In the Studio: Yto Barrada

New York

Portrait by Grant Delin.


When I met Yto Barrada, she immediately clarified several misconceptions that the art world tends to hold about her. For one, she is primarily known as a Moroccan artist, but this, she explains, is misleading. Though her parents are Moroccan and she grew up in Tangier, she was born in Paris and has lived in New York for five years now. Also misleading, she says, is the frequent description of her as a photographer and filmmaker. She did study photography at the International Center of Photography in New York and has made several films, such as Hand-Me-Downs (2011), a slightly whimsical exploration of family dynamics pieced together from found amateur movies, and Faux Départ/False Start (2016), an essayistic meditation on the fossil industry in Morocco. However, she also creates a vast spectrum of curious, anthropological-looking objects, installations of colorful rugs or blocks, and stacks of idiosyncratic research. Despite her resistance to generalizations, it is undeniably true that most of her work points to Tangier, the city where she has spent the majority of her life.

In recent years, Barrada has made artworks that address such subjects as urban planning, textiles, museology, toy making, poster art, and paleontology. Before becoming an artist, she studied history and political science at the Sorbonne in Paris, and her work is certainly political, though she resists interpretations that reduce it to a critique of contemporary Morocco.

In conversation, Barrada speaks in a rapid series of digressions, dropping anecdotes and quotations, many of them from semi-obscure artists from the twentieth century. With me, she moved from French ethnologist Thérèse Rivière to actress Barbara Loden to the Oulipo group (French writers and mathematicians who set themselves formal constraints) to geology to weighted blankets. She follows her intuition from one interest to another.

The first work of Barrada’s I encountered was Syrinx (Plumber Assemblage), 2017, which consists of odd, winding configurations of piping grouped on a pedestal, at the recent Sharjah Biennial. Worn and rusty, screwed together in useless ways, the sculptural units stand several feet tall, and fill a room like a gang of junkyard robots. They look, at first, like folk art, and in fact they are re-creations of objects commonly made by plumbers in Tangier to attract customers.

In 2006, Barrada founded the Cinémathèque de Tanger, an independent “world cinema” movie theater–cum–nonprofit archive of documentary and experimental films located just outside the city’s historic Casbah district. Through this project and her art, she offers a prismatic view of Morocco.

Since moving to the United States, Barrada has stepped back from her duties at the Cinémathèque but continues to serve as president of the board. Her current studio is a small, officelike room, with desks and a kitchenette, in Brooklyn. Textiles hang on the walls. Cabinets overflow with research and flea market finds.

The afternoon I arrived, Barrada was dyeing fabric with natural pigments in a pot on the stove. She showed me stacks of similarly dyed fabrics, none of which were intended for a particular project. She introduced herself to me as shy, but over the next two hours she energetically performed her role as interviewee, at various times donning a hat with a taxidermied rat affixed to it and a necklace made of metal piping. Though she had a cold, she was in constant motion, driven by a compulsive enthusiasm for her material. At one point, she piled her chair with photographs, papers, and toys until it became unusable, and took a seat on the floor.

Ross SIMONINI  You said you were almost going to cancel this interview.

YTO BARRADA  I’m just so busy. I’m preparing for shows, and I’m leaving for a few months, and I needed to clean up the house. Instead of packing last night, like I should have, I sharpened every one of my children’s pencils and crayons, and then ordered them by color. I felt so happy, and I went to bed.

SIMONINI  How old are your children?

BARRADA  Almost three years old and eleven years old.

SIMONINI  How do you manage being a parent and an artist?

BARRADA  I don’t manage it at all. You fall in love, it eats your brain, and you’re exhausted. You just do it. More chaos. More love. You don’t sleep for two years. Launching the Cinémathèque was like having another child for ten years. I had no business plan. I didn’t know I needed to raise a million euros to build it. I didn’t know it meant that twenty people would be counting on me every day for instructions. I can’t even take care of myself.

