netherlands conducted an interview with Laila Hida, initiator of Le 18, a young artist initiative in Marrakech. This interview took place during the last Marrakech Biennial, where the Alternative Art Guide was present to host a fringe project for the Biennial.
Where are we going? An interview with Laila Hida
After a long meander through the narrow streets of the medina in Marrakech – getting lost, finding my way, and getting lost again – I finally find the café I was looking for, located in one of the many secret courtyards the city seems to hide. The tranquillity of the courtyard is in stark contrast with the bustling noise and activity just outside its walls. It offers a rare moment of peace and quiet where one can enjoy a drink and the lovely Moroccan weather. Here I meet Laila Hida, founding director of Le 18, an already indispensable project space within the small Marrakech art scene. A place for ‘meetings and exchanges, a space of creation, laboratory of reflection, literary coffee shop and guest house.’
Irene de Craen: Maybe you can start by telling a little bit about yourself, and how you came to the idea to start Le 18.
Laila Hida: I moved to Paris when I was seventeen years old. There I studied English literature at Sorbonne for two years, as well as communication and journalism. After that I wanted to study cinema, but I couldn’t get into the school I wanted. Instead, I became an assistant art director at a fashion magazine; I did that for five years. Still, I am certain that one day I will end up in cinema.
I moved to Marrakesh two and a half years ago, after living in Paris for twelve years. The decision to move back to Morocco, changed my entire life. I think it was a good decision, I don’t know yet if it was the right decision… Nonetheless, I feel it has given me many new opportunities. In Paris, I felt I had reached a point where there was nothing for me to do anymore. My friends found themselves in a similar situation: the financial crisis has made it very hard to run projects, and the creative world has become very competitive. Somehow I couldn’t create anything there anymore, so I concluded it was time to leave. When I came to Morocco I realized something about myself; living in Paris had made me feel like a Parisian in every way, but as soon as I was back, I realized I am Moroccan.
IdC: What does it mean to be Moroccan?
LH: That’s the question. I don’t know what it means. I don’t think it is something external, but rather something that comes out of you. A mix of your background, your education, and everything surrounding you, of what your parents taught you, and the culture in general. All together this somehow makes something that is Moroccan. And of course the same goes for any other nationality.
IdC: When you came to Morocco, did you already have the idea to start Le 18?
LH: No. When I came back, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do photography, so that’s what I did. I also started a small business as a producer. I was in Casablanca at the time, and when I moved to Marrakech, I realized there was something missing in the city and especially in the medina. I didn’t know exactly what, but I knew it had something to do with culture: there was hardly any opportunity to meet with other people in art and culture and that was rather frustrating. I thought that maybe if we have a space where people can come and just chat and exchange, then that would at least be something. And that was the start of Le 18: just the idea of having a space. Everyone who is involved in the project since, is somehow part of it. It gives people a space to express themselves, to meet, to do things. It is also an open house, so you can come and work. The rooms work as guestrooms, but if you’re an artist and you don’t have money, of course we give you a room free of charge, if we can afford it.
IdC: Coming together like you enable people to do in Le 18 is very important. But as the Alternative Art Guide also shows, there are always cultural and other differences that can be a source of miscommunication. Thinking about Moroccan culture, religion is obviously very present, while it is often missing from art and daily life in the so-called ‘West’. In other words, this could be one of those points of miscommunication. That said, how important do you think religion is for contemporary Moroccan artists? And what does it mean to you?
LH: This is a very important point to discuss. In Morocco, religion is so important that I cannot see art without it. So it is obvious to me that artists should consider it, but in reality this is often not the case because it is one of the many taboos this country has. Of course there are exceptions, but these are usually established artists based outside Morocco. Here, we don’t discuss it, and there’s no space to discuss religion and the different views people might have about it. Islam is a state religion, so it’s considered something you should just follow without asking any questions. Even though it is such a big part of who we are, and it is present in our daily life, in the way we speak, in everything we do, in Moroccan contemporary art, religion is mostly absent.
IdC: Is Le 18 a place where these things can be discussed?
LH: Yes, I think it is very important because people don’t know how to talk about it. A lot of people are afraid to open this discussion because they don’t know what the other person is thinking. They’re afraid that they will be judged. Morocco is an ‘appearance based society’, which means it is important who you are, where you come from, what you do, how much money you earn and how you think. In Morocco, you’re not considered as an individual with individual ideas and positions, you are considered from the perspective of your socio-cultural type and occupation. This is very heavy, and it is why people are afraid for what they say, what they do, and to have their own positions. They maybe don’t even think about their position.
IdC: That’s an interesting point that you are making about people not being individuals in Morocco, because traditionally, Western Modern art is all about individuality. It’s one of its key principles.
LH: Yes, that’s true and that’s maybe why most of the work of young Moroccan artists is about questioning themselves as individuals, and about finding ways to release themselves from this society, from the heaviness and weight that lies on their shoulders. But it is very difficult, because every time you try to do something, even if you don’t want to, somewhere in your head there’s a barrier, a kind of self-censorship perhaps. So compared to Europeans artists, Moroccan artists don’t have it easy; they’re doing the job two times over. Before doing anything, they have to try and step out from their own cultural frame.
From a Moroccan point of view, art is just something that is beautiful, they don’t see it as engaged. There’s some education that needs to be done about art I think. Our education in general is very particular: there are a lot of things that go unsaid, and it is difficult when you need to face this every day. As a result, Moroccan mentality can sometimes be archaic and causes us to be behind on many other Arab countries, art wise in any case. Young people feel very frustrated about this because they can’t even express themselves. It is supposed to be something very normal and easy but it is not actually. This goes for everyone. You can’t go into the street and do whatever you want. But this is the weird thing in Morocco: for example by religion alcohol is completely forbidden, but in bars and restaurants they are only not allowed to serve Muslim people, and in some cases they only serve men, not women, while in fact Moroccans are huge consumers of alcohol. Also; a man who drinks is considered normal, whereas a woman who drinks is a bad woman. In some places in Marrakech, I’ve experienced this double standard very directly by simply being refused access to a bar or restaurant.
IdC: How do you deal with this inequality?
LH: Sometimes I face situations that drive me out of my mind. Nevertheless, you learn to live with it. There are times you fight against it, and other times you just let it go because it takes too much energy. But it is not easy. Of course, I haven’t been living in Morocco for a long time, I’ve only moved back about two and a half years ago, and at that time I thought I might move back to Paris again. But in the end it is important to be here. It doesn’t make sense for me to take the easy way. Also, people have been supporting me very much in setting up Le 18. So for the moment, everything is good as long as we’re not doing anything wrong, which we have no intention of doing. We just do our programme.
IdC: Considering the Marrakech Biennale, I’ve been think a lot about the ‘where’ in the title ‘Where Are We Now?’ Simultaneously I have been thinking about the term ‘art world’, which brings me to the question I want to ask you: Where is the art world?
LH: This is a very conceptual question that has no answer. It depends where each artist positions himself. Of course one can feel more of a ‘complete’ artist, or validated, when you’re in a gallery in London or New York, but for me, the art world is more the achievement of a person. I think for young Moroccan artists for example, it is more important to find their own personal way. That is the most important thing before thinking about being somewhere else. If you can go out from this kind of brain prison that has been built when we were born and raised, that’s already something. And art, in the Arab world in general, is maybe the only thing that will help us to grow and touch on very sensitive points such as religion, equality and liberty. Art can really help us to define for ourselves where we are, and where we are going.