This issue marks the fifth installment of a six-quarter cycle of the Virtual Gallery that spotlights artists from the Maghreb leading up to the 2014 edition of the Marrakech Biennial. Each subsequent gallery will showcase artists who deal with the every day in their work to reveal the conceptual threads and regional connections that underlie the expanding North African art scene. Previously, Alya Sabti focused on Morocco with Younes Baba-Ali, Everyday Activist, Wafa Gabsi addressed Tunisia in The Daily Route, Yasmina Reggad (/A.R.I.A/) looked at Algeria with The Economy of Hope [Working Title], and Alya Sebti and Holiday Powers investigated the use of new media to represent the quotidian with Poetics of the Everyday.
Artists need to travel. If they want to operate at an international level mobility is a given, something rarely called into question. Residencies, openings, talks, biennales, fairs, airports and laptops have become the artists’ everyday, Internet-fuelled. Artworks must be unique and universal; able to communicate a sense of place and reveal specific contexts while being largely understood by an international audience. Glimpses of local, they have to exist on a global scale.
For Henry Lefebvre the everyday “surrounds us, it besieges us, on all sides and from all directions. We are inside it and outside it. No so-called ‘elevated’ activity can be reduced to it, nor can it be separated from it. (…) It is at the heart of the everyday that projects become works of creativity.”
Considering the everyday as a productive force embodied in works of creativity, we will focus on the positions of artists Youssef El Yedidi, Sadek Rahim and Fakhri El Ghezal. The way these three artists from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia create, circulate and interact with their peers allow us to draw the contours of a map that envisage the idea of (im)mobility as an act of subsistence/resistance within an art world ruled by the dogmas of networking and interconnectivity. As Marc Augé puts it:
“Beyond the heavy emphasis placed today on the individual reference (or, if you prefer the individualization of references), attention should really be given to factors of singularity: singularity of objects, of groups or memberships, the reconstruction of places; the singularities of all sorts that constitute a paradoxical counterpoint to the procedures of interrelation, acceleration and de-localization sometimes carelessly reduced and summarized in expressions like ‘homogenization of culture’ or ‘world culture.’”
It is often considered a good work because it is “new,” something that has never been seen (or shown) that provides a fresh perspective on a matter. However, as Augé points out, it is important to look carefully at the particular factors that found the accuracy of an artwork. Behind the specificity of a work lies a unique individual.
Youssef El Yedidi is a nomadic artist. Half Spanish/half Moroccan, he is always on the road. He sometimes stops over in his small house without water and electricity, lost in the green mountains of Northern Morocco, at the shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
“For me, art is a way to be free. My studio is always with me, I create on my way and I don’t need to be settled anywhere.”
Youssef El Yedidi’s Spanish passport is in a Moroccan cover. Laughing, he relates how Moroccan custom officers smile at him whereas the Spanish ones always look offended. This passport trick is an autoportrait and a reversible statement. If he possessed a Moroccan passport he would have done the same thing. This simple gesture summarizes Youssef’s artistic position that is, a constant blurriness between what is and what is not art. His house, his clothes, the way he travels or a new encounter are all potential sites for art. The dashboard of his computer is organized to form a geographical map recalling the strait of Gibraltar, a recurrent motive in his work.
“Gibraltar is like a cable. It is a sort of path, a link entailing tragic consequences. Gibraltar is where Europe touches Africa. It symbolizes the hope of the Mediterranean Sea facing the Atlantic Ocean and the desire of this multitude of Moroccans who want to be European. The strait is the way out toward ‘El kharij,’ which means ‘the outside’ in Arabic. As if we (the Moroccan) were inside. At the same time, it is the only place where I can feel good, because I always feel like a stranger, both in Morocco and in Spain. This is the reason why I am always in movement.”
Youssef El Yedidi’s words echo Sadek Rahim’s practice and discourse, even though a frontier separates the two artists, one they are barred from crossing. At the border between Morocco and Algeria trenches are currently being dug in order to prevent the illegal exportation of petrol from Algeria to Morocco. This geographical point crystallizes one of the world oldest conflicts: the Sahara Crisis.
Sadek Rahim holds a Visual Arts MA from the Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design in London. After a few years in Europe, he decided to return to Algeria in 2004.
“As an artist, I feel like I have a message to convey. My role is to highlight some facts and situations such as the issue of clandestine immigration for instance.”
The work “Facing Horizon,” commissioned for an exhibition about Yves Saint Laurent in 2013, is composed of stickers that display portraits of young Algerian men.
“Everywhere I go, I take pictures. I like engaging with young people in the streets. They always talk about going away, trying their luck. When I am sure one of them is a potential immigrant, I take a photograph. I have thousands of them now… ”
The stickers are placed on a glass window through which one can look at the ships vanishing on the sparkling sea. Over the whole window, the artist glued a fine black lace alluding to a filet, a mourning veil or a net,
“Just like the trap of the spider that shines so nicely to attract insects.”
Besides his artistic practice, Sadek co-founded the Contemporary Art Biennale and the First Salon for Contemporary Drawings in Oran, in collaboration with the local organization CIV-oeil. About his engagement in cultural politics, he says:
“I came back because I want to make things in my own country. I gave myself a goal: make contemporary art move forward in Algeria, and especially in Oran. In fact, most of the artistic events are organized by European organizations. The level of the art schools is so mediocre that the youngs [sic] do not know where to go and what to do. It is important to help them to reach an international standard. Algeria’s urban development is dynamic but when it comes about art and culture… ”
Unlike Sadek Rahim, Tunisian artist and photographer Fakhri El Ghezal has never lived abroad.
“My work depends a lot on what surrounds me and what I live. In order to experience new territories and get involved in some creation processes, it is essential to move. However, the main difficulty is to release and promote your work without falling into the old-boy network, pseudo lobbying or artistic clans.”
In 2012 and 2013, Fakhri participated in a residency project organized by the Siwa Platform in the mining city of Rdeyef, famous for its insurrection against the fallen president Ben Ali in 2008. The artist who concentrated for more than ten years on a quest of the intimate and the everyday in his immediate surroundings, accepted for the first time to confront a new environment. This new context and the contact with the inhabitants and the miners led him to produce a series comprising three sub-series called “Contours,” “Traces and Territories” and “In progress.”
“Thanks to this experience, I managed to loop a loop in my work. It is a sort of achievement. The last series WELD MEN is like the end of a step. It is an intimate work about memories and traces. An autoportrait in a way.”
Some artists say that their works speak for themselves and that there is nothing else to add. Nevertheless, it is essential to listen to their voices. What they have to say about where they come from, where they are going to and what they are trying to achieve — in a word about their everyday — not only are keys to their works but also to specific ways of being “here and now.”
Staying at home, going away, travelling ceaselessly, coming back…or not…whether it be a choice or a necessity, mobility is a burning issue for North African artists. Although the ability to cross a frontier and obtain a visa is certainly decisive, the everyday cartography of Youssef El Yedidi, Sadek Rahim and Fakhri El Ghezal can not be reduced to geographical and geopolitical matters. As Fakhri El Ghezal puts it: “I draw my own territories. I chose their contours.”