CASABLANCA—How does one turn making and enjoying art into an everyday practice rather than an intimidating luxury? And how does one convince policy makers that access to culture is not only a right but a key to development? Participants in a three-day conference and art festival in Morocco tried to answer these questions using a scientific approach, sharing data collected on cultural practices across the country.
The event, “Les Etats Généraux de la Culture au Maroc,” was organized by Racines (“Roots”), a nonprofit, private organization that promotes culture and creative industries.
“We must insist on the connection between educational and cultural policies,” said Raymond Benhaim, the president of Racines.
Racines is dedicated to the idea that access to the arts is a basic right, and that culture is fundamental to democratization and development. The organization lobbies for cultural policies that encourage the production and distribution of art, such as stronger copyright protection, more funding for arts programming and more arts education. The organization calls for the arts to have a greater place in the school curriculum, and for the state to invest more in institutions that train artists and cultural professionals—such as sound and light engineers, curators, music managers, film editors, restorers and archivists.
Morocco is home to a number of renowned music festivals; it is a frequent location for international film shoots; it is opening a number of contemporary and modern art museums and it is building an opera house designed by the late Zaha Hadid.
Yet artists complain that little is done to encourage citizens’ creativity or to integrate cultural activity into public spaces. Few institutes exist to train performing artists, and many potential cultural facilities sit empty as there is no one to run them. Moroccan culture is often associated either with top-down public initiatives, or with a fixed and traditional vision of national identity.
“We said to ourselves, either we go on complaining, or we work on changing the framework, to place culture at the center of urban, social and economic development,” Adel Essadani, one of Racine’s founders, told me. One of the ways they do this is by gathering data and proposing policies—acting as a kind of shadow culture ministry.
Over the past year, activists held public meetings in 14 Moroccan towns to uncover the cultural activities taking place in them, and to find out what the local public and local artists want.
Also, young researchers working with Racines carried out a survey of cultural practices in Morocco.
The survey found that 85 percent of Moroccans do not have library cards and 64 percent have not bought a book in the past year (whereas 36 percent have bought two books). About 80 percent of respondents said they never go to the movies or to art galleries; 73 percent said they never attend the theater. On the other hand, about 70 percent of respondents said they practice some sort of artistic activity (many of them regularly). Singing was the number-one activity, followed by writing poetry and novels, dancing, drawing and playing music. A little more than a quarter of Moroccans listen to the radio every day, while about 35 percent said they read newspapers regularly. Over half of respondents said they go online every day, and the mobile phone is the means by which most access music, videos and news.
Giving young Moroccans a chance to practice and to appreciate culture— to draw, play instruments, read for pleasure, visit museums—is the only way to increase the audience and the market for the arts. This is why Racines is calling for better arts education.
Racines has created a digital map of 18 artistic disciplines in Morocco, including architecture, cinema, circus arts, gastronomy, music, literature, theater, and fashion. It lists individual practitioners as well as spaces where arts are taught, rehearsed, produced and disseminated. All together, 3,000 activities or practitioners are on the map. The expanding map could help young people interested in studying the arts or cultural professions to find the nearest institutions to attend, or to locate rehearsal spaces.
The three-day event was held in a derelict industrial site in Casablanca, which activists have been lobbying for years to transform into a cultural center, and whose walls they have slowly covered with murals and graffiti. In the afternoons, there were workshops on graphic art and parkour; in the evening, neighborhood residents and others entered a tent to watch a theater troupe perform traditional story-telling, puppetry and acrobatics. There were concerts, art installations and panel discussions.
Abderrahman Allal, professor of political science and human rights at Mohamed I University in Oujda, presented a study on the lack of attention the Moroccan government and political class give to culture.
Allal said that knowledge-producing ministries such as those of culture and of education have small budgets, while the ministry of interior, which deals with internal security, is well funded. He argued that violence is “at root a cultural problem.”
Allal’s study analyzed the record of parliamentary proceedings and found little concern with culture among Morocco’s elected representatives.
Mohammed Noureddine Affaya, professor of aesthetics and philosophy at Mohammed V University in Rabat, shared a recent report by the country’s Economic, Social and Environmental Council, an advisory board, on public spaces and cultural activity. The report noted “a cultural void [caused by] the absence of a national cultural project, and of policies that value creativity and initiative.”
Affaya reminded the audience that the figure of the modern intellectual is a recent phenomenon in Morocco. He said the “cultural momentum” that the country witnessed in the years following independence from France in 1956 was abruptly halted by an authoritarian, conservative backlash. “We lost an opportunity and paid a high psychological price,” he said.