But if you don’t think too much, one thing leads to another. Years later, when I was moving to New York, I heard, “What are you doing? You’re leaving Tangier? All your work is about Tangier! How are you going to work?” I’m talking about people very close to me—curators, gallerists. “You’re going to make another kind of work? Are you sure? After forty? You’re going to be so tired.” And yet your survival energy, even for work, is amazing. You do different things.

SIMONINI  How was the Cinémathèque like a child for you?

BARRADA  When I was running the nonprofit, I was not able to do much of my own work, for political reasons. I didn’t have time, but I also knew the rule that you can’t say or do anything that puts the organization in danger. You can’t be negotiating in the morning with the governor and “spitting in his soup” in the afternoon. I never insult anyway, but there’s some work of mine around urban development in which I criticize this and that—so I couldn’t do that work. And that tension was hard. But it made me develop other forms, and I was very prolific in my head. The fact that you’re blocked can be wonderful. It’s like breaking your right hand and learning to write with the left. Constraint is productive, like with the Oulipo guys, who would set quirky rules for their own writing. And children are a constant liberating restraint.

SIMONINI  The biggest?

BARRADA  You have to be fatalistic. It’s the only way to survive. Distraction by disruption, and disruption by distraction. That’s life. But I also steal work from my kids. I have folders of it. Their art is made with no doubt.

SIMONINI  Is making art a childlike endeavor for you? You have an installation called Play [Play (Lyautey Unit Blocks), 2010].

BARRADA  My mom was a therapist and took care of a lot of broken kids. She had limited time for us. So we were good, and we had solid grades—and we didn’t play. I can’t even play with my kids now.

SIMONINI  Are you incapable of play?

BARRADA  I don’t play cards or games or sports. I only play in the work, by inventing rules and then trying to cheat on them.

SIMONINI  It seems that all your projects are about inhabiting a subject, and working within that for a moment. Your interest in geology, for example, led to the multipart “Faux Guide,” which included the film Faux Départ and an expansive museological installation.

BARRADA  I went to geology because I wanted to move away from naturalism. I was sick of being associated with Moroccan contemporary politics. It was a lazy journalist-curator reduction of my work. So I thought, OK, prehistory.

SIMONINI  Do you feel that all your work is connected, despite the very different fields you address?

BARRADA  For me, there’s no separation, but it takes different sizes and shapes. I want my work to be autonomous but also to be linked to my other work, and other people’s work, and to culture. Here, let me show you. [She stands, puts on a necklace made of thick pieces of clanging metal pipes.] This is what I mean about culture: the organization of a plumber’s workshop in Tangier. A plumber has tons of these necklaces. This is how he organizes his tools on the wall, hanging on strings. I just cleaned it and made it pretty. It was almost perfect, but, as an artist, I had to intervene. It’s like an object of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the Dada baroness.

All my work explores strategies of survival, of resistance, in conditions of constraint. The constraint can be oppression or domination. In The Smuggler [2005], I filmed an elderly woman inventing a strategy to hide clothes in her coat while she traveled, so that she could sell them. How do you express yourself under domination? The term “hidden transcripts” comes from anthropology and refers to secret languages of resistance. Ways to communicate that the bosses won’t understand. Whistling, for instance, can be one. [She brings out a white binder filled with research on the history of whistling.]

SIMONINI  Do you always organize your ideas in folders?

BARRADA  I’m a historian by training. I studied history and anthropology, so my methodology comes out of that. For years, I didn’t have a studio, just an office. I only started wanting a studio when I was a visiting artist at UCLA and the students had incredible studio spaces. The paper! The office supplies! I love office supplies. I love drawers full of pencils and boxes, because I never really worked in an office.

SIMONINI  What jobs have you had?

BARRADA  I’ve worked only short-term jobs, for little money. At a newspaper, I wrote obituaries for people before they died.

SIMONINI  What are you planning for your commission for Performa 17 [the seventh edition of the performing arts biennial]?

