Art In Conversation
with Osman Can Yerebakan
Yto Barrada is one of the most prolific artists working today, blurring the boundaries between different techniques, disciplines, and hierarchies in art and culture. The New York-based French-Moroccan artist’s primary material is history, with its gnarly paths and unforeseeable findings. In her expansive work, anecdotes from oral or documented pasts transform into visually haunting works stemming from meticulous research and an interdisciplinary vision. Suggesting reinterpretation of prevalent historical narratives, her work in photography, sculpture, textile, and installation challenges the ingrained approaches we maintain as methods for remembrance. Following her surveys at London’s Barbican Center and Pace Gallery in New York, Barrada is preparing for another exhibition at Aspen Art Museum this summer. Osman Can Yerebakan met with the artist at her Pace Gallery exhibition.
Osman Can Yerebakan (Rail): Your work gains a new layer in every presentation, with the meaning shifting with different curatorial strategies. For example, here at Pace Gallery, Thérèse Unit Blocks (2017) is installed in a new way. How do your current or upcoming exhibitions here, Aspen Art Museum, and Barbican Art Gallery function in terms of re-staging the work?
Yto Barrada: If I give too many explanations, the work’s not going to stay as open. The process resembles shuffling a deck of cards, almost randomly, and then trying to associate them. This exhibition is about family life. Like in Tarot, you pull the cards and read one, and in the same deck of cards, you would read something different. The Pace exhibition is a mid-career survey, including the works the gallery wants to put forward. A few works make sense in different site-specific spaces.
The gallery reserved all three floors for the same exhibition for the first time, still I tried to make sense of their individual histories and played with the relationship between them. I chose works from the After Stella (2018) series for the second floor, but I could have put them on the African Art floor since the work is also about American Abstraction borrowing from Morocco borrowing from America. In the photography gallery, I also exhibit textiles and patterns, but connect them with abstraction in my documentary images of Tangier, such as the vacant lot with the palm trees. (Terrain Vague Nº 4, 2009). Parallel to the dialogue between the galleries is also the association between recent ruins and older ruins—ruins of tourism like the empty swimming pool and Morocco’s construction site barriers of unfinished buildings. (Piscine du Parc Donabo and Palissade de chantier, both 2009)
With my new excitement for the art of dyeing, I made all these new striped pieces during the installation and smuggled them into the show. Still, it feels like there was no map in the beginning, which created new associations. We put all the cards on the table and played with chance. Each time I give a tour, I would tell different stories. I initially said, I’m not going to put my grandmother’s story next to my mother’s and my family photos. Someone said, “No, this would work well.” I thought, “that’s completely ridiculous, it’s not going to work,” but I stayed open.
Rail: The process is similar to a puzzle.
Barrada: Indeed. We tried to play with the cards, which always said different things; however, some things fit as if they were planned. This is where there’s a “yay!” effect. The Family Tree (2005) print is abstract imagery, but it’s a family photograph. It fits with the projection of my new film, Tree Identification for Beginners. These kinds of surprise connections follow me around. I was a bit tired of working on the history of Morocco—Renoir has an expression for that: “crisis of anti-naturalism.” With immigration and urban development, the news started to be heavy, so I thought, “Let’s work on Morocco in a new way and look for dinosaurs!” So, I worked on a project about dinosaurs. I never thought digging dinosaurs had to do with family history. When I told my dad I was looking for forgers in one of the capitals for dinosaur fossils in Morocco, he wrote me a letter, in which he said he was a fake soldier in that city. He had many fake identities as a leader of the left to escape Morocco. He dressed as a woman and as a Jew to pass the border, but he also spent fifteen years looking for his father who was assassinated and never found the body. My father looked for fifteen years for the body of his father! So, I’m working on bones and diggers, thinking I’m going very far, but…
Rail: Historic figures who either influenced the course of our collective or your personal history make appearances in various works. I’m curious what sort of intricacy goes into researching about these people regardless of how controversial their actions were. What’s the responsibility of making art inspired by a public figure? For example, Thérèse Rivière or Hubert Lyautey, Morocco’s first French Resident-General.
Barrada: I don’t really choose them; I look for forms. Lyautey brought certain traditions and crafts to Morocco. I’m interested in his way of inventing traditions, especially around today’s discussions on identity issues. Many things we take for being authentic Moroccan are recent inventions. Tea came to Morocco because the English had a huge stock they had to get rid of in Gibraltar. They traded it and we became tea drinkers. I’m interested in looking for forms with these stories and ambiguous figures. Lyautey is a sort of untouchable; he was a military, he was an inspiration for Proust’s Baron de Charlus. He was gloriously gay as a monarchist in the French Republic, but also an elegant figure who protected the arts and crafts of Morocco.
