Artist Spotlight with M’barek Bouhchichi Les Mains Noirs, 2015, Clay, Dimensions Variables

Artist Spotlight with M’barek Bouhchichi

Posted: Oct 22, 2021

ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist M’barek Bouhchichi as part of our Artist Spotlight series.

M’barek Bouhchichi (b. 1975, Akka) is an artist living and working in Tahanaout, Morocco. He has taught art since the mid 1990s, first in Tiznit and today in Tahanaout. Bouhchichi develops his work through a tentative language grounded on the exploration of the limits between our internal discourse and its extension towards the outer world. He places his works at the crossroad between the aesthetic and the social, exploring associated fields as possibilities for self-definition. Through installations, paintings, drawings and videos, Bouhchichi gives shape to modes of expression that move between individual discourses and those pertaining to broader social, poetic and historic contexts. The main threads of his works reflect an individualized voice that enables a re-writing of the self. It is a thought process that unfolds between the idea and the experience of his works. 

M’barek Bouhchichi has participated in exhibitions, biennials and conferences in Morocco and abroad. His recent exhibitions include: Dak’art, 13th edition of the Biennial of Contemporary African Art (Dakar, 2018); Documents bilingues (MUCEM, Marseille, 2017); Between Walls (Le 18, Marrakech, 2017); Les mains noires (Kulte, Rabat, 2016); Global(e) Resistance (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2020)

ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?

M’barek Bouhchichi: I am someone who specializes in my own lived experience and on the idea of “living together.” What does it mean to live together? It’s something that helps me question the community from which I come from, the community that I am part of now: a community that is and has been different with regards to the racial relations of this country. I come from a Black community in Morocco and because of that, I have experienced things in my life in which I have been otherized. People look at me and question me because of my differences. This question of “living together” is a theme I return to in my practice. I’m simply asking: what does it mean to be a Black Moroccan in today’s society? And this inevitably brings in many other questions related to history, presence/absence, and visibility/invisibility within the Moroccan social landscape.

AE: Can you tell us about your sculptural installation, Les Mains Noirs (2015)?

MB: Les Mains Noirs is a work that I made following an invitation to participate in a project by the curator Omar Berrada. He is someone that I associate with the idea of companionship, since he accompanied me in a work I did about existing stereotypes about Black Moroccan bodies, based on research that I did in the desert with a community in Tamegroute. This is in the Zagoura region and it is a place where communities still live separately from one another; there are spatial separations as well as separate work forces. For example, there are professions that Black people have inherited that are still inherently linked to the subconscious and manifest themselves in the relations between white and Black communities. There is an idea of the earth that is historically linked to the idea that Black people have been expropriated from their own lands to become today the workforce on lands owned by white people and of which they only profit one fifth of what they cultivate. 

It is a very simple piece, where I asked different Black people (myself included) to take a little clay and to create a sculpture from the empty space in their hands or their fists. It’s an attempt at making something visible from a void and that represents the hand as a symbol of the labor force.  

The void is a negative space, and the negative space is to emphasize the positive. The most simple gesture that permits anyone to make art come from the hand. It’s the hand that moves before even the brain reflects. The hand is an extension of ourselves, just as is the void. 

This piece is very significant since it is ultimately a collective work made by black hands and it is displayed all together on the floor in a way that one would find things sold in a souk today. Ultimately, there were about 400 little sculptures in total, reminding us of a horizontal style society which is an essential part of living alongside one another. It puts into question the manner in which our relationships with each other can be racialized. And finally, it goes back to how we live together as different communities.

AE: Can you tell us about your work Imdyazen (2018)?

MB: I was born in a specific cultural context. When my parents moved from Akka to the city, I realized that I was different from others. My parents had a language and traditions that were different from the majority. I consider myself an immigrant, but one that originates from within the borders of my own country. I was constantly looking for other voices that explored these topics. At school they did not teach the Amazigh language or culture. 

I did discover on my own however, was an Amazigh poet called M’barek Ben Zida. His last name is affiliated to his mother, whereas traditionally children are associated with their fathers. His father was a slave, and as a gesture of distancing from slavery, he adopted this name that was associated with his mother. He was a poet who fought hard to be known as a black poet, which was not accepted at the time. He travelled the whole region where I was born and engaged in poetry battles with other poets of the time. These were oral traditions in which he discussed issues of the time such as segregation and interacial injustices. His work left me gaping and I kept asking myself why they never taught me this in school. I finally felt that I had found a companion in his words. 