BARRADA  I resist discussing projects while I work on them, and yet, every time I make the effort to talk about them, they get clearer. I should tape these interviews for myself. I often bluff in interviews, but even that is helpful. I actually have to ask the Performa curators to come here once a week. And I pull things out for them.

SIMONINI  So what’s the idea?

BARRADA  In 1966 my mother was part of a program sponsored by the US State Department to bring African “future leaders” to America. She was a twenty-three-year-old sociology student, and a socialist, and she wanted to visit factories and study labor socialism and meet the Black Panthers. The program’s escorts, the people showing her around, were feeding the group American heartland propaganda. So she went across the country—New York, Pittsburg, Los Angeles, Seattle—and created a total nightmare by protesting. That story is my backdrop for the Performa piece.

After that program, my mother helped briefly with a Montessori School in Morocco—lots of work with shapes and colors. I’m filming my mother’s story using Montessori toys.

SIMONINI  What else are you working on now?

BARRADA  I have a show in February at the Barbican Centre in London. The place started with social justice intentions, and it integrates music, theater, dance, film, schooling, and housing. I’m working on a piece for the Curve, which is a very strange wall at the back of the museum. It’s ninety meters long. I don’t know what to do yet, but it’s a very special place.

SIMONINI  How does this early, uncertain part of the process work for you?

BARRADA  I have to find an idea and a form, but they don’t always meet in a direct way. For the Barbican, I’m thinking about the earthquake of 1960 in the city of Agadir in southern Morocco. I collect material on that earthquake in notebooks. Disasters, their aftermath, and reconstruction are interesting to me.

SIMONINI  And what’s the form?

BARRADA  For this idea, it’s the house of Barbapapa. He’s a television cartoon character from the ’70s. He’s pink and shaped like a giant water balloon. He has a wife and seven kids, and all of them are different colors. His name means cotton candy in French. He takes different shapes to solve problems. One time, he made a house that looked like a troglodyte house, and I’m thinking of that. I might make it out of papier-mâché. For me, it comes out of a childhood memory, which is always helpful for working.

SIMONINI  So you have this earthquake and this house . . .

BARRADA  But they haven’t met yet. That’s OK, though. I like to follow my instincts.

SIMONINI  How did you arrive at these ideas in the first place?

BARRADA  Freely associating. It’s like going to the shrink. I’m the daughter of a psychotherapist. I can’t do this at home, but I can do it at work. So I thought of body shapes, then papier-mâché, then Victorian and Edwardian tables made with mother-of-pearl, and then troglodyte housing.

SIMONINI  Like a collage.

BARRADA  But I like it to look tight. The back can be a patchwork, but the front should be one clean piece. It doesn’t have to be too clean, but I don’t want the process to do the storytelling. I want it to look as natural as possible. Like broken bones that you fix. It’s a fragile zone for a while, the place where you put the pieces together.

SIMONINI  Your studio is filled with all kinds of objects. I see foldable chairs, toys, a loom. What’s the impulse behind your collecting?

BARRADA  Safety. I’ve moved a lot in my life. I went to twelve different schools. Maybe I wasn’t allowed to take anything with me, so now I’m carrying everything. Maybe it’s a survival strategy. It’s a way to build something, with a lot of everything.

SIMONINI  Where do you find these things?

BARRADA  Flea markets. I’m not looking for treasures. This isn’t about work. I’m just happy to have these things. Maybe one day, because of a project, I’ll look back at them, but that’s not why I buy them. If you look into my cupboards here, all you will find are these things.

SIMONINI  So generally these objects don’t lead to art?

BARRADA  The object is an experience in itself for me. It doesn’t have a place or a value. I don’t buy a thing to make art of it. I should, but that’s not my way of thinking.

SIMONINI  Why should you?

BARRADA  I should because I have a family to feed, and I should be smart. But it’s within my freedom and my ethics to do the opposite, to be a totally irresponsible adult.