Entertainment & Arts

Vanessa Branson's Moroccan arts mission

Vanessa Branson
Image caption Vanessa Branson was spurred to start the Biennale after becoming angry about President George W Bush's attitude to the Islamic world

In 2002 Vanessa Branson, sister to Richard, opened a funky new hotel in Marrakech in Morocco. A couple of years later she launched an even riskier enterprise - a big new arts festival in the same city. The Marrakech Biennale is now in its sixth edition. As she moves away from day-to-day control Vanessa Branson says the event's focus on international collaboration is more important than ever.

Even if the surname weren't such a giveaway, Vanessa Branson's physical resemblance to her older brother might hint at a shared streak of tough entrepreneurialism.

'I admit being a Branson can sometimes open doors. Certainly it helped when we were setting up the first Arts in Marrakech project, which is how the Biennale was branded in those days.

"But I'm Richard's sister, not his daughter - we didn't have endless funds available to establish a festival of visual art and performance in Morocco. Some people thought the idea was crazy and would collapse after year one."

Branson had been busy starting her new luxury hotel in Marrakech when she caught a clip of President George W Bush on the radio.

'I heard Bush say you're either with us or against us. I was completely incandescent with rage: I thought it was all going to damage relations with the Muslim world in a stupid way.

Image copyright Superflex
Image caption Vanessa Branson says she's proud to show the Danish film Kwassa Kwassa about a boat-builder who takes migrants to Mayotte in the Indian Ocean

"As someone who'd had very positive experiences working with Moroccan people, I decided to develop a platform for debate about our similarities and differences. Things have developed a lot since but that was our starting point.'

Branson says the pleasure of the first festival in 2005 was often that she and her team didn't really know what they were doing.

"But there's a poetry and an energy to Moroccan life and somehow it all worked anyway. Marrakech attracts creative people, which is what we've built on ever since 2005," she says.

"Until 1991 I'd run an art gallery in London so I had useful contacts - though a lot of the charm had to do with the venues, which were gorgeous and still are." They range from the Moorish Ben Youssef madrasa to a bank building on Jemaa el-Fna - the vast and noisy square which all tourists in Marrakech gravitate to.

Image copyright Marrakech Biennale
Image caption The Badi Palace is one of many festival venues throughout the city

In 2009 the festival became the Marrakech Biennale. "It was a significant change because immediately it made people think of the Venice Biennale, which is a big deal in visual art. But we wanted to up our ambition and become a pre-eminent cultural event for north Africa.

"I wasn't loaded with money and those first years really hurt financially. But though I'm now moving away from much of my direct involvement I'm delighted with where the Biennale now stands."

This year's event runs in Marrakech until May. Visual art dominates but there is also music, film, literature and performance.

Branson is loath to identify favourite pieces and installations. "But I'm proud we're showing a film from the Superflex group (from Denmark) called Kwassa Kwassa."

The film is about a boat-builder in the Comoro Islands who takes migrants to Mayotte, a small overseas territory of France nearby which is the remotest part of the European Union.

Image copyright Marrakech Biennale
Image caption Diverse types of art are now an important part of the festival

"And there's really interesting work from the photographer Hicham Benohoud, who's actually from Marrakech."

Branson denies the Biennale is something imposed on Morocco by people who have drifted in from Europe and America.

"This year the focus has been on Africa, the Arab World and their diasporas. We are doing more to attract local people and I'm proud that events are free - it's a key difference between us and most festivals around the world.

"It's hugely important to have an event which shows people in Morocco embracing new ideas - especially young people. The Biennale shows Morocco developing a critical curiosity and being open for debate. I think for young people to learn a critical language through the arts is important.

"One of the most 'big' things we do is to introduce artists from around the world to our student programme: that involves a real exchange of ideas. I want Moroccans to feel it's their non-commercial festival and though we can always do better we're getting there.

"Artists are often ahead of the thinking in the countries they come from. They're honest - sometimes bluntly honest. So really the whole thing is bridge-building. And the world needs bridges."

The Marrakech Biennale runs until 8 May.

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