With this exhibition, titled “The Sample Book,” Yto Barrada, born in Paris in 1971 and of Moroccan descent, presented a new body of work centered on Morocco’s textile industry—in particular, its tradition of using natural dyes. Barrada often investigates tourist-fueled economies of the region. Some works in the show were from her project “Faux Guide” (2015–), which is about the often-counterfeit fossil trade between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara.
In display cases were Barrada’s numerous handmade sample books, overflowing with hundreds of swatches of dyed fabric, arranged by brightness, shape, and other characteristics. Some books were open and some closed, their thickness highlighting the scope of the artist’s endeavor. More dye samples hung on the walls, along with other items Barrada has collected, including pieces of Moroccan embroidery from the early twentieth century showing different stitches. The combination of old and new emphasized how the country has long been defined by its tourist industry, with people producing crafts for visitors to procure as trophies of an idealized cultural tradition.
That Barrada’s mission in Vienna was to unseat this romanticized ideal and insist on a living reality became clear when entering a gallery in the basement of the Secession. Here, her samples of different natural dyes (some made from insects like the cochineal or the lac) were presented alongside a blackboard hung with several color swatches that visitors could move around. Physically arranging the swatches affirmed the sense that many classifying systems largely boil down to matters of aesthetics. This sense was further emphasized by a sampler of gridded lines demonstrating the colors produced when dyes overlap. However much sense this system might make at first glance, the arrangement remains a visual choice rather than revealing any lasting truth.
Another piece focuses on colored nougat, an often-seen item at Moroccan markets and the frequent subject of snapshots. Displayed in a museum vitrine, sculpted versions of nougat appear in six little towers, suggesting the ossification of the stereotype. The show ended in the Secession’s attic, where foam blocks wrapped in Moroccan-style fabric accompanied six photograms in different colors. The photograms relate to another element of the show. Hung as wallpaper in several places in the galleries were large sheets of paper used in drying printed textiles in Morocco. The imprints of the dyed fabric patterns on the paper echo those Barrada made by placing blocks and bricks on her photographic paper. This exhibition suggested that the artist’s goal in general is to learn about techniques from various cultures in order to create new artistic expressions from them, rather than to proffer an essentialist notion of cultural identity.
It is difficult not to be suspicious of exhibitions initiated or organized by corporations. After all, such shows serve to enhance the reputation of the funder in the eyes of the public. Therefore it was with some ambivalence that I approached Yto Barrada’s “Riffs,” Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year exhibition for 2011. (It debuted at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, and has been touring through Europe and the U.S. since.) Fortunately, Barrada’s exhibition did not make grandiose political statements about the evils of globalization or modernity, which would have seemed disingenuous. Instead the three 16mm films and 50-some photographs, made between 1999 and 2011, were thoughtful considerations of a place in transition and the passage of time.
“Riffs” focused on Tangier, Morocco, a cosmopolitan city at the core of many Westerners’ fantasies of freedom and escape, where the Parisian-born artist was raised. In addition to its musical associations, the title alludes to Morocco’s Rif mountain region (a nexus of resistance to colonial rule), as well as to Cinema Rif, the movie theater in Tangier where Barrada cofounded and directs a film program; selections were shown in a screening room at the exhibition. This combination of meanings set the tone for the show.
Most of the photographs are medium-size and the colors are generally muted. While the press materials indicate that they document the current realities of Tangier, what makes the images striking is their evocation of things once there but now unseen. Two of the most impressive photographs dealing with history, memory and absence are Family Tree (2005) and Marks Left by a Football—Tangier (2002). In Family Tree, the minimalist composition features a light pink background with oval and rectangular spots of darker pink irregularly distributed over its surface. On closer inspection, we see that the pink background is faded wallpaper, and the dark spots are areas once covered by picture frames. It is an image of missing pictures whose existence is nonetheless recorded. Similarly, Marks Left by a Football preserves the memory of people practicing soccer on a scuffed wall.
In the 8-minute 16mm film Beau Geste (2009), a group of workers organized by Barrada builds a cement support for a huge lone palm tree in a vacant lot. From the artist’s voiceover, we learn that the tree had been attacked by the landowner, who was attempting to circumvent a law which prohibits the sale of land where trees grow. The poetic action of the guerrilla gardeners is indeed just as the title announces—a nice gesture devoid of real impact. It will not prevent the owner from trying again or lead to any systemic change. The empty lot, surrounded by multistory buildings, hints at what once occupied the space, and the tree remains the only visible mark of its history.
Like most of the work in the show, the film is imbued with nostalgia for Tangier’s past—a past that is not visible but whose absence is felt in the present.
Photo: Yto Barrada: Bricks, 2003/2011, C-print, 59 inches square; at Fotomuseum Winterthur.