By Chourouq Nasri
October 10 – November 30, 2019
The way art can transform the city is the theme that knits together the key moments of Orienta 7, an art event organized in Oujda, Morocco from October 10 to November 30, 2019. Orienta’s curator, Azzeddine Abdelouahabi is an artist and art critic who lives between Amiens (France) and Oujda (Morocco). To show art’s potential for social and spatial subversion, he invited local and international artists to remap the city in a new way. Their artworks coalesce into narratives that unlock the parallel between the intimate and the global.
A vast range of media (from painting and sculpture to installation and art-video, digital art, photography and political activism presented as art) are used by artists as a way to expand the limits of representational art and to bring art to life in new spaces in the city. The curator conceived each of the locations of the event as one of the seven provinces imagined by medieval geographer and traveler Charif Al-Idrissi in his map of the world. He distributed the artists among seven venues between the medina (the old city) and la ville nouvelle (the new city).
The first exhibition in this event is set in Charif Al-Idrissi Library in the narrow, tortuous streets of the old city. Palpable in this first province is a sense that both the city and the event are living systems, mutually shaping one another. Mohamed Rachdi’s art installation occupies a large area of the old library courtyard. The artist created a big round silver basin and filled it with water and objects in the form of alphabet letters. As we get closer to the basin, we have an urge to plunge our hands in the water and play with the letters. On the wall in front of the basin, letters made with scraps of maps read: the world belongs to us. The work is powerful in its simplicity. The artist attempts to understand the philosophies of nomadism; he centers the experience of belonging on the need people feel to move across borders. Boundaries, according to Rachdi, have a different significance depending on who you are. They are constantly shifting and evolving in response to political, social and climate changes.
On the other side of the library courtyard, two sculptures representing Charif Al-Idrissi are set next to each other. One is made with bronze and the other with sponge, an unusual and unpredictable material. The first artwork will last for a long time while the second, paying tribute to the legacy of a fragile and ultimately temporal medium, is doomed to perish shortly. The sponge grey sculpture also symbolizes the transience of life and the intense emotions of living on the edge that Chariff Al-Idrissi, who was an adventurous traveler, must have experienced. Jawad Embarki is searching for a way to make art fulfill a recuperative function, to not only memorialize a loss but to create something out of it.
A sculpture in the form of a sailing boat with three men’s busts in it confronts visitors as they enter the library’s main gallery. The white flower-shaped boat is a funeral tribute to the migrants who die at sea—causing both discomfort and fascination for those who look at it. Like much of the media images we are overwhelmed with, it makes us feel compelled to witness although we would rather look away. Imad Mansour, an Iraqi artist living in Morocco created his sculpture with regular white plaster, the same material he used for another art installation in a different venue. In the middle of one of the rooms of Omar Ibn Abdelazize high school, a building known for its architectural charm and historical significance, a pile of white tied knots lie on a table, as if to point to the interwoven strands of the different exhibitions. The work is also an attempt to draw together the threads of displacement and alienation which have become a condition of contemporary culture within art.
The artworks displayed on the walls of the gallery seem to say that life goes on while migrant death tolls continue to rise. Bachir Amal’s unsettling combinations render the complexity of modern life. The artist has used paper shopping bags as canvases for his paintings, drawings, and calligraphies and assembled them into surreal configurations. What makes the work so arresting is its simultaneous evocation of seemingly contradictory states: colonialism, consumerism, and aesthetics. While the collage directly evokes Magritte’s Key to Dreams, it also brings to mind the pop art works of Andy Warhol.
To explore the relation between people and their environment, Hafid Badri uses the language of maps in a very original way. He fashioned scraps of maps combined with Bachar Alassad and other dictators’ pictures into complex forms, reducing countries and even continents into wooden shoe molds hung on a wall and presenting an uncanny tableau. The small sculptures look elegant from a distance, but on closer inspection, we realize that the artist uses the language of surrealism to confront political violence.
Lala Mariyam Park, a beautiful garden in the heart of the old city explores personal and collective experiences of marginalization and oppression in a different way. Artists Esseddiq Fadhil and Fatima-Zahra Zahraoui have produced a constellation of unusually large Gharnati musical instruments in unabashedly bold colors. The diasporic shift of Andalusi populations is further explored through a retrospective textual view of the history of Gharnati music set at the entrance of the garden.
In the new part of the city, a huge dinosaur sculpture is set in front of the archeology museum that is in preparation. The dinosaur is stylishly provocative, but the provocation seems oddly detached from its subject. This surprisingly huge statue is intended to put the passersby out of their comfort zone—to remind them that Oujda has a rich pre-historical heritage.
One of the most-notable exhibitions of Orienta 7 is organized at Moulay Alhassan Gallery. The exhibition proves a moving tribute to Brahim Bachiri, a Moroccan artist living in France who died earlier this year. Mohamed Rachdi who designed the exhibition scenography took full advantage of the space offered by the gallery and transformed it into a philosophical and aesthetic territory where the art of Bachiri is celebrated. Upon entering the gallery, we are met with a video of the artist shaving his head. The work was made a few years ago as a homage to Driss Berkani, a French man of Moroccan descent who was the victim of a racially motivated murder. But the feeling we get watching the video is that the work is a rumination on death, namely the death of the artist, and on the immortality afforded through art. As if to reinforce this feeling, a white mausoleum-like structure enshrining a photograph of the artist’s naked torso is set in front of the video. The artworks across the gallery walls and floors reflect the multidimensional artistic trajectory of Bachiri and show the artist grappling with his own experience living in France and being of Moroccan heritage in a context marked by Islamophobia and racial discrimination.
“A halal (lawful) artist” and “Slaughtered according to Islamic dietary law”, the formulas Bachiri sculpted using neon found their way onto the gallery walls. The words bring to mind brutal images posted online by Daesh jihadists and remind viewers that in the aftermath of 9/11, it is difficult to disentangle Islamism from terrorism. The formulas which are used to ensure the Islamic origin of meat have been voluntarily politicized by Bachiri and transformed into a way of denouncing state-sanctioned violence and brutality. The words have become a sort of stamp that provides an overview of the artist’s varied satirical art practices which highlight his layered, idiosyncratic visual identity, one that places a particular emphasis on calligraphy. The viewing experience could almost be meditative; it eschews the easy possibilities of false catharsis. The exhibition narrates a story of activism.
The photos of Khalid Alachari appear alongside Hakim Boulouiz’s in one of the most visually compelling shows of Orienta 7. The works of both artists are an exploration of how identity takes place. The two artists have created artworks that are not merely representational but are worlds in themselves. Alachari focuses on tiny unnoticeable details in such a way as to transform ordinary landscapes into extraordinary abstract-like paintings. Boulouiz, on the other hand, makes fine, carefully composed photographs incorporating flashes of color, unexpected juxtapositions and paving the way for many layers of meaning. His fine art photos attempt to understand what and how people convey, contest, or otherwise negotiate aspects of contemporary urban life. They also offer a rare perspective on the artist’s relationship with the city or what he calls “mise en ville”. Boulouiz’s photos make the viewer feel puzzled, unsettled and mesmerized.
Many of the works displayed in Orienta 7 can be fully appreciated only by prolonged, up-close viewing. They are not isolated in time and space and must be put in context. The ultimate purpose of this important art event is to encourage the viewer to think differently, to stop and take the time to confront their own preconceived notions and to participate in the remapping of the city.