“I like the constraint of having to make a piece with whatever is available. That’s one rule at the studio.”
“All my work explores strategies of survival—of resistance and constraint,” the artist Yto Barrada has said. “The central question remains disobedience and insurrection. How does one acquire and transmit political courage?” Barrada’s work continually explores this question—whether addressing her hometown of Tangier, fossils, modernist histories, or the geopolitics of migration. Surveying her prolific and expansive body of work, one gets the sense she is always working: filming, editing, printing, quilting, making a book, weaving, running a cinematheque, planting a garden.
Born in Paris, Barrada grew up in Tangier. After studying history and political science in Paris and photography in New York, Barrada returned to Tangier again in the late 1990s. In 1998, she began The Strait Project, a series documenting the physical, psychic, and political impact of the Strait of Gibraltar, the narrow body of water connecting the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans, Northern Africa, and Southern Europe. Charting the effects of Morocco’s constricted border following the European Union’s 1991 Schengen Agreement, the photographs in this series “reveal violence—deaf, creeping violence,” which increased alongside harsh restrictions for Moroccan travelers and would-be African migrants.
Barrada conveys an intimate proximity to her subjects—in the relaxed weight of resting bathers in Baigneurs ou jour de congés (Bathers or Day Off), in her direct gaze at the rotting flesh of a beached dolphin in Dauphin—offering up a complexity that curator Owkui Enwezor described as “the political subjectivity of the photograph.” In these works, as well as in images of landscapes, an abandoned schoolyard, and the facade of a construction site wall, Barrada weaves together historical referents, geographies, and the political tension of a city, opening up a space in which passage and play are possible. Alternately guided by research, humor, and chance, Barrada’s work represents social structures and communication that exist outside of language. In Autocar—Tangier, Figs. 1–4 she pairs vivid geometric shapes with testimonials of illegal teenage bus riders, revealing them to be symbols for routes and destinations. The anonymous figures in Dormeurs (Sleepers) depict quiet acts of resistance legible within states of exhaustion.
In 2006, Barrada led the group that transformed Cinéma Rif, a 1930s theater on the Souk Barra, one of Tangier’s most famous squares, into the nonprofit Cinémathèque de Tanger, the city’s first and only repertory cinema and archive. As an extended project, Cinémathèque de Tanger can be understood in relation to Barrada’s interest in archives and histories of education; central to its mission is enabling public access to a growing collection of films from North Africa and the Middle East. In her own films, Barrada often uses found footage, following associations and building accreted layers. Tree Identification for Beginners (2017) revisits her mother’s trip to the United States on a State Department–sponsored travel program for “young african leaders” at the height of the US civil rights movement. The film essay combines collected footage and stop-motion animation using Montessori children’s toys with the voices of her mother and civil rights organizer Stokely Carmichael, and sound effects recorded by Barrada and foley artists. Installed with a hand-stitched and naturally dyed curtain, the film installation brings together Barrada’s research on abstraction and educational systems with her own family’s history and the political urgency of decolonization, Pan-Africanism, Black Power, and anti–Vietnam War movements. Working across mediums, