Forces in Focus

Tyler Leeds

“Riffs” begins even before the entrance to the Renaissance Society, framing elevators, doors, and bathroom signs on the fourth floor of Cobb Hall. The exhibit begins with wallpaper that looks like the index from a book in French, or maybe Arabic. If you’re quite smart, you may even suspect it is in Berber. It is an index, but not from a book. It is a list of all the streets in Tangiers, the Moroccan town where Paris-born artist Yto Barrada now lives.

“Riffs” is a collection of the artist’s photographs and films. Together, the images swirl around the singular subject of life in Northern Africa, a place where colonizers came for raw resources, the Rolling Stones for drugs, and now European corporations for profit. The work reveals what shouldn’t be too surprising–the hippie pilgrimages to Morocco like the “Marrakesh Express” left only whispers of evidence on the landscape, but imperialism’s fistprint will never be erased. Reminders of the European colonial presence are everywhere. However, Barrada’s exhibit reveals most poignantly the effects of the global economy on the ground. In Tangiers, as with elsewhere, globalization takes more than it gives.

The first wall you see in the gallery is telling. In “Raft in Strangler Figtree,” the spirit of any American boy will instantly recognize a makeshift treehouse. There is your dad’s metal ladder and a web of rope turned into an improvised hammock, and a plank for the central deck. But this may not be a treehouse. It  may literally be someone’s house. That’s quite a difference. Barrada leaves the question open: is this poverty or fun?

The adjacent photograph, however, is less ambiguous. “Smir Park” contains an abandoned tube that looks like it may have been a water slide, but there is no pool at the bottom. The end of the slide is covered up by flora. Just over the top, in the back, a roof is punched through with holes. Here, in a concise 100×100 centimeter frame, Barrada tells the story of a broken promise–the false assurance of economic development and all the luxuries that come along with progress.

Looking at her photographs is like witnessing the global forces someone studied in a classroom for too long now visible in harsh desert light. This makes sense–Barrada received a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in political science before studying at the New York Institute of Photography.

The images move beyond a critique of neoliberal economics to give an intimate view of everyday life. In another photograph, children lounge around a living room, playing with toys like a molecule set. In the exhibit’s most beautiful piece, a boy wears a crown of yellow flowers–handsome, even a bit cocky.

In the film “Hand Me Downs,” Barrada narrates a mythic history of her family, using clips from home movies. In one scene, she echoes Faulkner’s Vardaman, claiming, “My mother was a goat.” With too many children, her mother had no breast milk, and so children were put under the goat, she says. The degree to which this is myth is unclear, but the grainy desert landscapes haunting your field of vision make you want to believe every word. As the narration continues, fleeing revolutionary figures hide out in the home of Barrada’s vacationing neighbors. Younger sisters tear the dress their big sister made for her first date. Paris appears, and the buzz and light are ethereal in comparison to the desert.

“Riffs” is aptly named, beyond simply being a play on the Rif Mountains. The work is varied. There is another film about a conflict over an abandoned lot. The new owner wants to remove an old tree, but others fight to keep it. One wall of the exhibit contains a series of 14 posters–some with intricate designs, others with clear messages, like “I AM NOT EXOTIC I AM EXHAUSTED.” This phrase highlights an important tension found in northern Africa–Morocco’s “exotic” charm has lured tourists and money, but is acting as the living scenery for a Westerner’s spring break worth it?

Barrada doesn’t offer any easy answers. She is the 2011 Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year. The exhibit would not be possible without the support of Deutsche Bank.