Imagined Museums

By Denise DiFulco

What happens when a community becomes disconnected from its museums? In the case of Morocco, says Prof. Katarzyna Pieprzak, artists create their own spaces.

Katarzyna Pieprzak was a graduate student studying Arabic in Fez in 1998 when she took a road trip across Morocco with friends. Their journey took them to Tangier, the North African city on the lip of the Strait of Gibraltar, where one of her companions, an artist, wanted to drop in on the Museum of Contemporary Art.

They arrived to find the building locked, though the posted hours clearly stated it should be open. When they returned an hour later the gates remained shut, and it was some time longer before a man appeared and let them in. “We were the only ones in the museum the whole time,” recalls Pieprzak, now an associate professor of Francophone literature, French language and comparative literature at Williams. “We switched on the lights in the different rooms, and we went around. It was kind of interesting that it was a place that was entirely unvisited.”

The oddity of it all left Pieprzak wondering how a national museum of contemporary art could be so disconnected from the public it served. She has spent the years since answering that question for herself and others, most recently in her book Imagined Museums: Art and Modernity in Postcolonial Morocco (University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Pieprzak was born in Poland and raised in England and the U.S. She is fluent in three languages (English, Polish and French—her Arabic being a bit rusty), and in any of them her passion for her work is evident. Inspired by her experiences, she frequently incorporates contemporary texts discovered during her travels into her teaching. For next spring she has developed a comparative literature course, taught in English, examining the role of museums—primarily French and European—in imperial history. For the final project, students will design their own gallery or museum based on their reading of the materials.

After Pieprzak’s first trip to the museum in Tangier, she began exploring other Moroccan museums and found they too were ignored by tourists and locals. “It seemed like they were there in a perfunctory way, to sort of say, ‘Oh, Morocco has national museums, too,’” she says. “Somehow they were completely divorced from the community and space around them.”

Pieprzak discovered many of these institutions were founded during the Colonial period in the first half of the 20th century, when Morocco was a protectorate of France—one factor that accounted for their disconnect with the general population. “The idea is that the French were going to come in and rescue this culture that was, in their words, sleeping, dormant and starting to fall apart,” she explains. And yet “they were excluding the majority of Moroccans. They were uninterested in contemporary practices. They were fixed on what was authentic and what wasn’t.”

Unfortunately, not much changed after Morocco gained its independence in 1956. In the ’60s and ’70s, many contemporary artists created their own museum spaces—often on the pages of art journals, Pieprzak says. Private collections emerged, and art galleries housed in banks also filled some of the void. Today, artists find themselves taking their work to the streets, frequently staging public art projects.

During spring break in March, Pieprzak completed a brief residency with an influential art collective called La Source du Lion, which is responsible for community art throughout Casablanca. The highlight of her stay was a lecture she delivered to about 60 people, including artists, anthropologists and a museum director, at the collective’s studio. A philosophically and emotionally charged session on the future of Moroccan museums followed and lasted more than an hour.

It became clear to Pieprzak that many in the Moroccan art community are skeptical of the country’s overtures to create formal spaces for artists, despite the fact that internationally renowned architects Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel have been enlisted to design new spaces. In the eyes of the art community, “nothing has changed,” Pieprzak says. The ministry of culture “shut down the contemporary art museum in Tangier, and they’re building a new one in Rabat, the capital. This museum has been in the works for 10 years now. It’s still not completed.”

In the meantime, Moroccan artists continue to improvise in the absence of permanent, physical, well-curated space. Pieprzak’s residency included a visit to a nearby university that opened its own neighborhood museum in a poor and overlooked area in Casablanca. University students are photographing residents and collecting stories about the history of the neighborhood along with objects for display. “Some of these objects are of very poor quality, but it doesn’t matter,” Pieprzak says. “This is a space for this group of people, and people are responding positively in the neighborhood.