Exotica (2) Maison de la Photographie, Marrakesh

image Arévalo, Portrait of Hamidou, Tanger, 1885

46, Rue Souk Ahal Fassi, kaat Ben Nahi
9.30 to 7pm, 7 days, 40 MD

After hours of lefts and rights through the Marrakesh medina and hugging the wall to allow scooters to hurtle past being driven by elegant Moroccan women in mirrored aviator sunglasses listening to Beyoncé on their iPhones, we took a turn up the rue Ahal Fassi to the Maison de la Photographie.

This three-storey white riad exhibits a rotating exhibition of black and white prints drawn from the owner’s collection of over 10,000 photos and other materials taken from 1870 through to the 1960s. The photos are ethnographic in style. They portray every-day Moroccans going about their business – riding donkeys, climbing steep hills, looking fiercely off into the distance – and more posed images – a man and wife in traditional dress, a young woman in turban in a studio background and close up head shots displaying scarves, jewellery and tattoos.

It is a pleasant space: each doorway is hung with a curtain to reduce the glare in the exhibition areas, the prints are well done and photography is permitted in the museum. On the second floor there’s also the screening of a rare documentary of Moroccan daily life taken in the 1950s. There’s a gift shop where you can purchase postcards or prints.

You can’t look at these images without considering European fascination with the exotic and Edward Said’s work on Orientalism

Moroccan women

Orientalism is an academic term, used across art history, literary studies, geography, and cultural studies, which describes a critical approach to representations of the Orient.

In the case of this collection, the images were by French photographers of the pre-colonial and colonial period and have all the hallmarks of the curious foreign eye looking at the exotic orient. The subjects mostly stare back at the photographer with flat indifference, some are uncomfortable, a few smile.

Orientalism isn’t just about Europeans gawping at the unusual. It’s a way of defining a civilisation by it’s ‘otherness’. These folk aren’t like us – who wears such way-out clothes or rides donkeys? – and are therefore in need of civilising by the more sophisticated and evolved West, in this case France.

This is not just an academic contemplation, when the French protectorate was established in Morocco in 1912 one of their ostensible aims was to ‘civilise’ the country, an effort they were still working on in 1956 when they left.

These are powerful images which left me feeling a little queasy. As an ethnographic record of a Morocco of the past the collection is valuable; as an example of documenting the primitive otherness of the Moroccans of the time, the images are complicit in the colonialist venture.

The Museum is well worth a visit and there’s a café on the third floor terrace where you can reflect on colonialism, post-colonialism and tourism while sipping a nice espresso or orange juice and looking out across the forest of satellite dishes across the rooftops of Marrakesh.

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