How Laila Hida creates space by using art as a start for questioning

Happyplaces Stories (video)

Finding your way through the souks of Marrakech is quite a challenge. Even though I thought I was well prepared with a downloaded Google map, I found myself outside the city walls in no time, surrounded deeply emerged in the full multi-sensorial Marrakech experience: smells of spices gasoline, the loud noise of mopeds, people calling and shouting. I was on my way to Laila Hida, a self-taught photographer and cultural activist who founded Le 18, an alternative cultural space and artist residency in the old medina of Marrakech. Laila has organised, with the collaboration of local and international artists, researchers and cultural actors, exhibitions, series of meetings, workshops and alternative educational projects which tackle major societal challenges. I called here for some assistance. A short taxi drive brought me to another side of the souks. Oops. She welcomed me with some mint tea in the beautiful riad. We talked about lots of things. Laila said that she was not too talkative, being an introvert.

We talked about the paradox of having a space. How it creates opportunities for inviting people in and to organise events while at the same time it bounds you to that place, carrying all the responsibilities that go with it. When she talks about Le 18, she talks about it as a ‘project’. Because as a project, it is just one of the projects that she is involved in. This way she creates space to also work on other projects and chase after other dreams and ideas. This year, you can also find her outside the walls of Le 18 behind the camera again, when she is working on a new photography project.

There is an expression in French that expresses how I communicate, that is ‘consis’. It means ‘short’, but short in the idea of ‘contained’. When I talk about something, it can be in just a few words. I usually do this with the people I work with or with my family. People feel very frustrated by this because they feel that I never share my thoughts or that I don’t want to share my ideas, which is not true. It is just that I share them with myself. Most of the time I talk with myself. I can be very silent. I am a quiet person in general. It is always easier to talk about other people. But I don’t mind to talk about the project because it is my project, but it is also the exterior of myself. What is most difficult for me is, is to define myself. Or to describe things that closely connect to my feelings or my deep ambitions or intuitions. This project, the space is one of my main projects.

Room to explore

Le 18 is a house. Now it is known as an art space. It is a cultural space, so when people talk about Le 18, they think about a cultural space. With a programme, with exhibitions. But when I thought about it, in the beginning, I wanted to have a space to share, to meet people, to bring people together to think and share and bring ideas together. To maybe think about how we want to live, about our future, about the city. About social matters, about politics — everything that is part of your daily life. But at the same time, there is not enough space for in your life to discuss them, so we bring them to this space where we try to dissect them. Then we choose subjects, and we talk about them and use art to enter these subjects. It is a space to experiment. Later it became this cultural space. It was my intuition to open the space, but now it is a collective project. There are always other people involved; what happens here is not about me, it is about a group of people that wants to change things and want to share. Who want to give space for artists, researchers, curators to explore the city of Marrakech. And to explore the different layers of the country. Of how our lives develop and how the society in Morocco works.

Art as a start

We’re very interested in artists that have practices that explore or question social matters, the context of the city, or the context of the neighbourhood where we live for example. It is interesting to see how the neighbourhood perceives this place and how it lives in a place that is traditional. The medina, our surroundings, is a traditional surrounding. While the project is seen as modern because we talk about contemporary art, it is fascinating to make things live and work together. But it is also a challenge for us to find codes and a language to talk to people. That’s one thing about the project. But there are many other things we want to develop with this project. We want to connect the city and the cultural scene of the city with other scenes. And we want to learn about different cultures and learn from other artists and researchers that come here to work. We want to build bridges with other situations and contexts in North Africa, for example. That is very important to us. Art has no codes. For me, it is a way of entering subjects. For me artists their mission is, when we talk about contemporary art in which we are most interested, are people that question things that are not solved. They try to fill empty spaces. Of our history, or our societies. And they do that in a way that touches a sensitive part of us. Because I’m an introvert, and because I’m not very interested in long and big speeches, I’m mostly moved and touched by visual things. So that’s why art is appealing to me.

Question everything

For me, everything should be questioned. No subject needs to be questioned more than another. It is also a matter of the place where you are and your interests. Each artist has different interests. I think in Morocco, and in Marrakech in particular. We’re talking about specific contexts because I believe that the power of a space or a project can be significant when it focusses on specific things that are local, that touch the closest community. Then we know what we are talking about. And you can explore ideas very profoundly. So, being here in the city of Marrakech and being in the medina is also a way of questioning. We are interested in how the city grows, how it changes, how it changes people’s lives and the standards of living. And how liberalism in Marrakech is reshaping the city. How it reshapes the relations between people and brings new perspectives. At the same time, it also restricts certain people and pushes certain communities to the edge and outskirts of the city which is very dangerous. I have been witnessing this. In the very short time that I am in Marrakech, about six years now, which is relatively quick to see the change, but even then I can see how fast things are moving. Le 18 is also here because we would like to understand what is happening around us. We use research, art and different methods and expressions to have people think about their city.

Benefit and burden

To have a space is a great opportunity. But at the same time, it is not. It is also really ambitious. When you start it, you don’t consider all consequences, what is next. In the beginning, you just think it is fun because it allows you to do a lot of things. But it is also a big responsibility because you can not just open a space without thinking about the next steps. Having a space, big or small, is having a place in your city, your neighbourhood. You are going to leave a print of who you are. People will talk about it, will remember it when it exists or doesn’t exist anymore. In any way, you leave something. I think that is the responsibility of having a space. What is it what you want to talk about and what you want to say, to contribute. How you want to represent it. This responsibility becomes a burden naturally. It depends on which perspective you talk about it. You have to run the space too, whether it is a business or a foundation, and all the practicalities that come with it. It also has an existence for the community. When you put something out there, and you involve other people you are not alone with your project anymore. The limitation of a project like that is that you are not free anymore to do whatever you want to do anymore. You have to think collectively. Thinking as a collective is another way of working. For me that is very natural, that’s the best way for me. For most other people that might be difficult. For artists it is the opposite, they need to be by themselves, and sometimes they can work collectively, but most of the time they have to think and research by themselves. But a space is a place that needs different people to be always able to exchange, to confront. It is essential for me to confront my ideas and my opinions and the way I see things. I never wanted Le 18 only to be my vision. I wanted it to be a space to confront my vision. The more Le 18 grew, and the more I am releasing myself from all the frustrations I had in the beginning, the more the space took more place in my life than it should. It became an extension of my life. When people think of me as a person, they connect me with this space.