When the young man at Maison de la Photographie followed us inside and asked how long we were in town for, it felt like an all-too-familiar overture. To reach the museum we’d had to walk through Jemaa el-Fnaa square and the souk, refusing city tours, cheap souvenirs, restaurants and ‘good H’ at every turn. Guard up, I hurriedly explained that we were leaving in a few hours.
“That’s a shame,” he said. “The ticket is valid for several days. We’ve got some great films upstairs, but they’re a bit long for one visit. People like to come back a few times.”
What did we learn? That I need to relax, and that Said Aouzou definitely isn’t a hustler. He’s a knowledgeable, enthusiastic gallery host, and the gallery he welcomed us to is a joy: in spirit, intent and execution a world away from the cynical tourism badlands on its doorstep.
It occupies a former foundouk, one of a cluster that were originally supported by guests and trade from the nearby Ben Youssef Madrasa. These days it’s common for them to function as artisan co-operatives, with the old guest rooms providing space for work, storage and retail, but here the walls have been knocked through to create short galleries around the central courtyard.
Natural light pours in from above and is diffused into them, never hitting the glass-fronted prints head on; you can’t help wondering what the architects of 16th or 17th century Marrakesh would have thought if they’d known they were creating great conditions in which to hang photographs.
It’s a private enterprise, with holdings of 5,000 prints and 2,000 plates – far, far more than the small building can show – built up piecemeal from donations and auctions. Ground-floor galleries emphasise Morocco’s cultural mix with large, pre-1900 portraits of Jews, Berbers, Touaregs and Gnawa, the latter the descendants of slaves and soldiers from the Sahel.
Some shots here are toe-curlingly staged, designed for a European market that found Morocco fashionably exotic. Orientalism is an inevitable presence in the collection, which runs from the earliest available photographs of the 1870s to Moroccan independence in the 1950s – a period of time during which commercial and even pro-am photography was the preserve of outsiders: first visitors on the Grand Tour, and later citizens and employees of colonial powers.
That complicates things to an extent, particularly when the museum’s mission is ‘To bring back the photographic memory of Morocco to Morocco’ (whose memories, exactly?). But as well as the crass fetishisation of those studio shots, there is more engaged and mature work from long-term residents of the country.
Former French army snapper Marcelin Flandrin is a case in point. He’d been in Morocco for 20 years before setting up as a photographer-for-hire in Casablanca after the First World War, and proved a talented street photographer, also working as an editor for a picture-postcard series known as Mars Editions. Some of the imprint’s products are shown in a small cabinet in the Flandrin gallery.
The standout Flandrin print catches light cascading through the wattled sun-shelters of the Marrakesh souk, while a shopper in a djellaba half-turns towards the camera. These are the same tat-lined streets I’d just walked up, photographed before mass tourism arrived – not in a golden age or a more innocent age, just in a former one. Like all vintage photos of settled places, the picture is a reminder that neighbourhoods are mutable things with histories and futures. Tourists, prey to experiencing the places they visit as off-the-peg products that are simply a good buy or a bad, need reminders like that.
The currents of national and global history are detectable too. Sharing a floor with Flandrin – and echoing his preference for natural light and everyday scenes – is work by Studio Souissi, set up in Rabat in the 30s to capitalise on the growing passion for Morocco in France, which had divided ownership of the country with Spain in 1912. Also on this floor are a handful of Nicolas Muller prints from the early 40s, when the occupying French and Spanish regimes were aligned, if not outright allied, with Hitler. A dancer relaxes in a Tangier salon, a garter round one artfully exposed thigh. Three biplanes soar in formation over a hut in Chefchaouen.
Finally, a small cinema shows Daniel Chicault’s High Atlas documentaries from 1957, the year after Morocco’s independence. These I can’t speak for – the stuff about leaving town was true, and my girlfriend had already been waiting almost an hour in the rooftop cafe.
So how does a small photography museum in Marrakesh relate to Accra? Easy: Accra should have one too, though with a wider historical remit that includes non-colonial work from after 1957.
Willis Bell, the outsider who adopted Ghana as his home, and James Barnor, the Ghanaian who made it big internationally, are obvious starting points – and in fact, a recent exhibition of Barnor’s work is a good argument for an institution that can do right by serious photography. The definitive photographer of decolonizing Ghana and black Britain got a three-day show in a shopping mall. Enough said?