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Marrakech’s latest designation as the first African Capital of Culture 2020 should come as no surprise to anyone who has rambled through the city’s UNESCO-listed medina or heard the sounds of midnight drum circles in Jemaa el-Fnaa Square. The thousand-year-old metropolis is a living museum of Moorish traditions but in recent years, the city has undergone a creative shift. Bolstered by a fresh crop of museums including the 2018 relaunch of the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), Marrakech is giving travelers new reasons to explore its creative corners.
This February, La Mamounia hotel, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property, will host the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair for its third consecutive year, transforming its majestic spaces into forums to discuss the evolution of African art and showcase the works of over 65 artists. The historic hotel has been a hub for culture ever since it transitioned from a 12th-century palace into a hotel in 1923. Winston Churchill once lived on the property and regularly painted from his balcony, describing it as “the most lovely spot in the whole world.” Today, it plays host to temporary art exhibits and a permanent collection of Moroccan-inspired works by Jean Besancenot and Gérard Rondeau. Even those who step into the zellige-tiled spa are treated to a sensory experience thanks to its menu of traditional hammam treatments and Arabic-Andalusian interiors designed by architect Jacques Garcia.
Innovative new spaces in Gueliz, the heart of modern Marrakech, warrant a day trip beyond the city’s historic ramparts. The Studio KO-designed Yves Saint Laurent Museum, which opened in 2017 beside the iconic Majorelle Garden, pays homage to the eponymous fashion designer’s life, work, and love affair with Morocco. Down the street, homegrown talent is championed by the David Bloch Gallery, where works such as Mohamed Boustane’s modern take on Arabic calligraphy and Ghizlane Sahli’s whimsical sculptures made out of traditional Moroccan dresses draw an international crowd. When the space opened in 2010, there were only three contemporary art galleries in the city. Now, there are over a dozen including Galerie 127, a photography showroom tucked inside an Art Deco building, and Comptoir des Mines Galerie, an experimental exhibition space developed in 2016 by Casablanca auction house Art Holding Morocco.
Artist studio visits can be arranged but casual drop-ins are welcomed at LRNCE, an atelier in the industrial zone helmed by Laurence Leenaert, a Belgium designer who collaborates with women weavers and over 35 artisans in Marrakech to create her collection of rugs, ceramics, and sandals. When she’s not in the studio, Leenaert can often be found sipping a traditional Moka at Bacha Coffee Marrakech, a design-forward cafe hidden inside the opulent Dar El Bacha Musée Des Confluences. Founded in the medina in 1910, the coffee house reopened last fall after being closed for 60 years and boasts maximalist interiors to match its bible-sized menu of blends.
Deeper into the medina lies Riad Yima, an Alice in Wonderland meets Moroccan teahouse by pop-art king Hassan Hajjaj, (also known as the “Andy Warhol of Marrakech”). In a city that often demands a reprieve from the chaos, riad and garden breaks are a necessity. For the latter, there’s no better place than Le Jardin Secret, a 19th-century palace that was transformed into two sprawling gardens through a three-year restoration completed in 2017. The ceiling of the gazebo alone took seven months for their resident traditional Islamic artist to hand-paint.
When sunset cocktails beckon, head to El Fenn, a boutique art hotel home to permanent and rotating art exhibits—it’s most recent one showcasing the works of Moroccan artist Hicham Benohoud and Mohamed Melehi. From its rooftop, it’s not uncommon to hear the sounds of the call to prayer echo as the sun sets over the medina. In its thousand-year history, the Red City has never felt so vibrant.