Yto Barrada: The 2011 “Artist of the Year” awarded the Abraaj Group Art Prize

The Abraaj Group Art Prize is one of the most important awards for contemporary art from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. The prize, endowed with 100,000 US dollars, enables the selected artist to carry out an ambitious project. Now, with Yto Barrada, Deutsche Bank’s 2011 “Artist of the Year” has been honored with this renowned prize.
For over a decade now, Yto Barrada has been intensively investigating the social realities in her native country of Morocco. In 2011, as Deutsche Bank's “Artist of the Year,” she showed the exhibition Riffs at the Deutsche Guggenheim, today the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. Following its premiere in Berlin, the show made guest appearances in WIELS, Brussels; the Renaissance Society, Chicago; the IKON Gallery in Birmingham; and the Museo d’arte contemporanea Roma (MACRO), Rome. The exhibition tour ended in 2013 at the Fotomuseum Winterthur. An entire floor in the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt is dedicated to the artist’s work.

Barrada’s photo and film works, which are both poetic and politically motivated, have now won over the jury of the Abraaj Group Art Prize, as well. The jury includes, among others, Art Dubai director Antonia Carver and Jessica Morgan, curator of the current Gwangju Biennial and new director of the Dia Art Foundation. The award was initiated in 2008 by the Abraaj Group, which is comprised of leading private equity investors across Asia and the Arab countries. The work Barrada will be realizing with the award money will be presented in March of 2015 in an exhibition at Art Dubai. On view, too, will be the works of the other three artists nominated for the prize: Setareh Shahbazi, Mounira Al Solh, and Sarnath Banerjee, works of whom are also part of the Deutsche Bank Collection.
The fact that Yto Barrada has been awarded this renowned prize is also a recognition for Deutsche Bank’s art program and the “Artist of the Year” award, which particularly supports artists addressing social questions in an innovative way. For Barrada, it’s the Moroccan coastal city of Tangier that serves as her artistic field of experimentation and research for photo and video installations, sculptures, and interventions. Barrada is renowned 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 examines 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, Europe received a single shared border that was then closed to Moroccans in 1991.

With The Strait Project, Barrada addresses the city and portrays its residents imprisoned in a permanent state of waiting. The artist has 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 do not usually attract much attention, such as the interplay between vacant lots and building walls or the configuration of passersby, moving cars, and 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 resonated 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, some of her films were on view, 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, and everything folds up again. The artist 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 and fragile, people threatened with disappearance.