Commissioned by the Barbican as part of the ‘Art of Change’ programme, Moroccan-born artist Yto Barrada has taken over The Curve with a display of loss, separation and re-emergence. Referencing the novel ‘Agadir’ by Mohammed Khaïr Eddine, the artist reworks the spinal layout of the gallery as a fragmented timeline. Using photography, film, performance and collage, Barrada guides us through a history of colonialism, political subversion and the failure of a Modernist architectural utopia, all wrapped up in an event – an earthquake – that all but destroyed the city in fifteen seconds in 1960.
It is easy to misconstrue Barrada’s show as a story of natural disaster, to miss out on the complexity of Agadir, a city built not only on seismic but also on political fault lines. Once a sleepy town on the Moroccan coast, Agadir rose to significance as a trading town during the early 20th century, the focus of an international conflict that, in 1911, lead to the establishment of a French protectorate. Barrada’s practice stitches together political, historical and social narratives, as she carefully combines documentary strategies with fiction, poetry, and performance. For ‘Agadir,’ the effect is something like fictional journalism, questioning the naturalising ways in which we construct and consume the visual imagery and language of a disaster.
Barrada weaves perception, documentary evidence, personal memory and historical fact into a fabric of remembrance. Using contemporary media such as photography, film and reportage, her process resembles that of the weaver or seamstress: stitching, crossing, cutting, overlapping and repairing fragments into an assemblage of the past. More to the point: she has a passion for mending but also revealing breaks in the fabric of the past, for drawing attention to the work that goes in to filling in the gaps, as well as those gaps’ stubborn persistence.
Barrada’s partial attempt to ‘reverse’ the city’s destruction becomes a reflection on how we process personal and collective trauma. Most literally this symbolism is present in the traditional wicker furniture that is scattered throughout the space, inviting you to sit and listen to audio recordings or watch live performances of Khaïr Eddine’s novel-play. A poet-bureaucrat, a king, a unionist, a cook, a peasant, a billy goat, and a female Berber warrior, all appear to struggle with the question of how to mend a broken nation.
This approach makes a return in the collages and in the film. Made up of black and white documentary snap shots, they present a city in ruins, people oddly smiling while they describe how they simply went back to sleep once the roof came caving in. The mind can’t handle trauma in its purest form. We need to break it up into pieces, to relive it again at our own pace, until we make some sense of it all.