I began researching his work and collecting his oral poetry, and I wanted to materialize them in some form. I created the work Imdyazen which exists in several versions. It means “the poets” in Amazigh. To be a poet in Amazigh culture, one must be able to communicate with the plants, with the trees, with the animals and the sun. An Amazigh poet does have religious affiliations, he can practice religion or even, practice anti-religion. It makes for a very free individual who is not interested in questions of inheritance. They are people that cross borders and challenge forces that try to control our bodies and minds. These people inspire me. These are all elements that interest me greatly and I tried to link them all together in a work that balances natural elements in the form of a walking stick and leather with his inscribed words. Even today in many cultures, motioning with a stick is a sign that someone is about to speak. We see this in Western courtrooms or in the theatre, in which the person is saying “listen to me, I have something to tell you.” 

The work consists of a group of sticks covered in leather upon which I have carved M’barek Ben Zida’s poems in the Amazigh alphabet. What I wanted to recreate is this idea of a wanderer who spreads his word. There is a saying in my culture, “A day that we have lived without penning a verse of poetry is a day not lived.” 

There is a lot of repetition in my work, and this is linked to ritual and its relation to animism as a daily practice. I make a lot of work that references animism because I believe that it is something that will save humanity. It is the possibility to live one’s rituals, the power to inscribe one’s quotidian in the work that we do and to regulate it.

AE: You have called yourself a self-taught artist since you did not pursue a higher arts education. How do you think this has differentiated you from your peers in the arts community today, and how has this been an asset to your work?

MB: I have pursued studies in art but I do not have an MA. I am proud that I have been able to practice art in an alternative way. There was a time that I had fallen into the trap of attempting to fit into an institutional or Western style artistic framework. Here, the French model remains quite present in the Moroccan cultural landscape. I realized I could not live or work like this. I believe it’s an asset that I always maintain some kind of research throughout my life. If I haven’t had a conventional education, I have had my grandmother and my village which have taught me many things. I live in a dichotomy between a more modern style of life in the cities and the mountains. I even know what lies beyond the mountains, I know what is the black box so to speak of the Moroccan territory. This horizontal coming and going between these contexts allows me to be more free. 

To me, the idea of science is an idea that limits dynamism. It does not bring into consideration other factors that are essential to me. I consider my artistic practice to be like institutional research. In my practice I cover a lot of ground, I physically seek out what I am researching. I live out my research questions by going out and drinking a lot of tea and discussing with people. They are the ones who inspire me. These people ground me and in turn ask me questions. It is a writing approach that I am looking into, an attempt to write in a way that legitimates what I do.  Unfortunately, today we are still anthropological subjects to the West and we live with writing that originates around us, not by us. This is a moment in which I can push my visual practice to register as a written practice. Words and archives are validations and testaments but so many of our archives are in the West. They have become the authorities. What I am interested in, is the idea that we can all collectively be the authors of our own histories and realities. This is about diversifying the narratives and viewpoints.  

Europe is a small continent but they have written the History of the world. This is a shame because it nullifies the perspectives of others. This is the kind of freedom I find in being a self-taught artist. It allows me to think without limitations and create gestures out of things that I have grown up with my whole life: the gesture of collage. To combine many different things together and to be spontaneous in the act of montaging. Collaging is an artist’s language. In today’s world, we don’t need to master languages in order to navigate society. My grandmother did not go to school but I consider her to be a philosopher who created her own language and her own interpretations. Ultimately, it was important to me to have this path to think and create freely because I knew I could never be the kind of artist who fits within a Western mold. 

AE: You teach art in a high school in the city of Tahanaout. What has been your experience teaching there, and why do you think it’s important to teach high school students?

MB: I think it’s important to contribute to the construction of things. Teaching at schools has allowed me first of all to question what I do and to constantly engage in reality and the real. It’s not the romantic idea of an artist who is isolated in their studio. Instead, it’s an experience in which you burn yourself in the fire. I am also learning alongside these youngsters; I am learning the contemporary vernacular but I do not enter into an intergenerational conflict. I understand myself by practicing with them. It’s so important for me to be in that context because here, we often hear the statement “there isn’t a public for art.” But we need to create this excitement and the public. 

Something that I really enjoy in teaching is the act of destroying. When I was studying in school, I was often reminded of my own context outside of what we were studying. For example, they would show us works by Briget Riley of Brice Marden, things that were so far from me and that I could not understand. This ultimately creates an imbalanced power dynamic and an inferiority. What I do in the classroom today, I ask students to go look at the carpets in their homes and recreate from there. Students are able to communicate through the things they are familiar with.  

