The Marrakech Biennale, which takes place between February 24 and May 8, 2016, showcases around 100 artworks, many by Arab artists, such as Mona Hatoum, Jumana Manna and Mohamed Mourabiti. Founded in 2004 by Vanessa Branson, Richard Branson’s sister, it is expected to draw 100,000 visitors.
This year, one presentation really stands out: a collage of historical photographs, artifacts and drawings depicting the advent and production of electricity in Syria. It also included a windmill. Syrian architect Khaled Malas conceived the project.
The windmill was built in June 2015 by a blacksmith who goes by the alias of Abu Ali al-Kalamouni for security reasons, and lives in a village on the outskirts of Damascus. Made out of scrap metal, the windmill stands five-and-a-half meter tall in plain sight on a rooftop in eastern Ghouta.
Malas, 35, calls it an act of “creative resistance.” When the conflict in Syria erupted five years ago, Malas, who has architecture degrees from the American University of Beirut and Cornell University, was working at Rem Koolhaas’ firm OMA in Rotterdam. He returned briefly to his hometown of Damascus, before taking a job in 2012 with Herzog & de Meuron in Basel. In 2014, he moved to New York to work on his Ph.D. at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.
The war in Syria forced him to contemplate his role as a citizen and an architect. His privileged status wore on his conscience, but he found his answer when he saw a photo in November 2014 of a waterwheel that produced electricity in an open sewage canal in eastern Ghouta. Syrian photojournalist Yaseen al-Bushy had taken the picture. Malas emailed al-Bushy, who introduced him to Abu Ali, the blacksmith.
Thus began the long distance collaboration via Skype, between Malas in New York, and al-Bushy and al-Kalamouni in Syria.
At the time, with no electricity, Syrian villagers were reduced to collecting plastic debris they salvaged from rubble surrounding their homes. They melted it to produce a very toxic form of fuel in order to power old generators.
Abu Ali experimented with cleaner alternatives to produce electricity. He built a waterwheel that could yield electric power, but mostly during the rainy winter season.
It inspired Malas, who came up with the idea of a windmill. To help build a prototype, he raised $10,000 from the Beirut-based Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and the Marrakech Biennale Association. He also reached out to collaborators Salim al-Kadi, an architect, Alfred Tarazi, an artist, and Jana Traboulsi, an illustrator—all in Beirut, to help with drawings and illustrations.
On a breezy day, the six-blade windmill rotates four to five times a minute, spinning a shaft at 1,100 to 1,200 revolutions per minute to produce electricity for a public community building. So far, it has survived winter and bombing. Malas estimates newer windmills will cost half the price of the original.
This is not his first community project in Syria. At the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, he showed a banner with a drawing of a 120-meter-deep well he helped build in the region of Daraa. Another one was subsequently excavated; they provide potable water to two villages.
Malas hopes those projects will be replicated across Syria. “Both illuminate the presence of hope among the debris of the modern Syrian experience,” he says, before adding sheepishly: “My friends think I am ridiculously hopeful.”