Dan Gurney - Monaco - 1968
Street in Tangier, Morocco.
Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Ian Sommervill, in Tangiers, Morroco, 1961
Yto Barrada: Riffs
Yto Barrada photographs and films inquire into the daily traces of historical changes taking place in North Africa, the artist’s home.
Introduction to work via pandorian
For more than a decade, Yto Barrada has confronted the political realities of North Africa in her photographs, films, and sculptures. Her work engages with life in her hometown of Tangier, Morocco, whose particular situation along the Strait of Gibraltar is emblematic of the historical up-heavals experienced by many countries in northern Africa. “I’ve always been attentive to what lies beneath the surface of public behavior,” says Yto Barrada. “In public, the oppressed accept their domination, but they always question their domination offstage. Subversive tactics, strategies of class contestation, forms of sabotage used by the poor – this is what I am most interested in.”
For the title of the exhibition, “Riffs,” Barrada took inspiration from the musical use of the term, the Cinéma Rif cultural center founded and directed by the artist, and Morocco’s nearby Rif mountains, which have long been a stronghold of anti-colonial insurgency.
Since 1991, the narrow channel at Gibraltar – a mere 14 kilometers in length – has become an insurmountable obstacle, a virtual Mariana Trench, between Europe and Africa. Speedboats traverse the strait in 35 minutes, bringing tourists from north to south, while the police swiftly intercept and turn back Moroccans (and Africans in general) headed north. Where once prevailed a dream of cultural exchange, a one-way tourist street has been created. Yto Barrada addresses this fissure that has cut off established trade passages as well as mental escape routes. What was interesting as a possibility, but never a necessity, has been transformed through the severe restrictions – the amputation of North Africa – into an urgent desire. With calmly observant, restrained images, Yto Barrada’s photo series creates a climate of waiting, persistence, and circumnavigation.
The border to Europe is not the only one. Tangier has developed internal trenches, and is rapidly evolving into a conformist real estate city. According to Barrada, 5000 building permits were issued in a single year. The city is expanding to the south into the countryside. Piece for piece, its empty spac-es are disappearing as the uncertain and ambiguous are filled with new buildings and scattered settlements. Real estate capitalism paired with neoliberal politics is spreading, forcing its way through the historical architecture and preexisting land tenure. Such are the borders within the city itself, striations that constantly shift. In her photographs, Yto Barrada depicts how the new buildings spread, proliferation, take possession, and transform the city. In her video Beau Geste (2009), three men carefully tend and support a delicate palm tree. The tree activists Barrada portrays are working illegally, using small acts of civil disobedience to fight a law allowing landowners to build or sell their land as long as no fruit grows and no tree stands on it. The tree action becomes a form of “guerilla gardening,” which is intensely debated by observers who happen to be passing by.
Yto Barrada monitors the changes in her city with hawk-like attentiveness, responding to them with actions, images, and films that nevertheless maintain a remarkable calm, distance, and restraint. Neither iconic nor bellicose, they do not purport to be a weapon of enlightenment, nor do they offer a complacent, arrogant visual world that knows exactly how to behave and what to attain. As if the artist would always take a step back, her quiet, nearly static square color photographs offer visual fields opening up onto a landscape, an urban constellation, a being, a repose. They reveal objects, buildings, and people so we might engage with them as observers, immersing ourselves, seeking, exploring, contemplating. We see here a sign and a gesture, there a rebellion; strikingly dedramatized, real and allegorical at the same time.
Negar Azimi: What is your work without Tangier? Or what was it before Tangier? Is there even a “before Tangier”?
Yto Barrada: It’s strange, people ask me what I will do next, meaning, When are you going to let go of this quaint provincial town as your main subject? But I am not a travel photographer. I am stuck here; it’s home, this is where I am. To me it’s as stressful and banal and everyday as New York probably is to you. I’m not exotic—I’m exhausted…Yes, my nervous system is chained to this place. I cry when they cut down a tree or bulldoze an old hospital. In a way, Tangier doesn’t exist; it changes all the time. So I guess we will stick together until they have finished paving it over. Then I will probably go work on dinosaurs in the south of Morocco.
“Tangerine Dreams and Magic in the City: A Conversation Between Negar Azimi and Yto Barrada.” Riffs exhibition catalogue.
Camel-riding tourists are bound for Tangier, fabled city of intrigue on Morocco’s northern tip, four miles away.
National Geographic - June, 1971
Morris Scott Dollens