I was lucky in that I worked in contexts where the language and communities were Amazigh and I ended up disrupting certain frameworks. When we talk about color for example, I avoid referring to colors such as “cadmium red” or other such technical terms. Instead I use other color references that derive from Amazigh culture. In Amazigh for example, we use the same word for blue and green. This is very interesting to me, since we are engaging with the students’ imaginaries. Amazigh culture associates nuance with nature; we would say a pistachio green or a mint green. This is of course deeply rooted in the connection of the imaginary to the natural environment. The scientific terms of how colors are classified in the West came after this method of associating colors to nature. 

The way I see it, we have two options: either we will go and buy watercolors in a store or we will research and create our own watercolors.

AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?

MB: I really believe in this concept of companionship. Initially, the only black icons that existed for me were the American black icons. It’s the only image I had around me and I identified with them. The first images of black people that I saw were black Americans. At school or on Moroccan TV there was no representation of black people. All the aspects of this diverse American identity fascinated me. I had to constantly explain and justify to others that I was Moroccan. All these existential fights that I felt as though I were silently fighting in my own society, were being fought in America too. 

I was so fascinated by the possibility of creating something new. When I looked at the United States, I was swept away about all that was possible and attainable. I recognized this in American painting where I saw a freedom of the body and a desire to always create bigger and bigger works. I dreamed of Jean-Michel Basquiat and I saw in him an intelligence beyond what was visible from the exterior–a black body. This idea of deep-seeded intelligence was also integral to the development of my thoughts. 

These were important influences for me, just as important as the deconstructing of these very influences. There was a moment that I asked myself, why do they say African American for all those that came from continental Africa, but don’t refer to white Americans as European Americans? I also became disillusioned with some of the movements there, the struggles of the Black Panthers and others for example, who wrote in the language of the other. I came to think that if they had written in African languages, they would have amassed a massive following and found themselves in the majority. They would have unified so many with their ideas.  

There was a work that I had made based off of the first combine harvester invented in the United States entitled The Invention of the Machine Liberated the Black Man. It referred back to the rosy perspective on history in which there was supposedly a time where people developed a conscience and freed the black man. What I am saying is that it was purely an economic incentive to free black people. Instead of having a thousand mouths to feed, they would buy a combine harvester that would do the work at a much lower cost.

AE: Do you have any shows or projects coming up in 2021 and 2022?

MB: I am fascinated by objects. I believe that I think with my feet through the act of walking and that I think through my hands by the act of collecting objects since they enable me to reflect. I am particularly interested in objects related to the subject of the earth. Earth is what we share but it is also what divides us. I am currently working on a large installation based on the ancient agricultural tool of the tribulum board, also known as a threshing board. It’s a tool that was used to separate various cereals from straw. I have been collecting and living with these objects for several years and I have been interested in the aesthetics of the object both in its physical irregularities and in the violence that it connotes. I will inscribe on the boards texts and verses in braille. It’s about the experience of not-seeing, of touching and of reading our own feelings and frustrations in another manner. This is a piece that will be shown in Tunisia.

I am also working on a project in my hometown of Akka where I am using a physical ceiling in a house as a platform to create a metaphorical garden. It’s a work that is based in a geometric art form and craft which was present everywhere in Morocco but that has been overlooked. It’s a practice that is disappearing. I have met with some of the last remaining masters of this craft and I would like to create a sort of repertoire that reactivates all the kinds of forms, colors, patterns and so forth that has existed within this practice. It’s also a preservation of the methods in which the colors were created. 

I’m interested in getting into other spheres that are adjacent to the fine arts world. The first act of this project is the restoration of a destroyed ceiling of a house in Akka. I am looking to create a kind of document as well as an artwork which fits under the umbrella of restoration (a Western concept). I am interested in the idea of creating a usable archive or a physical space of research. Will we continue going to places of research simply to take things? I want to invert this relationship and put forth the concept of going to this space firstly in order to give. 

This is such an important work for me because it exists beyond any kind of institutional space. It’s a project that is a construction site where I want to invite all sorts of people, such as anthropologists, artists, and researchers. I want them to come and see this since it’s not a region that most people know. It’s about them bearing witness. It’s a collective project that may result in other forms of material or research based work.

M’BAREK BOUHCHICHI ONLINE:

Instagram: @mbarekbouhchichi