Yto Barrada Is an All-Around Cultural Producer
A Conversation between Silke Hohmann and Andrée Sfeir-Semler
In 1998, Andrée Sfeir-Semler opened her gallery in Hamburg, followed by a second branch six years ago in her native city of Beirut. Her ambitious program is seminal for the art of North Africa and the Middle East. In January 2011, Monopol magazine editor Silke Hohmann spoke with her about Yto Barrada and the emerging Arab art world.
||Silke Hohmann: The current political situation in some North African countries is tense, if not outright dramatic. Yto Barrada lives and works in Tangier, Morocco. When you’re in contact with the artist, do you talk about current events?
Andrée Sfeir-Semler: To be honest, no, because there is always so much else to talk about. But Yto Barrada is an extremely political artist, of course—both in her social work, such as opening the Cinémathèque de Tanger, and in her artistic work. She is very politically active in the city she lives in.
Morocco doesn’t yet play a major role on the global art map. What is the cultural situation like there, and how developed is it in terms of in artistic production and presentation?
A number of artists come from Morocco but live in France or the United States. There are relatively few active artists in the country itself. Compounding this is the fact that Morocco is huge and has a very decentralized structure; the geography is extremely difficult to negotiate. You have Marrakech, Tangier, Rabat, Fez, and Casablanca, but communication between cities and towns is not at all easy. This also explains why Morocco has not made it very far when it comes to contemporary culture. There are no galleries like ours, for instance. Because of the distance and difficulty communicating, when you travel around Morocco, you can really get the feeling over extended periods of time that you’re traveling back to the Middle Ages.
Is there an opportunity for dialogue about contemporary art in Morocco?
Besides Yto, there is Abdellah Karroum, who plays an important role as an art organizer. In late 2010, he put together the latest Arts in Marrakech, a biennial that has recently been started, but you can’t really speak of a nucleus of activity yet. He runs the project space Apartment 22 in Rabat, and he has been on the jury for the Venice Biennale. Abdellah is a close friend and sparring partner of Yto, if you will. But when do they get to see each other? They have to travel five hours to meet.
Yto seems to be a kind of pioneer who creates spaces where cultural communication can take place.
Absolutely. And her role in Tangier cannot be overestimated: she founded the cinematheque as a meeting place. The cinema is extremely important in the city. When there were suddenly no more movie theaters, Yto took over the only decent one, the Cinéma Rif on the Grand Socco, the large square and marketplace. She now runs it with a small staff and an international advisory committee; they have put together a highly ambitious program— this is true cultural work. In addition, she has opened the only Internet café in the city. That’s also extremely important, because it is a place where young people can meet others their own age.
That’s cultural work bordering on social work.
Not just bordering! Her mother opened a women’s house in Tangier, where Yto also spends a lot of her time talking to women and eating or working. She is always in close contact with the people around her.
Can her artistic production be separated from these social and cultural activities?
You have to see Yto as an all-around cultural producer; on the one hand, she is developing artistic culture, especially in terms of visual art. For instance, she is on the board of the Arab Image Foundation, which was founded in 1996 and remains the only image archive in the Arabic-speaking world. For the most part, these countries do not have their own photo archives, which makes the establishment of this one in Beirut so important in terms of preserving cultural and social memory. But she is also an artist, of course.
An artist who has set herself the task of becoming involved with living conditions in her country?
Yes, she doesn’t make l’art pour l’art—her artworks are also testimonies. Many of them address the poor quality of construction in the country, the almost rapacious treatment of vegetation, the disappearance of green areas, and the destruction of nature. The exodus of the country’s youth is also an important theme, as well as freedom of speech. And of course we cannot ignore the theme of migration to Europe. The Deutsche Bank Collection has works titled Belvedere (2001): that’s the spot where people set out for Europe by sea.
In the Western world, the presence of Arab countries in the news usually entails conflict and discussion of cultural difference. To what extent does Yto contribute to this production of images?
