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Crossing continents: European Art Festival looks to North Africa

The famed Alhambra palace is just one of the treasures the Moors left as their legacy in Spain. That heritage is often lost in modern-day Spain, but the Manifesta festival is putting it back on the agenda.

Cartagena's Modern Art Museum

Cartagena's modern art museum exhibits artists from all over the world

Caught between two civilizations, southern Spain has been fought over in the name of both Christianity and Islam. Today, it is seen as a bridge between North Africa and Europe, between two continents and two cultures.

It forms the perfect location for the eighth edition of Manifesta, the roving European art festival, during which art exhibits, films, sculpture and performance work exploring the region's identity are scattered between the town of Murcia and the coastal city of Cartagena.

More than 150 artists from around the world are taking part in the festival, which continues until January 9, focusing their art on the historic relationship of conflict and coexistence between Spain and North Africa.

Murcia, the so-called Orchard of Europe, lies closer to Algeria than Madrid, Spain's capital. Founded by the Moors in the 9th century, Madinat Mursiya flourished over the centuries and following the Spanish Reconquista became part of Castile.

Manifesta 8 Kunstmesse Murcia Spanien

Many photographers and video artists participate in this year's manifesta 8

Dialogue instead of division

In Cartagena's 18th-century former navy hospital, Laurent Grasso's film tells of the city's role as a surveillance port looking out towards North Africa. The Paris-based artist switches between the past and the present as he draws out the fears and suspicions that consume both the city's history and its present-day reality.

Hedwig Fijen, founding director of Manifesta, said Murcia had been chosen for this year's location because of the growing cultural tensions across Europe.

"The political situation in Europe is changing. I think we have forgotten a time in European history when there was coexistence, when there was no Islamophobia," she said. "Artists can investigate how these political problems have an effect on the daily lives of people. Through the eyes of the artists, we see a different perception."

A new way of looking at terrorism

American artist Michael Takeo Magruder's controversial work focuses on the heart of the modern conflict. His multimedia installation in Cartegena's Modern Art Museum uses sound and pictures from the Madrid train bombings in 2004.

Speaking about his work, Magruder said that he wanted to create an alternative dialogue about terrorism away from the mainstream media.

"In our society, politicians use terrorist attacks for their own political purposes to sway the country, to get re-elected, to consolidate their power," he said. "The media often uses these attacks unethically. They create a tragic spectacle to boost ratings. As artists we can provide an alternative space."

Artillery Barracks

The former artillery barracks in Murcia exhibits artwork in a historic setting.

Crossing cultures through art

Bouchra Ouizguen, an artist from Morocco, came to Murcia to perform her work using dance and music to look at the role of women in Islam, exploring the themes of friendship, isolation and pain. The performance called "Madame Plaza" looks at the lives of four Moroccan women interacting and exploring their own identities. Throughout the performance the wails of "Aïta," music inspired by Moroccan folklore, echo around the stage in Murcia's former artillery barracks.

From dance to cinema to sculpture and painting, Manifesta is open to all kinds of artists and welcomes all visitors. From the contemporary to the traditional, the festival seeks to include all forms of expression true to its founding mantra of co-existence and understanding.

The bi-annual festival was founded in the early 1990s in Amsterdam after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the festival originally sought to forge artistic links between eastern and western Europe. This year, it is crossing over to North Africa.

The organizers say they hope to use art where politics has failed and bring two cultures with a shared history in southern Spain closer together.

Author: Naomi Scherbel-Ball
Editor: Anke Rasper

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