In Paris, a Spotlight on Morocco’s Contemporary Art by Joseph Nechvatal on January 21, 2015

PARIS — Three curators, Jean-Hubert Martin (who last year orchestrated the sprawlingThéâtre du Monde show), Moulim El Aroussi, and Mohamed Métalsi, have assembled a vast, 2,500-square-meter (~27,000 sq. ft.) show of contemporary aesthetics from Morocco calledContemporary Morocco at the Institut du Monde Arabe. Without a doubt they have fashioned a fruitful overview of the work of 300 contemporary artists, designers, filmmakers, and musicians. Much of the work invites examination in light of the powers of globalization and the wave of revolutions and protests that have come to be known as theArab Spring. Thus, the show highlights a combination of factors that stress the great diversity of artistic movements there. It implicitly stresses how religious and intellectual openness is part of the Moroccan tradition.

Atbane Younès “9oualab” (2013)

While the provincial aspect of some of the work at times reminded me of nightmare BFA studio visits, the entire exhibition succeeds in depicting a society in movement, thirsty for edgy invention, and unfettered freedom. Highlights of this huge pictorial corpus include the dynamic glowing light and sculptural installation of conical shaped sugar loafs by the visual artist and chorographer Atbane Younès called “9oualab” (2013). In a dark room, white light blinks and sweeps over a beautifully stacked pyramid of sugar loafs. These loaves have a conical form that has not changed for generations, but they retain something that has a paradoxical charge in Moroccan society. They are offered at every important event, like weddings and funerals yet represent rare spiritual value. Thus the work establishes a multiple and unified link of abstract uncertainty between mystical and trivial representation.

Najia Mehadji “Mystic Dance n°2” (2011)

There are also strong abstract paintings here, for example sweeping open gestural paintings by Najia Mehadji (that favor a penchant for contemplation and meditation) and jagged dark paintings by Abdelkébir Rabi, whose work suggested to me the rough and rocky environment of the majestic Atlas Mountains of his childhood. Also of interest were the intensely claustrophobic geometric jumbles by André Elbaz. His paintings tend to balance open forms as they dissolve and deconstruct. All three painters suggest a rich and complex openness to modernity in current Morocco, as does Nourredine Daifallah, a Moroccan calligrapher, with his intricate “Hommage à Imam Al Jazouli” (2014).

Nourredine Daifallah,“Hommage à Imam Al Jazouli” (2014)

There is a fragile and lonely sensibility in the figurative work of Imane Djamil,Safaa Mazirh, Mahi Binebine, Nour Eddine Tilsaghani, Ali Chraibi, andMehdi-Georges Lalou that is both seductive and threatening, expressing both pain and tender anticipate. Particularly strong is Mehdi-Georges Lahlou’s provocative sculpture about theKaaba, “Equilibre à la Kaaba” (2013) and the series of self-photographs by Fatima Mazmouzn, in which the pregnant artist poses as Super Oum in bikini, ski mask, cape, and sexy black boots. A woman exploding taboos.

But for me, the star of the show is 23-year-old Nadia Bensallam. Her cluster of terrific drawings powerfully portrays the ecstatic suspension of time through sex while criticizing dogmatic stances in Moroccan society — including the veil. One feels with her an intelligible emphasis on the black line, like a young Raymond Pettibon, within a general crotchety and slightly surreal erotic aesthetic. Her drawings have something about them that suggests the beautiful heights of a romantic sublime.

Nadia Bensallam, “Liaisons dangereuses” (2014)

Her startling short videoed performance about hypocrisy shows her wandering the streets of Marrakech, cheekily wearing a blasphemous and outlandish combination of high heels and black niqab with miniskirt, carrying a big cherry colored handbag. A teenaged boy eyeballs her and then pursues, shouting something, but I could barely hear what was said. Then the many women she meets in her eccentric outfit insult and curse her out.

Ali Chraibi “Sans titre, Série La Joconda” (2005)

Both Fatima Mazmouzn and Nadia Bensallam seemed to be able to capture the pertinent mood: a distinctly dark aesthetic taste that struck me by-and-large as a form of Romantic Goth that bordered on the erotic.

Abdelkébir Rabi, “Sans titre” (2011)

I know Morocco through occasional visits, and I found this overview of the current Moroccan arts scene, like Morocco itself, to be both familiar and continuously mysterious. The formal issues and conventional syntax of the work lent a mixture of recognizable technique to a reflection on, and questioning of, certain Moroccan religious and cultural traditions. That seems highly relevant in wake of the “Je suis Charlie” slogan/movement adopted by supporters of free speech and freedom of expression after the January 7th massacre at the satirical newspaperCharlie Hebdo in Paris.

The best artists in the exhibition demonstrate the blossoming role that softly subversive art plays in the life of open minded Moroccans (and all people). It is an art that reflects the diversity and fusion inherent in the history of Morocco itself. One where conventional syntax does not squash unconventionality. Thus it is fitting that a huge red sign reading “Nous sommes tous Charlie” (We are all Charlie) in Arabic and French has been placed on the facade of the Institute of the Arab World.

"Nous sommes tous Charlie" (We are all Charlie) in Arabic and French on the facade of the Institut du Monde Arabe (image courtesy IMA)

Le Maroc contemporain (Contemporary Morocco) continues at the Institut du Monde Arabe (1, rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, Place Mohammed V, 5eme, Paris) until March 1

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