Rail: In a flamboyant, dandy way?
Barrada: Very flamboyant. I like to play with the sacred, which you don’t mess with. I made a series of collages from quotes he made, because he had a sense of what the legacy he was going to leave. His idea of Morocco was through monarchy and archaic thinking. The modern Berber carpets with bright colors, for example, never made it into his inventory of arts, so I made a piece with all the Berber carpets he dismissed for being too bright and modern. I’ll be showing fifty carpets in Aspen.
Rail: Could you talk about your interest in creating your own dyes?
Barrada: Messy—but I’m interested in making and learning at the same time, so as I look for form, I educate myself to find ways. I did the blocks piece about Lyautey for his intervention in the modernization of Casablanca and the beginning of inventions of urbanism in Morocco in the 1920s. Casablanca was to be a lab for the rest of Morocco, where he tried to invent a new city to absorb the migrant workers and get rid of the slums. It seems like a contemporary subject in modern Morocco, but this goes back to the beginning of the century. That’s why I made a game with giant colorful unit blocks. It’s in The Met’s collection.
Rail: Tree Identification for Beginners (2017) chronicles your mom’s visit to America at a young age with Operation Crossroads Africa, based on her and others’ reports on her behavior.
Barrada: Specifically to New York. The first comment on my mom’s report in the story is about her tactfulness, which seemed to matter very much for Operation Crossroads Africa. Her recollection of her trip vis-à-vis the reports and the expectations from her hosts and herself after a seven-week trip are very interesting. She’s always out of place. She’s working class, and the kids are all richer than her. She’s a socialist; they aren’t. It’s around the turbulent summer of 1966 with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The leader of the left in Morocco was just assassinated. She’s an angry and militant, but knowledgable twenty-three-year-old.
Rail: I believe your understanding of form emanates simultaneously from multiple channels of inspiration.
Barrada: Looking for forms I think is something quite strong on this second floor with both simplicity and complexity. The stripes in After Stella, Tangier I (2018) obviously have to do with [Frank] Stella, but then again, not completely. They’re also about the Moroccan farmers, and my city with red and white. That’s why it’s called Tangier. Stella did not do every Moroccan city, so I added Tangier and Casablanca.
Rail: Which is interesting because he skipped the biggest ones.
Barrada: He was on a honeymoon. He did the imperial cities like Marrakesh and Fes. He also went to Sidi Ifni, so he probably went all south later. I don’t really know—the facts are not essential.
Rail: Is dealing with limitations crucial?
Barrada: I like the constraint of having to make a piece with whatever is available. That’s one rule at the studio.
Rail: Children’s language and their perspective of the world help you tackle hefty issues. Does childish innocence or limited perception soften your statements or make them more accessible?
Barrada: I don’t find them innocent, I find them more brutal. “That’s a fat man,” “Mama you look bad!”
Rail: And, they don’t stop staring on the subway. But again, their aesthetic is not brutal.
Barrada: I’m not trying to soften anything. I don’t like traumatization, but prefer dramatization. I don’t mind talking about death, or killing animals, or my mother. I made a film called Hand-Me-Downs (2011) about my mother’s family story and one trauma she has until today. We always heard she was afraid of water, so the film’s about drowning in Michigan. The other one was about having to bring a cat skeleton home because she wanted to get a good grade in science. The teacher said, “Bring an animal,” meaning an insect. My mother thought she had to be pushed as a girl to be the best among her ten siblings. She thought, “Let’s bury the cat to get the bones.” I completely understand you can do that as a kid. I’ve always collected children’s drawings. Klee and Kandinsky also did the same. Take Bataille as a place where you have ethnography, kids’ drawing, literature, architecture, and African art. His short-lived magazine Documents had all of these different things together. I think that’s a good picture of the extent of possible associations that make sense.
Rail: Of everything?
Barrada: Not of everything, but of these different things that work together. Children’s drawings, historically, started to be interesting after the changes in education when playing with something was accepted as a part of growing up. The work in the African galleries connects with kids before corruption by society, similar to the avant-garde’s attraction to primitive art because it was unspoiled. I also put something very primitive: an installation of Coca Cola bottles made in fossil and sold to tourists in Morocco. Found primitivism or capitalist primitivism.
Rail: You use textile to approach certain issues. The After Stella series, for example, runs deeper than beautifully tranquil patterns paying homage to Stella. How do you balance the meaning and aesthetic?
