A woman is lying on the bed. It is surrounded by richly decorated oriental rugs. Her gaze crosses the camera. There is something of pride in her eyes. Her skin is covered in calligraphic signs, while calligraphy in Arabic culture is really only reserved for men.
The picture Harem Revisited # 45 by the Moroccan Lalla Essaydi is reminiscent of orientalist paintings by painters such as Delacroix and Ingres. We are all familiar with the image of a harem on a sofa. This is precisely the stereotypical image that Essaydi criticizes. The picture reflects how the West looks to the east, and vice versa.
At the exhibition The second story more than a hundred works by contemporary Moroccan artists are exhibited. Morocco’s independence in 1956 is the starting point for a period that guest curator Abdelkader Benali refers to as Moroccan modernism.
Where the traditional Moroccan culture in colonial times was suppressed by the French and the Spaniards, there was a re-evaluation of its own culture with independence. On the other hand, many artists moved to the West after independence. Influences from modernist art movements, such as the Cobra movement and abstract expressionism, can be seen in the paintings of Chaïbia Talal and Jilali Gharbaoui, for example. It is this combination of modernity and traditional Moroccan values that The second story described as Moroccan modernism. The more recent works in the exhibition often respond to our current society by addressing issues such as gender inequality, migration and decolonization.
Can modernism, an umbrella term that refers to different movements, be related to a nationality? Environment and culture can influence the artist’s choice when it comes to material or object, but modernism goes beyond just what is depicted. Take, for example, the Cobra movement. The creators were mainly concerned with achieving a free form of expression, often inspired by childhood. In that sense, the paintings of the Moroccan Chaïbia Talal do not differ much from works by, for example, Corneille or Karel Appel. With these works, it is not directly about the depicted, but about the ideas with which the depicted is painted.
When it comes to the newer group of Moroccan artists on display, it is perhaps even more complex to talk about Moroccan modernism. Due to globalization, we are constantly in contact with different cultures, and artists respond to topics that are also relevant across borders.
Take work for example Where does the wind come from? by Mounir Fatmi, which is about borders. Fatmi projects a video of a phenomenal sunset on a wall-filled image. One that you immediately associate with a travel agency’s ads. The video projected on it shows ports, planes and boats. They are the possible crossing means for migrants from North Africa to Europe. Every now and then a requiem swells, giving the images a dramatic charge. Where does the wind come from? shows that the sea is a border area for some, a resort for others. That message is unfortunately not unknown and therefore the video is not very surprising. More moving is the personal letter that Fatmi wrote to American gallery owner Jane Lombard in 2017. In this letter, Fatmi explains why he can not attend his own exhibition in the United States. It had everything to do with his Moroccan passport.
Sarah Amrani’s images breathe silence. They are serene, powerful images that make you feel lonely. Two legs behind a fluttering towel. As if that man or boy will stand there forever. A woman dressed in white. You only see her back, then her shiny hair. Amrani photographed a young couple preparing for their wedding without zooming in on their feelings. It is precisely the absence of the emotions that make the images lonely. In addition to silence, there are also many works that show the chaotic, colorful sides of Morocco. You can exist is the name of Mo Baala’s work, where Baala brings a colorful world to life with felt-tip pens in her very own unique way. Camels, owls and dolphins dart across the canvas. Into the work Iman and Da Shop by Hassan Hajjaj, bright yellow cans frame a picture. Imaan Hammam, posing in the picture, disappears with his sumptuous clothes in an equally lively background. Model and environment are equal, Hajjaj seems to want to say.
IN The second story The attention is not only on the artists’ works, but also on the stories around them. The works are sometimes vulnerable, other times cheerful and sometimes a little forced. Whether one would like to classify the various works under the name Moroccan modernism can be discussed. However, it is clear that the diversity of artists and their stories together paint a multifaceted picture of the rich Moroccan culture.
A version of this article was also published in the newspaper on May 3, 2022