Prior to securing its independence in 1956, Morocco was subject to joint colonial occupation. One of the many challenges facing King Mohammed V was uniting what had been its French and Spanish protectorates. Route de l’Unité (Unity Road), as its name makes clear, was a highly symbolic public works project. Conceived by left-wing politician and architect of independence Mehdi Ben Barka, the road was built by more than 10,000 Moroccan youth each volunteering a month of labor. Completed in 1963, it twists and winds 43 miles through the rugged Rif Mountains, linking Fez to Ketama.
In 2001, thirty-eight years after the road’s completion, Tangier-based artist Yto Barrada photographed Route de l’Unité. Framed front and center is an unremarkable stretch of road hosting almost no traffic. From a parched hillside, the artist chose a vista dwarfing the simple, nondescript brick structures scattered here and there. With decidedly nothing to celebrate, the image is as drought-stricken as the landscape. Before receding toward the horizon, the road zig-zags sharply, making a reverse “S” that threads together foreground, middleground, and background. More than space, the image depicts space over time, in which case the photograph’s perspective belongs as much to history as it does to the landscape proper. As for an historical perspective, the past is being weighed against a present in which Route de l’Unité has been drained of symbolism. This set of formal decisions certainly speaks to Ben Barka’s 1965 disappearance in Paris, an abduction many believe to have been carried out by foreign agents acting in concert with King Hassan II who sent Ben Barka into exile after accusing him of plotting against the state. In Barrada’s photograph, the aspirations once buoying national sovereignty have likewise disappeared, evaporating under the day’s broadest light. Indeed, the Ben Barka affair aside, the years since the construction of Route de l’Unité have witnessed a weakening of national autonomy as states are at the mercy of an increasingly internationalized system of finance and production, a system commonly referred to as globalization. Yet, the erosion of national autonomy, whether it is understood as sympto-matic of globalization or seen as foreshadowed in Ben Barka’s disappearance, is a narrative occurring outside the frame of Barrada’s photograph, and is absent to precisely the same degree as any tell-tale signs of the road’s initial symbolic significance. The result is a quotidian document in which the past, no matter how epic or fraught with ironic twists and turns of fate, has given way to an everyday present.
Riffs is a survey of Barrada’s photographs and film from 1999 to 2011. During that time, Barrada (b. 1971) has chronicled developments in and around her hometown of Tangier, a city that has emerged as a poster child for key facets of globalization, from issues of foreign direct investment, to issues of immigration. Everywhere and nowhere, globalization is visible only in the form of traces. In the case of Barrada’s Tangier, these traces vary in directness. Whether as explicit an image as that of an all-female workforce in a prawn processing plant in one of the city’s free export zones, or as removed as an image of native flora, these were photos intended to literally examine the “nature of place” as it were. Barrada’s work, insofar as it captures globalization, can only do so to the extent that it is visibly manifest in everyday life.
Barrada came to photography through her studies in political science at Sorbonne which she attended on and off until 1994. Part of the research for her dissertation involved West Bank roadblocks and the negotiation strategies of those who encountered military police upon trying to cross. While living in the West Bank, she began documenting her subject through photography. As the research evolved she found herself taking more photographs than notes. Regarding this shift she has stated:
The main part of describing what I was interested in became through photographs, because I discovered that it was less restrictive than only my dissertation in political science. I started to be interested in art and all the possibilities it gave me to introduce the political situation.
Accordingly, Barrada would go on to study at the International Center for Photography in New York in addition to attending an influential multi-year seminar at l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts with Jean-Francois Chevrier. As for “all the possibilities” art provided “to introduce the political situation,” Barrada would flesh out an initial documentary impulse to encompass a range of modes and genres: photojournalism, autobiography, landscape, street-photography, and still-life. The results are photo-essays that over a substantial breadth of subject matter are by turns poignant and specific. Tellingly, Riffs, the exhibition’s title, while referring to the nearby Rif mountain range, as well as the Cinema Rif, home to the Tangier Cinematheque, which Barrada co-founded and now directs, more importantly refers to the artist’s ability to build on a central theme in an improvisatory manner.
All totaled, Barrada’s images, as much as they are the portrait of a place, are also the portrait of a condition. At the base of Tangier’s history is its location. Situated at the mouth of the Mediterranean, ten miles from Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar, Tangier is a border city, naturally attracting those seeking passage to Europe. Between 1982 and 2007, Tangier’s population grew exponentially, quadrupling from 250,000 to one million. A decade into this process, however, the Schengen Agreement went into effect. Europe’s internal borders opened while its external borders were severely tightened and the European and Moroccan governments began aggressively halting the flow of illegal immigrants to Europe. At the same time, the government also began aggressively courting foreign investment for industries ranging from manufacturing to tourism. A key part of King Mohammed VI’s economic liberalization was the development of Northern Morocco’s ports and resort areas. Clearly, Tangier is in transition. The subject of Barrada’s work is not only the internal and external socio-economic forces driving change, it is also their effects, and most important the psychological atmosphere of a city that situated in an impoverished country is forced to stare at the Schengenized fortress Europe. Formally reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818), Barrada’s Lazy Wall (2001), which features an adolescent seated on a terrace, photographed from behind as he stares at the sea, illustrates sentiments born of the border’s geopolitics. Barrada describes the situation as a “Life full of holes”:
People are standing there thinking all day how you’re going to make enough money to be able to cross, to pay your passage through. That state that I’ve described in my body of work creates a sort of floating figure…as a consequence of spending your time on the edge, on the jumping-off place of Africa, trying to get to the other side, you are turning your back on whatever is happening where you are.
The boom and bust cycles of development featured in Barrada’s images of forgotten foundations, sporadic patterns of exurban construction, and shanties juxtaposed against high-rises, is set against the languor of napping indigents, colonial ruins, and portraits of day dreamers. Based on Barrada’s work, Tangier’s state of transition is revealed to be simulta-neously a state of suspension.
Although it shares demographic characteristics with other border cities undergoing transition as a result of globalization, Tangier is unique in that it is a border between continents and therefore worlds. It is home to a generationally ensconced community of expats who keep alive notions of Tangier’s oft-romanticized interculturalism. Consequently, Tangier’s transition is occurring through disheveled layers of myth, history and, last but not least, nostalgia, which, according to Barrada’s images, finds its aesthetic corollary in dilapidation. But over and above mere nostalgia, what emerges through the wreckage of say, Restaurant Villa Harris, figs. 1 & 2, is a colonial past come again as a poltergeist whose wrath was directed at Club Med’s latter day occupation of this well known 1920s villa. Likewise, with respect to ghosts, the legal and illegal human traffic between Europe and Morocco occurs over what can only be termed an invisible bridge, one predicated on the erasure of formal colonial relations. The same can also be said of Tangier’s myriad foreign investors, an internationalization that was prefigured in the city’s 1923 designation as an international zone under tri-partite administration by the French, Spanish and British.
Despite the scale of the topic Barrada’s photo- graphs collectively signify, a key characteristic of her images is humility. They are not epic. That said, Arab Spring, which post-dates the work in this exhibition, might very well have been in the air. For the purposes of photography, however, this means next to nothing since air is invisible, and Barrada photographs only that which, first and foremost, is to be seen for what it is.