Barrada: I just give myself homework in a very simple way. For a very long time in the history of art making, new wasn’t something you had to do, you had to copy. Very recently the idea of novelty became interesting. For ages people just copied.
Rail: They studied what came earlier.
Barrada: Yes, and they studied and copied for hundreds of years. What I do is simply creating pigments, I’m making colors from natural resources: food scraps, dead flowers… I’m reading William Morris’s The Art of Dyeing and many other witchcraft books. As I’m making these colors, people ask me what I will do with all this fabric, and I have no idea. I offered to make a curtain for Performa for my film installation including the inside of the curtain with stripes. The red and white stripes are a symbol of Tangier.
Rail: The collage series about Moroccan terra cotta tiles from 2013 contains this interest in color but also in Islamic geometry.
Barrada: This is an unfinished open piece for all pieces existing in tiles in Morocco to create very complicated zellige motifs that we imagine had inspired Stella. The real tiles are made by kids in Morocco because they have small hands. I’m just taking back —”reappropriating”— something Stella borrowed. I’m just taking back something he liked. It’s not really an homage to anybody; I just thought, “You think stripes belong to you?” Similar to Buren—does he think he owns stripes? Moroccan artists in the ’60s also started working with bright paint and shapes. The last Marrakech Biennale emphasized the first Casablancan school of painters from the same generation with Stella and African American artists like Al Loving or Sam Gilliam. It was amazing to see the relationship between artists working with textiles, including Moroccans borrowing from Western canons to make art, and African Americans using textile and colors with more raw materials.
Rail: In this direction, you make work about how others made art with abstract geometry. How about geometric form, which is important for Arab art and architecture?
Barrada: Klee said his path to abstraction came from his trip to North Africa. The breadth of abstraction has to do with many different things. For some it’s spiritual, and for others, it’s after the war. You turn your back on representing reality when reality is a monster. The rejection of the trauma of the wars is one element. [Kazimir] Malevich is spiritual. Different movements all have different perceptions of what abstraction is and why we should even use it as a form of transcendence.
Rail: You can contemplate.
Barrada: You can just work without thinking. Stripes take different forms, turning into snakes or avenues—they can be flags or sunshine. The idea behind Tree Identification for Beginners is about me learning how to recognize American trees. I was miserable in New York!
Rail: Upstate has amazing foliage.
Barrada: Just here in the street, you ask people the name of a tree and nobody knows any names. I live in a place where there’re a few trees in the street, so I am curious where this variety comes from. It was very interesting to learn as I’m foraging plants to work with dyes and picking up things in the street. I realized in the Montessori education, you had all of this grammar of shapes; there’s the simple circle, the square, or the triangle, and kids used to learn all the leaves. My way of training myself for the film was similar. During the entire work on the film’s animation, I only learned four of the leaves names out of fifty. Artist Steve Cossman, who runs a school for cinema called Mono No Aware here in New York, was with me as the film’s DP and animator.
Rail: What is in the film’s core?
Barrada: One thing running through the whole show is celebration of disobedience, but also being a self-taught autodidact. Think of situations of domination, or situations where you become the idiot if you can’t read. My grandma, for example, lived in a family where everybody spoke French because they went to French school by accident. She never said a word of French ever in her life. That was her way of saying “I disagree.” I’m very interested in what anthropologists call hidden transcripts. You have to show up at work when you’re in a situation of domination. Being a subaltern doesn’t mean you’re not going to spit into the soup before you serve it for dinner. It’s all about how you keep your job while keeping your head up, too. Subversion’s something I grew up with, My mom disobeys.
Rail: We see that in the film.
Barrada: She hasn’t changed—she’s full of panache.
Rail: Let’s talk about How to Do Nothing With Nobody All Alone By Yourself as an exhibition title. Does the namesake book target children?
Barrada: It’s an adult book from 1958 that gives ideas about things to do with kids or to teach them. It’s not directly for kids. I chose it for the poetry and the title because it’s not about nothing. When you ask the kid “Where were you?” He says, “Nowhere, just right outside.” “What were you doing?” “Nothing.” We all know you don’t do nothing when you’re outside.
Rail: Exhibition titles are integral parts of your shows. Are they personal choices without contextual ties? The title of the Aspen Art Museum exhibition, Klaatu Barrada Nikto, is a phrase from the 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still.
