Thursday, March 29, 2012

Yto Barrada Exhibition in Chicago : Photos of the Moroccan Riff

Here is an article from the Chicago Tribune about a photo exhibition by Moroccan artist Yto Barrada at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Her photos focus on post-colonial Tangier. The Renaissance Society has a few other Morocco related events connected with the exhibit such as lectures about Tangier and a discussion on the Arab Spring. If you're in Chi-town, you should consider a visit.

Several sides to Barrada photos:

Renaissance Society exhibit offers a look into Moroccan family

March 28, 2012|By Lori Waxman, Speical to the Tribune

Two peculiar photographs face one another across the gallery in "Riffs," Yto Barrada's quietly mesmerizing solo exhibition at the Renaissance Society. In one, round, rectangular red stains fade against the whorls of wood grain. In the other, familiar clusters of faint gray hexagons mark a dirty white surface.

The images are odd in and of themselves, but they are odder still given the dozens of photographs that surround them, pictures of solidly present people and places. An enormous strangler fig tree, the ruins of a famous villa, a tawny child riveted by a perched dragonfly, a picture-perfect view of the Rif Mountains, a building engulfed in the graphic lines of blue scaffolding, all of them fragmentary but undeniable glimpses of life in globalized Tangier, in post-colonial Morocco.

Barrada, who won the Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year Award in 2011, makes her Midwest museum debut with "Riffs," a selection of work from 1996 to 2011, including photographs, films and a text installation. She was born in 1971 to Moroccan parents in Paris, grew up in Tangier, returned to Paris to study political science as a teenager, spent time working and studying in Palestine, Beirut and New York, then went back to Tangier, where she co-founded and directs an art house cinema.

Hers is a family history intertwined with the shady politics of a country at war for its independence, from other nations and from itself. A grandfather was abducted and never seen again, her father arrested for statements made against the monarchy. Family myths abound and are lovingly but skeptically narrated in "Hand-Me Downs." A deeply charming short film, it sets Barrada lore against footage from foundhome movies. There's one about a mother who suckled a goat and hid a political fugitive, a neighbor who had sex with a donkey, and justice served based on the number of suits owned. Two sisters chose their beds in a hotel room according to where they believed "the murderer" would enter from, and thus who would be killed first — the sister in the bed near the window, or the one near the door. Kids can be paranoid and cutthroat like that, but not every family knows political intrigue firsthand.

A pair of black-and-white portraits mark the entrance to the screening room, depicting an elderly man at a cafe table. He's an elegant dazzle of geometry in a houndstooth jacket and striped shirt, against a mosaic tile wall. He takes an old French newspaper clipping out of his wallet, an item about the first passenger at Tangier's airport. That man must have been him. Perhaps that's why he thinks Barrada wants to take his photograph, so many years later. But it isn't. He had been pointed out to her as the man who kidnapped her grandfather half a century ago.

Things are not always as they seem, and what you see does not — cannot — always show what's there.

For instance, the streets of Tangier, like the streets of all cities in Morocco since the country gained its independence in 1956, post Arabic names. But no one actually uses them. The Rue Moliere lives on, even if it is now officially known as El Mohtamid Ibn Abbad. Barrada wallpapered the gallery lobby with an alphabetical index of Rues and Impasses dating from Morocco's time as a French protectorate, alongside their post-independence designations. The pairs appear to be translations of equivalence, but perhaps they are closer to poetic slips of bureaucracy.

Sometimes it's a question of not looking carefully enough. A photograph of parched, bulbous flowers is called "The Snail." And there it is. Another frames a sunlit view of a dark grove. "Spider web in the Perdicaris Forest," notes the title, and there clings the web, and the name of a rich Greek-American man kidnapped in 1904 by a tribal chief, who successfully ransomed his captive for the post of governor of Morocco.

You can see some of that in a photograph, especially when it is printed as large as these two nature studies are, but not much. And yet, that's no reason to not take an image, or to stop believing in the power of images. On the contrary, it might be exactly the kind of understanding needed to create the kind of suggestive, layered, believable pictures that Yto Barrada makes today.

And what of those faded red stains and geometric prints? Barrada generously offers titles. "Family Tree" indicates a wall long covered with portraits, but where have they gone and who were they? "Marks Left by a Football" is just that, though who did what with the ball remains unknowable.

Traces like these are found everywhere, but rarely are they so visible. The lesson of Barrada's many photographs, be they of unfinished suburban homes or an abandoned cinema, a rotting dolphin or an airport lounge, seems to be to look carefully, then keep looking. And also, always, to do more than just look.

But then, here is an artist who used the home movies of strangers to depict her own family. And why not? We don't actually know what they look like.

"Yto Barrada: Riffs" runs through April 29 at the Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, 5811 S. Ellis Ave., 773-702-8670,

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