Yto is definitely not an artist who works in a documentary manner— absolutely not. Even working with an archive, in a series, is not documentary photography. She’s an artist through and through. The cultural work she does in her real-life surroundings is important for her artistic work, because reality inspires her—the situations she lives in, her environment, her city. But her works are neither concerned with objectivity, nor are her motifs ethnic or exotic. That is very important. She’s not interested in representing truth; instead, her work is of a more militant nature. This can be seen in her posters, for instance, which are like pamphlets referring to history—but as works of art, never as documents. The work of art in itself is far too important to her for that. She wants to open people’s eyes through art.
Does that mean that her works can be experienced without knowing anything about the social and political context?
Of course—look at her photographs of bus company logos, for instance. They have been photographed in a very abstract way; they almost resemble Constructivist paintings. On the one hand, the work addresses themes like flight and illiteracy, because the logos also serve as a substitute for written information. At the same time, however, it is also about color and art history, or a certain view of art history. You don’t even need to know the history behind them when you look at the works.
Doesn’t that make things a little too easy?
No, why? Yto is extremely talented when it comes to bringing heavy and light into an elegant balance. She conveys what are sometimes depressing and existential truths, but they remain fresh and playful. This can be seen in the way she hangs and arranges
You work mainly from Hamburg. How did your collaboration with Yto come about?
In 2005, I opened a gallery for contemporary art in Beirut, the first in the city to work on a highly professional level with both international and local artists. Lebanon is very different from Morocco: all types of cultural activity take place in Beirut, and the scene works very closely together. I am a firm believer that a gallery always has to connect to its socio-geographic context. So I started to take a closer look at artists from the whole Arabicspeaking world, and I very quickly happened upon Yto. We have been working together since 2006. I think artists from my program like Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, and Yto Barrada are universal artists. And that is why they are also very interesting for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin.
You also represent the Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué, who is mainly known through his performance work; there are only very few of his works that can be exhibited in a strict sense. In April, he will perform as part of Globe, the art and performance program accompanying the opening of the new art installment in the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt. How would you classify what he does artistically?
It is no wonder that you’ve hardly ever seen his art; he has had very few exhibitions. But he is quite well known as a performer, and he’s extremely knowledgeable when it comes to theater and ballet. He puts together a whole program and invites friends and colleagues to dance, hold lectures, or show videos. But he also performs, of course.
He works mainly with his body. To what extent does he see himself as a political artist?
He is very political. He uses the means at his disposal to address the politics in his country, Lebanon, in a very concrete way. Despite this, he is an artist who can be understood globally. In 2010 he won the Spalding Gray Award in America, and in May he will be awarded the Jürgen Bansemer & Ute Nyssen Dramatist Prize. Rabih examines various political situations such as oppression; disappearance; cultural roots; and war, the excuses made for it,and its misery. But his work also has a private side, like revealing his own personal biography, the legacy of his grandfather’s and father’s generations, the collecting of books, reading in Arab countries. His work communicates strongly through the viewer’s experience of seeing his performance; it’s very difficult to describe. Things like the sound of his voice play a big role, the feeling when he performs. He is not as Cartesian as, say, Walid Raad ...
… whose Conceptual photography, which has made him one of Lebanon’s leading artists, addresses his country’s fate and is represented in collections like the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and Tate, London …
… and with whom he’s very good friends. There is a whole group of artists who live and work in Lebanon and who have a close relationship with one another. What Walid does with his head,Rabih maybe does with his intuition and feeling. The content is very similar.
To what extent is there a danger that art from Arab countries, and this includes Yto’s art, plays to stereotypes in the West? That is, it confirms the very images we already have in our minds?
You can easily compare Yto’s work with that of Wolfgang Tillmans, Paul Graham, or someone like Nan Goldin, all artists from the West. While Tillmans and Goldin photograph their own personal scenes, no one would ever doubt that what they do is art. Just like Yto, they’re inspired by the present day, but they always lay claim to the autonomy of the work. Yto’s art is completely readable to a Western viewer although it is deeply rooted in Moroccan culture. I think she’s an artist held in great esteem because her photography is of an exceptionally high quality. And not because she comes from North Africa.