Barrada: Whoever wrote the script borrowed my name! In the film, they have to say, “Klaatu barada nikto” to stop the robot from destroying the earth. For Agadir at the Barbican, I not only borrowed the title from Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s book, but had most of it translated and had actors read from it. The whole show circulated around disobedience stories based on experiences of the bureaucrat sent to do his homework but failing to do so. The actors from the Guildhall Drama School played different characters. It’s a very interesting arena where all these people comment and discuss questions my mother could be debating in the ’60s in the post-independence construction of Morocco. They were talking about reconstructing this city, but it’s not about reconstruction. It’s about reinventing yourself after a loss. It’s a celebration of being the autodidact while you can always bounce, sidestep, and look in the other direction. Thérèse Rivière started a fanzine when she was in the psychiatric hospital.
Rail: What was the fanzine about?
Barrada: Life at the hospital. She asked for food. It’s horrible. All she wanted was honey. They were starving her. Many people were starving in hospitals at the time, especially in psychiatric wards. I’ll get back to her because this is an unfinished story. I have a show at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, where I’m planning to do everything about Thérèse. She was a wonderful photographer with around 3,000 images. When my collaborator Noëmi Bablet was going through the archives, she said, “She found the Grand Socco in Tangier. She took pictures of the flower market. This is crazy!” She kept thinking about the parallel between me and her, our common interests. I played with that in the show I had in the Pompidou Center. I authorized myself to invent.
Rail: You see an immense connection between her and yourself?
Barrada: That’s why it’s called Suite for Thérèse Rivière. I borrowed this title from another book about Barbara Loden’s Wanda by Nathalie Léger. In that film, there’s duality. Barbara Loden reads a story about a woman who’s been condemned, who does a holdup with her boyfriend, and during the court case accepts going to jail for twenty years. Without much information, she decides to create the character of Wanda. It’s a mixture of biography and what she read in the newspaper. She invents it by putting Barbara in Wanda. That’s what I did with Thérèse. I don’t know a lot about her because of limited information, but I authorized myself to make up things and pieces around what I imagined about her. The short film I made, Ether Reveries, is the anagram of her name.
Rail: I’d like to ask you about the duality of romanticizing politicized geographies. In your case, this geography is Morroco, a land romanticized and also politicized by the West. How do you balance this binary without overtness?
Barrada: You tell me. That’s for the viewer to see. [Laughs.] I put pink everywhere and remind everybody it’s a boy color, not a girl’s color. It’s too violent, pink. It was reserved for boys until the beginning of the 20th century. I had a teacher in school who used to say, “You’re confused.” You’d go, “Yeah, I’m confused.” He would say, “Good.” [Laughter.] If we can add complexity to binary approaches, then good.
Rail: And have both things get mixed up.
Barrada: Joan Jonas came to see the show. She sat, saw the whole film and at the end said, “They’re very complex stories.” I still don’t know if she meant it as a good thing. I think she did because she went to see the Performa show, then went to see the Barbican show, and came here. I tried to bring back oral tradition of stories at the Barbican for the Curve commission. Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine tried to tell the story of Agadir in such an eruptive way that there’s anger. There are a lot of different hybrid forms in that book. It’s composite, not linear at all—it’s a collage. You’re in the beginning and something eruptive happens, then there’s a landslide. The metaphor of reconstruction is also about what you decide. How do you rebuild? I find it important to emphasize orality since we come from oral cultures. You can’t simplify something that goes in every direction. Agadir was the Miami of Morocco, built with its back to the beach as a vitrine for the French, not for the local population.
Rail: Does the work touch upon the idea of tourism through a colonial perspective?
Barrada: Do we rebuild the city exactly as it was before or make it a completely anew so nobody has any memory of its previous state? Architecture and urban questions serve as questions of identity, of representation.
Rail: The popular term “mining the archive” reflects your process, yet you avoid showing archival imagery.
Barrada: My job is to look for different forms rather than existing availability. Having worked for fifteen years at Arab Image Foundation and the Cinémathèque de Tanger, I can resist the archive’s seduction. I used found footage in my last film and I love it, but I thought that was my comfort zone to get out of. The research methodology puts me in contact with a lot of documents. For me, the archive is bigger, it’s not just the historical archive, it’s the family archive. I am the guardian of the family archive; my family photographs are at the Arab Image Foundation. I didn’t feel authorized to use them for a long time. I thought it was an unwritten rule at the Arab Image Foundation for a while.
Rail: Tree Identification for Beginners is about America for the American audience. Living here in Brooklyn in 2018, how do you associate with the young version of your mom in 1966?
Barrada: The first thing she writes in her application is her interest in understanding why the unions are apolitical. [Laughs.] And to be precise about what she’s expecting from America, she says she wants to eat well. [Laughs.] Does that answer your question?
