Yto Barrada: Riffs
The "Artist of the Year" 2011 at the Deutsche Guggenheim
The selection of Yto Barrada as “Artist of the Year” 2011 reflects equally important focuses of Deutsche Bank´s art activities: internationalism, diversity and a connection between artistic themes and social issues. With Yto Barrada, Deutsche Bank has elected a woman as "Artist of the Year" 2011 whose work has been closely involved with the political and social realities in North Africa for over a decade. The artist, who lives in Tangier, was selected on the recommendation of the Deutsche Bank Global Art Advisory Council, comprised of the curators Okwui Enwezor, Hou Hanru, Udo Kittelmann, and Nancy Spector. With the Artist of the Year award, Deutsche Bank honors young artists who have already created an extraordinary oeuvre in which works on paper or photography play an important role.
||Since the end of the 1990s, Yto Barrada’s home city of Tangier has served as the experimental and research field for her photography and video installations, sculptures, and interventions. Yto Barrada: Riffs at the Deutsche Guggenheim, the artist’s first major solo show in Germany, conveys her long-standing focus on the particular situation of Tangier, a city at the crossroads of ancient civilizations and the current era. Barrada is renowned around the world for her photographic work, which uses documentary photography to establish a completely new and distinctive kind of political art.
What is the prevailing mood in a country where the youth, in particular, longs for freedom, work, and prosperity? This question was the starting point for Barrada’s series A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project, which she began in 1998 and continued until 2004. The project engages the social and political situation in Tangier. The Strait refers to the Strait of Gibraltar between Africa and Europe. Here only 13 kilometers separate Morocco and Spain as the crow flies, yet after the Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985 and as a consequence, gave Europe a single shared border, which closed to Moroccans in 1991.
With The Strait Project, Barrada approaches the city and shows its residents imprisoned in a permanent state of waiting. The artist developed a photographic sensibility that deals with the ephemeral and the peripheral. She does not show dramatic events, desperate people, or acts of violence, but rather little-noticed, unspectacular aspects of urban life: fallow areas, half-finished settlements on the outskirts of town, factory halls, postered walls, remnants of vegetation, playing children, and time and again, figures who have turned their backs to the camera. In her Belvedere series (2001) in the Deutsche Bank Collection, people on a quay wall look out at the open sea—a motif that recalls romantic landscape painting, as well as the desires and deferred expectations of those portrayed.
Barrada was born in France in 1971 and grew up in Tangier and Paris, where she studied history and political science at the Sorbonne. Subsequently she attended the International Center of Photography in New York. Thus, she took the photographs for her Strait Project in a privileged and paradoxical situation. Unlike most of her compatriots, Barrada could freely enter and leave Morocco and view the country from the perspective of both an insider and an outsider. As a result, her work not only focuses on Tangier residents’ yearning to find work and wealth in Europe but also on the Eurocentric view of North Africa.
The image of Morocco in the Western media is characterized by exoticism. This myth of hippies, drugs, and fantastical architecture comprising the epitome of permissive Oriental culture still prevails. Actually Morocco, and particularly the coast near Tangier, is the center of a gigantic tourism industry that is creating a new version of Spain’s Costa del Sol. While global society is becoming increasingly touristy and is marked by a continuing shift in cultural and national identities, a large part of the population in Tangier is not only subject to travel restrictions, but has also fallen victim to the devastation left behind by the tourist boom and the construction industry connected with it.
In the series Iris Tingitana (2007) and Red Walls (2006), Barrada deals with the environmental destruction as well as the ecological monoculture and social homogenization of the city and its natural surroundings. Applying the same sensitivity with which she encounters the people in her pictures, she devotes herself to seemingly random details that usually do not attract much attention, such as the interplay between vacant lots and building walls or the configuration of passersby, moving cars, or construction scaffolding, in her photographs of natural landscapes and architecture. In Barrada’s work, the city and the landscape can be a state or a sign, fact or fiction.
While Barrada’s crystal-clear pictures of dilapidated Club Méditeranée hotels, abandoned parking lots, solitary palm trees in freshly built lots, and the Rif mountain range convey a certain hardness, they simultaneously stimulate the viewer’s imagination: "What interests me is the gesture of disobedience," she said in a 2009 interview with Nafas Art Magazine. "It contains the perspective for an action. We’ve occupied this interesting position between poetry and politics. This is the place at which I want to work. I convey information but I’m not a journalist. I convey poetic things but I’m not a poet. My work is situated in the periphery of these areas." In her photographs, Barrada does not elevate herself above the photographic subject, but instead shows Tangier and the people who reside there from a familiar and respectful perspective. The artist also investigates collective pictorial memory, the disappearance of photographic and filmic memory, and the increasing homogenization of visual culture. And she responded to these developments with a concrete action: In 2005, she cofounded the Cinémathèque de Tanger and has been its director ever since.
Her commitment to cinema resonates in the title of the Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition: Yto Barrada: Riffs. The subtitle Riffs alludes to both distinct musical variations, especially found in jazz, rock, and pop, as well as to the Cinéma Rif in Tangier, which houses the cinematheque, and the mountain range of the same name near the city, whose rare flora is becoming increasingly endangered. In the museum’s studio, exhibition visitors can view a series of films including Beau Geste (2009), which shows a team hired by the artist tending, in an act of guerilla gardening, an ailing palm tree that is to be removed for a construction project.
The "illegal" action takes place in broad daylight, and Barrada captures comments made by passersby. She not only makes an environmental statement, but also addresses the possibility that this almost hopeless endeavor to save the tree will fail, heightening awareness of the danger of natural and social habitats falling victim to rampant real-estate speculation. Just as her photos can be read as a reflection of reality and as a metaphor for a social state, the palm-tree motif that recurs in her work is ambiguous: It symbolizes exoticism and longing, a sign of standardized, urban green areas and an existential expression of the will to survive.
The sculpture Palm Sign (2010) takes the form of the cartoon silhouette of a palm tree illuminated by light bulbs. Robust and resistant, palm trees provide a minimum of plant life in an otherwise environmentally devastating construction process. This dialectic approach can also be found in other works by the artist. Gran Royal Turismo (2003), which calls to mind a model landscape for miniature railroads, is a scathing parable of the gentrification of Morocco. Whenever the three toy cars of official visitors drive past certain points, the countryside pipes up: Mini palms sprout up, red carpets roll out over the roadway, facades are refurbished, and Moroccan flags wave in the wind. After the cars have passed, the hubbub is over. Everything folds up again. Riffs provides a challenging, complex picture of today’s Morocco, arousing viewers’ compassion and perhaps even changing the way they think and act. Barrada is an activist, and her work is always determined by a constant: solidarity with the weak, the fragile, the people threatened with disappearance.
Deutsche Bank presents the "Artist of the Year" 2011
Yto Barrada: Riffs
April 15 – June 19, 2011