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Billed as the “first exhibition in the United States devoted exclusively to contemporary art of the Maghreb and the Maghrebi diaspora,” Memory, Place, Desire: Contemporary Art of the Maghreb and Maghrebi Diaspora is the culmination of a year-long series of events and programs that took place during 2014 at Haverford College. Initiated by Visiting Associate Professor Carol Solomon, the program included an undergraduate curatorial praxis seminar (spring 2014), two Mellon-funded artists’ residencies (March 2014), an exhibition at Haverford’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery (fall 2014), and a fully illustrated catalogue. Solomon curated the two-month-long exhibition in collaboration with her seminar students, who worked on every component, including writing each of the thirteen catalogue entries, working alongside the gallery’s staff to install the show, coordinating the publication, and giving public tours. These students also worked with Mustapha Akrim and Mohamed El baz during their March residencies at the college, where the two artists produced new work, some of which was included in the exhibition. In the catalogue, the student-authored texts are accompanied by Solomon’s introduction and brief contributions by Nadira Laggoune-Aklouche, Farid Zahi, and Rachida Triki, three critics and curators who live and work in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, respectively.
Memory, Place, Desire exhibited the work of thirteen artists who either live in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—three countries usually grouped, along with Libya and Mauritania, under the moniker “Maghreb”—or who identify as part of its significant diasporas, which are concentrated in Europe, North America, and the Middle East. As Solomon explains in the introduction, even this appellation is complex and subject to critique, and the curatorial focus on the themes of memory, place, and desire provides a way to foreground the region’s diversity and multiplicity (10). Such a focus is necessary, she argues, because despite the burgeoning attention to contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in exhibitions, criticism, auctions, and the academy, the countries that line the southwestern shores of the Mediterranean are frequently overlooked in favor of—or lumped uniformly together with—their neighbors farther east. Solomon’s critique of how the Maghreb has been marginalized or entirely excluded from studies of African, Middle Eastern, and European art is crucial, as is her emphasis on the “historical, cultural, and socio-political realities” that comprise the Maghreb’s diversity (10). Moreover, the works on display testify to how this diversity manifests in the media and subject matter employed by artists across the Maghreb. They range from the use of video in works by Kader Attia, Zoulikha Bouabdellah, El baz, mounir fatmi, and Younès Rahmoun, and color photography, as in Yto Barrada’s well-known, Tangier-themed series, A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project (1998–2004), to the painted canvases of eL Seed, Driss Ouadahi, and Zakaria Ramhani that hover between figuration and abstraction.
By presenting this cross-section of contemporary art, Memory, Place, Desire is an exhibition that seeks to circulate a different set of narratives about the region and to insist on the determinant role that art and artists play in Maghrebi history and society (11). Implicitly at stake, then, is the task—essential to my mind—of taking these artists and artworks out of the clichéd image repertoires of terrorism and tourism, Orientalism and clandestine migration that so stubbornly dominate representations of the Maghreb in the United States and Western Europe. As Solomon notes, some of these works walk this thin and slippery line: “Where the exhibition ventures into the territory of Neo-Orientalist representation and the discourse of the veil (as in the works of Zoulikha Bouabdellah and Hassan Hajjaj), it rejects reductive stereotypes” (11). But given their exhibition in the United States, where the veil is often invoked as a sign of the repression of Muslim women, it is hard not to wonder whether these works by Hajjaj and Bouabdellah—both of which feature attractive, made-up, and veiled women in positions of partial or full recline—venture too far into the territory of Neo-Orientalism to contest or reject this particularly intransigent stereotype. (The debate about the veil is as varied as it is contentious. For an excellent analysis, see Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 [September 2002]: 783–90. On Neo-Orientalism in contemporary art from Morocco, see my “Differential Treatment: Migration in the Work of Bouchra Khalili and Yto Barrada,” Journal of Arabic Literature 46, nos. 2–3 [forthcoming 2015].)
