The Indomitable Vanessa Branson

A Conversation

Some people simply cannot help taking ‘the road less travelled’: they defy accepted wisdom; they challenge preconceptions and conventions; they make things happen in the most unusual place and circumstances.

Vanessa Branson could be described as an art pioneer, although that alone does not define her.

During a meeting at her London home, I am assailed by a multitude of impressions, not least because of the house itself – a fascinating glimpse into her own taste in art; beautiful, in a soild and well lived-in kind of way, yet with the odd bohemian touch and a palpable presence of Morocco.

Then, there is Vanessa herself. The distinctive blue Branson eyes and the smile, all her own that one, illuminate the face as she talks about this project and that, most of them art-related, although she also owns a riad in Marrakech and an island off the Scottish coast, and has four children.

You get a sense of a restless spirit that propels her in several directions at once.

Long before she dreamed up the Marrakech Biennale, now in its 10th year/5th edition, she was one of the two co-founders of the very first London gallery to show foreign artists. In 1986 this must have been a revolutionary moment for the London art scene.

When you do the maths and realise she was in her very early 20s at the time, you feel the next question is almost redundant in her case.

How does one start an art biennale and what compelled her to do it?

She says she was driven to start the Biennale because she felt strongly that the 2004 world events did North Africa no favours on the international reputation stakes. The region got painted with the same ‘potential terrorists’ brush with retaliatory rhetoric in the West and in the USA in particular.

Back in 2002, over lunch and almost on an impulse, she had bought an old riad with a business partner and became smitten with Morocco and its people in the year or so that it took to restore it.

So when George W. Bush proclaimed in 2004 that ‘you are either with us or you are against us’, she felt that ‘perceptions needed re-calibrating’ and what better way to do that than through building cultural bridges?

‘I had a vision when I started that it would be like this – I had a shape in my dreams. Keep it small to start with, get the values and corporate principles right, and don’t compromise on quality and experience.

‘I found Moroccans to be wonderful people – welcoming, cultured, generously spirited… and wanted to re-brand Marrakech as a city of culture, confident in its future, celebrating new ideas and embracing creative thinking. It was important to me to differentiate Morocco from the militant pockets of the Middle-East.’

So the biennale started in 2004 as a very small personal event, a gathering and an interaction between film makers, writers, musicians, artists bouncing ideas off one another.

Initially a one-off exhibition of Moroccan artists, the festival took off and now has artists coming from all over the place.

‘We invite them a year before so that they respond to Marrakech – it is important that the works and the people relate to the city – we put them up wherever there is room and get them to engage with the community and work with the local craftsmen.

The biennale has now grown into a rich scene of creative people. It has a unique feel to it – part fringe, part Venice biennale (because it has such a high quality visual art), part Glastonbury because there are so many young people. It has been referred to as the Davos of the art world because we also have many statesmen visiting.

‘There is no fixed vision or identity as it is people-driven (we have 400 artists this year) and of course, it has the amazing backdrop of Marrakech.’

Anyone who knows Marrakech knows it heaves with a creative spirit of its own and has done for centuries, but it has no art infrastructure or even an art school.

I cannot help marvelling at the sheer force of personality and passion that would have convinced a fairly entrenched community to embrace something as novel and different as a bi-annual celebration of contemporary art.

The very idea would have seemed at once ‘thrilling and mad’, especially as some of the installations must have challenged the very concept of what art is.

Today, the multi-disciplinary events are part of the fabric of the city, with no dedicated exhibition space, and as much as possible, participatory. Wood is still delivered on horses and in donkey carts, the locations are beautiful, and the whole process artistic.

‘You have to engage people and not just by throwing the doors open.’

She has no idea how many people are attending this year, but guesses record numbers.

What does the future hold for the Marrakech biennale and its founder, I ask?

The event now has a life of its own and has been described as a juggernaut. She has a strong international team driving it and would like to step back into a more of a founding than guiding role.

Funding for the biennale permitting, she would like to look at the rest of Africa and perhaps even start a Saudi Arabia event. Many of the 2014 Marrakech artists come from the Gulf and she sounds really excited by the quality of the works.

vanessa branson art

The incredible variety of art on the walls throughout her house inevitably prompts a question about collecting in general.

For her, it is an opportunity to discover new cultures and new territories.

Years ago she and a partner started an art fund – ‘more of a collective buying art’ – conceived as a snapshot of emerging art of the millennium. This is something she would like to revive because she enjoys the challenge new generations of artists represent.

It’s easy, she says, to keep with the same generation and quit looking, and Vanessa Branson is anything but a collector in a rut.

In fact, she can hardly stand still. Her other ‘hat’ is that of a hotelier of sorts – she has the El Fenn Riad and the island of Eilean Shona (with its very own artists residencies) – and whatever new hats she may yet try on.

One thing is certain, though – Vanessa Branson will not rest on her laurels. It just doesn’t seem to be her style.

Can I hear you thinking, ‘it’s a Branson family thing’?