Art Seen: International

YTO BARRADA: AGADIR // THE BARBICAN CENTRE

By Noah Hanna

On the 29th of February 1960, an earthquake destroyed the Moroccan coastal city of Agadir, killing nearly fifteen thousand people and leaving the city in ruin. Despite the devastation, Morocco’s king Mohammed V ordered the resurrection of the city, declaring, “If destiny decided the destruction of Agadir, its rebuilding depends on our faith and will.” Forged from Le Corbusier’s brutalist utopian architecture, the modern Agadir now conceals the wounds and remnants of a city and its people whose trauma longs to be heard.

French-Moroccan artist Yto Barrada’s exhibition, Agadir at London’s Barbican Center—as with much of her previous work—sees the artist assume the role of archivist, documentarian, and story-teller. Yet as is equally prevalent in her practice, there is a proactive disassociation from such characterizations. At its most rudimentary architectural components, Barrada and the Barbican are in exceptional harmony. The building’s imposing yet balanced brutalist architecture and Barrada’s use of its deeply curved gallery space allude to an existence outside of London or even the urban reality many of us have grown accustomed to. Agadir, in many ways, is a statement on geographies. This is a common motif in Barrada’s work and one in which has been of considerable relevance to her own life, as she has negotiated her simultaneously liberated European identity with that of her more geopolitically isolated North African upbringing. It is a distinction that deepens the humanity of the exhibition.

Yto Barrada, Agadir (installation view), The Curve, Barbican Centre, February 7-May 20, 2018. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Entering the gallery is as much an act of walking within the Moroccan city as it is an exercise in observing its absences. The outer curve of the space, adorned with renderings of Agadir’s many brutalist buildings on black chalkboard, speak to a number of associations, from the glories of city’s modernist reanimation, to an inventory of the city’s material existence as it now stands, to what could be considered the primordial scratch drawings of a city laid to waste. These images are accompanied by far more domestic objects, which emphasize Barrada’s desire to see a city for more than its monuments. The presence of the wicker furniture weaved through traditional Moroccan techniques is haunting. The beautifully constructed empty chairs allude to life, as much as their emptiness emphasizes their abandonment, an acknowledgement of the trauma inflicted so suddenly upon the intimate spaces of the citizens of Agadir. These sentiments are also expressed through Barrada’s inclusion of collage works which hang upon the wall in opposition to the long curve of grand architecture of both Agadir and the Barbican. Barrada also presents a similar collaged film piece in the exhibition, which achieves many of the same effects of the paper works. Small in scale, Barrada’s collages are the most intimate representations of life within Agadir and her own. The use of collage as a medium to navigate trauma is an honest gesture. Rather than attempt to create something new, collage work emphasizes the reassembly of the past. Collage takes its constructions from reality rather than representation. While the collages are not the focal point of the exhibition, they emphasize the fragile domesticity of Agadir at the time of crisis as well as offer the viewer a chance to observe Barrada’s own rationalizations for choosing to represent such a tragedy within art.

Yto Barrada, Agadir (installation view), The Curve, Barbican Centre, February 7-May 20, 2018. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

The exhibition is accompanied by a theatrical component as well, which while unavailable to many daily visitors to the gallery adds tremendous life to Barrada’s reconstruction of Agadir. Executed by performers from London’s Guildhall School of Drama, the performance reenacts moments from Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s 1967 novel, Agadir, which heavily influenced Barrada’s work within the exhibition. The story, translated by Barrada from French, tells the story of a bureaucrat sent to Agadir to report on the earthquake’s destruction. Rather, the bureaucrat returns with a series of poetic conversations with Agadir’s population who wrestle emotionally, physically, and theoretically with the act of rebuilding and urban existence. The actors intermingle with the audience while they reenact the novel, at times engaging in thoughtful self-reflection and debate while seated upon the furniture, or gracefully engrossing themselves in the renderings of Agadir which surround them. It is in these performances that the citizens of Agadir regain their voices and the city gains new life.

The performance, as well as portions of the film, emphasize a critical component of Barrada’s intention for the exhibition as well as her practice as a whole: to renegotiate traditional documentary techniques into an art form that investigates both sociopolitical structures as well as intimate personal narrative. Barrada’s ability to create ambiguous, yet highly personal and at times politically resolute works, places her in an unprecedented position as a document-based artist. Agadir employs many of the same elements that made her previous photographic projects so affecting. Barrada’s well known 1998-2004 series A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project depicts life along the Strait of Gibraltar, interrogating personal and collective identities in a region of transient international connectivity and separation. Her recent photographs of handmade North African dolls (2014-2015) document the intimacies and innocence of life and childhood in Tangier, taking a contrasting position of introspection in the age of geopolitics. Yet despite the differences in presentation, Barrada continues to create work of both contemporary and historical significance, abolishing geographical myths and engaging with humanity far beyond simply capturing it.

Yto Barrada, Agadir (installation view), The Curve, Barbican Centre, February 7-May 20, 2018. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images


Yto Barrada’s Agadir ran at Barbican Center from February 7 – May 20 2018.

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