Barrada: I’m starving, to put it simply. I’ve gained weight, but I’m really starving here. I miss my home food. I’ve been to Moroccan restaurants in Astoria.
Rail: There’s the maquette of Ciné Alcazar on the seventh floor. How did being the artistic director of the Cinémathèque influence your artistic practice?
Barrada: I was the director for ten years. Now, I’m the head of the board. After giving the cinema ten years, I’m taking ten years back now trying to focus on my own work. Working on film archive is porous. That’s why there’s no fetishizing of history or the archive. I had the treasures in my hand. I could just show them. The cinema is one of my art projects, but requires a lot of administration. There aren’t many of those small cinemas.
Rail: The culture of cinema is in a way an embodiment of this nostalgia. Watching films from a culture or a country is revisiting its past, or being part of its nostalgia.
Barrada: Tangier is a place people say has invented a strange feeling of nostalgia, even for people who didn’t know how it was before. That feeling exists, but I don’t have any. I’m interested in the challenges of working with the government today, with my governor today.
Rail: I love the aesthetic in the Autocar series (2004) and your ability to infuse resonance to the mundane beyond visible in addition to beauty of the geometry.
Barrada: The work was about questioning representations at that time, and I think it’s still valid today. Many artists scratched their heads about how to represent what was happening. The Strait of Gibraltar had become a Moroccan cemetery at some point. I was working and living in a country where everybody wanted to get out. The story of dispossession for me is how you build a country after independence if everyone wants to be on the other side. It coincides with the closure of the border by the Europeans. The kids figured it out, of course. Everybody knows everywhere in the world that you can’t close the border. You just die more. The Americans know that, too. At a moment when I was teaching with two other photographers, I made a book called Fais un fils et jette-le à la mer [If You Have a Son and Throw Him into the Sea]—it’s a Moroccan proverb which means if you have a boy, he’s going to be strong. Don’t worry, throw him in the ocean, meaning many of the kids go because of their families, because they need to provide for the rest of the family. I worked with street kids and illegal immigrant teenagers in France and Tangier for two years. But working with them, I started working on remapping the city. That’s one of the activities we did with all their knowledge on how to make money: digging tombs for the Christians, selling plastic bags, picking the bags at the marketplace. One day they said they wanted to go to Europe to see snow, and I said let’s go, get in the car. I organized the trip, and we went to see the mountains.
Rail: Very Guy Debord. Where did you go?
Barrada: In the end, we decided not to go. We went to the Rif, but there was no snow. During that trip one day I was driving, and they kept telling me that my bag was too open, and someone was going to steal my money. And so I played a joke on them. I told them I lost all the money for the trip, and they said, “What do we do?” They made a whole economy of everything. I just wanted to know if they were okay. They got really pissed off when they found out that I didn’t lose my bag, but their strategies of visual awareness fascinated me. I see a lot of details others don’t because I’m a photographer, because I’m an artist. I see strange things. But when I’m with kids and in special situations, because they were illiterate, their acuity, their ears and eyes really outperformed mine. And I thought, for me it was a great school. So that’s when they told me about these drops, the different shapes. That’s what they called among themselves. One day, they said the red drop. I said, “What’s the red drop?” They said, “The red drop is the bus.” “And the blue stripes. What’s the blue stripes?” “It’s the other bus.” So, I wrote them down, and when that workshop was finished, I went back and took the photos. A long time later, I printed them. When I was a political science student, I took a photo class in Paris. In that evening class, my first photo teacher, Claire Comte, would send us to the tourist buses to learn how to do good slide exposure. We only did bus slides. So, it’s also an homage to Claire, my first photo teacher.
Rail: There’s so much to this work.
Barrada: But you don’t need to know any of this. The caption gives you all the information. I mean that’s why there’s a little detailed caption. I have long captions, but the tension between art and information is I think what makes it interesting.
Rail: Speaking of information, how does research determine the work?
Barrada: Not heavily. I’m a very dilettante researcher. If I get stuck and don’t find the information, I’m not going to spend the whole time stuck. I’ll turn the page and work on another thing or just stop there and make up. I’m a hard worker with a drive, but there’s no pain.
Rail: There’s also a very manual aspect, like the dye you make for textiles. What is the relationship between this manual, physical part of making things and the part of researching, reading, and turning the page?
Barrada: I don’t work on a computer. I like books for their physicality. I’m a collector of tons of trash. My favorite places are flea markets. My mom took me to flea markets when I was a kid, and what we liked was the hunt, not the find.