Art & Photography / Culture Talks

Vanessa Branson

Cultural provocateur and founder of the Marrakech Biennale, Vanessa Branson talks exclusively to AnOther about what drives her to bring people together, and why it is important to make a difference on the world stage...

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Megumi Matsubara, Theatre Royal, Marrakech Biennale 2012
Megumi Matsubara, Theatre Royal, Marrakech Biennale 2012© Alia Radman

Vanessa Branson is a trustee of the Global Diversity Foundation and is well known for her passionate commitment to cultural initiatives that promote trans-cultural unity and understanding. Beginning her life in the creative sphere as the founder of the Portobello Arts Festival in the 80s, she has been an instrumental force in the promotion of the arts for over thirty years, notably co-founding The Wonderful Fund Collection, in which she co-collected international artworks together for exhibition in Morocco in the mid-noughties that reflected the cultural paradigm of the times. Branson has been championing art in Muslim countries since her 2002 acquisition of a faded palace in Marrakech that she and her partner transformed into the sprawling luxury Riad El Fenn, which subsequently became the hub for the arts festival she founded that would, in time, become the Marrakech Biennale – an event that has grown exponentially, and has featured the likes of The Chapman Brothers, Zadie Smith and Hardeep Singh. Here, the cultural provocateur talks exclusively to AnOther about what drives her to bring people together, and why it is important to make a difference on the world stage.

How did you become so involved in the arts, and what was the genesis of your love affair with Morocco?
Well, back in 2004 I was listening to the Today program and I heard George Bush talking about the war on terror, saying ‘you’re either with us or against us’ and that one statement made me think, I can’t just sit by. I mean, we had all marched against the war and the whole thing just felt so frustrating. I’d had Riad El Fenn for a couple of years at that point, and I had a very positive reaction to the warmth and acceptance of Moroccan culture, so the response to 9/11 was something I found very unsettling. Funnily enough, when we had bought El Fenn, it felt very good to be swimming against the tide, by buying in a North African Muslim country. I had run an arts festival in the late 80s and I realised El Fenn could provide the opportunity to hold a small arts event in which we could investigate the nuances of the similarities and differences of our cultures through the medium of art. I didn’t expect it to have a massive amount of publicity or impact; it was just something I really wanted to do.

"Morocco is a very new democracy and I am respectful of that, but we do want to provoke and excite and stimulate discourse"

How did this small arts event begin to evolve?
Well, when you start something like that you have to do it again really, and we first did it again under the title AIM, which was Arts In Marrakesh. In 2009, we decided to up the game and brought in a Moroccan curator called Abdellah Karroum, and he had much bigger ambitions for it. There was another organisation of galleries getting together who were starting to rumble about the word Biennale and having done this arts event for five years, I thought we needed to be the Moroccan Biennale – once you call it a Biennale, of course, it has to be bigger and it’s definitely always evolving; that’s the interesting thing about it, it’s like a living beast that we’ve let loose.

There was that period in the early noughties where there was a lot of frustration at the war, and a systematic demonisation of Muslim culture in the UK. How do you feel that has all played out? Do you think we’re moving towards a more positive place?
I hope so. I think it’s all so nuanced, though. There’s an element of ignorant thuggery – this isn’t to do with Morroco at all, I’m thinking of London – where you get stupid people, but then you get very intellectual people at the other end of the scale. I just think there’s more communication now, and on the whole, I think people across the board realise that we’re all human and want to educate our children and live in peace. There are a few nutters on all sides, but actually, hardly any – that faction is much smaller than we think. I do really believe strongly in freedom of information and not hiding behind this war on terror… but that’s a whole other story.

Is there a challenging aesthetic to a lot of the work exhibited and people involved – how does it tend to reflect upon the political spectrum?
The artists haven’t been selected necessarily because they’re political. It’s more about responding to the city itself and the geography of the area, and we obviously don’t want to cause any offence. Morocco is a very new democracy and I am respectful of that, but we do want to provoke and excite and stimulate discourse. I was listening to a program this morning talking about the Tate Modern, and the role art plays in people’s lives. Millions of people go there every year because they want to be entertained and stimulated and there was someone on the show criticizing that – saying the Tate is only there for entertainment. I actually think that’s fantastic, though, and if people come away from the experience having sought entertainment and want to find out more about something, I think that’s brilliant too.

Text by John-Paul Pryor

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