Memory, Place, Desire’s focus on the region’s multiplicity highlights the broader challenge of curating an exhibition whose contours are determined more by geography than by a central problematic, whether aesthetic, political, or historical. That the Maghreb is simultaneously part of what are arguably the two most misrepresented spaces in the world—Africa and the so-called Arab World—compounds the difficulty of mounting such an exhibition. So, too, does the formally divergent group of works selected, which makes situating each in the individual context of the work’s production and the artist’s trajectory a daunting task. Solomon’s introduction does provide some much-needed context for the current status of contemporary art and its institutions in the Maghreb, and the texts by Laggoune-Aklouche, Zahi, and Triki further this approach. All three authors have long been significant voices in North Africa’s contemporary art worlds, but because they typically write in French and/or Arabic for publications that circulate primarily in North Africa and Western Europe, their work has heretofore been less accessible in North America. Thus, their inclusion here marks an important introduction not only to the artistic communities described in each text, but also to the work of these critics and curators. From different perspectives, their short essays describe the state of contemporary art in each of the countries in question to indicate, however briefly, the different dialogues in which Maghrebi artists are currently engaged as well as the challenges they face. Laggoune-Aklouche frames contemporary Algerian art with reference to the post-civil war era, noting the “constant motion” of Algerian arts and culture since 2003 (13). She provides an overview of the many different art spaces, organizations, and institutions, including the relatively recent addition of A.R.I.A. (Artist Residency in Algiers), initiated in 2012 by artist Zineb Sedira. Although not included here, Sedira’s own videos and installations, which reflect on ways in which memory and language transform history and identity across generations and oceans, would have been a powerful complement to Rahmoun’s meditative and (re)generative Habba (2008) or the smears and traces made visible in Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s Study (3) for Berlin à fleur de peau (2009).
Zahi similarly alights on a generational change in Morocco in the shift from the postcolonial modernists, a group that largely comprised abstract painters, to the contemporary generation, including three from the exhibition’s roster: Rahmoun, fatmi, and El baz. For Zahi, the primary concerns of the latter generation center on questions of identity and freedom of expression. And indeed, these issues have become all the more pressing in Morocco in recent years as the nation moves to acknowledge officially its Amazigh (Berber) and Jewish minorities at the same time that censorship and self-censorship remain widespread, a problematic eloquently foregrounded by Akrim’s concrete sculpture, Article 25 (2) (Arabic Version) (2014), included in the exhibition. Absent from Zahi’s discussion, however, is any indication of what might explain the generational shift that he sees beginning in the late 1990s. To my mind, this change should be understood in the context of the social and political transformations brought about during the 1990s, a decade bookmarked by the beginning of the end of the “years of lead” and the 1999 ascension of King Mohammed VI—an avid art collector—to the Moroccan throne.
Like Zahi, Triki raises the issue of freedom and notes a shift away from painting in Tunisia over the last decade. Although Triki and Zahi are right to note a general move from painting and toward photography, video, and installation in much contemporary art from the region, particularly that which has the greatest international market exposure, the inclusion of three large canvases by eL Seed, Ouadahi, and Ramhani suggests that, despite its association with both colonial art education and the first generation of postcolonial artists, painting continues to resonate for certain artists. Significantly but only briefly, Triki mentions globalization and the very real problems—structural and fiscal—with which artists in Tunisia (as in Algeria and Morocco) must grapple, namely, the small local audiences and the difficulty of funding their work. As with the other texts, it is regrettable that their length precludes a more detailed analysis of these fundamental issues.
Three questions linger. What unites this formally diverse collection of works other than the artists’ shared biographical roots in the Maghreb? What links these thirteen artists and three countries artistically and art historically? And, to what extent are artists from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia in conversation with each other? While the authors hint at some possible answers to these questions in brief mentions of art spaces and organizations in the region that create trans-regional dialogue, it seems important to note here that factors like historical tensions and the expense of traveling between Maghrebi countries render exchange—both political and artistic—among countries difficult. For example, while Moroccans and Algerians do not need visas currently to travel between countries, the border between the two countries has been officially closed since 1994, meaning that unless one wishes to cross clandestinely, travelers must fly between countries. At the same time, although there are cultural platforms devoted to the entire MENA region as well as European cultural organizations like the Goethe Institut and the Institut français that fund programs to bridge their respective home countries with institutional outposts in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, there is no dedicated trans-Maghreb visual arts funding.
In spite of—or perhaps in light of—these questions, from conception to execution Memory, Place, Desire is an exciting invitation to debate these and other questions crucial to the making, exhibiting, and historicizing of contemporary art from the Maghreb and its diaspora. It challenges readers to consider how this art circulates, how its histories are and will be written, by and for whom. Attentive to the region’s multiplicity and eschewing a single thematic orientation in favor of the ever-capacious terms of memory, place, and desire, the exhibition opens these artworks to multiple interpretations and new audiences. Taking the risk of privileging diversity and complexity, Memory, Place, Desire adopts an approach that should be encouraged, even when it does not facilitate a neat curatorial or art-historical narrative.
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, Northwestern University
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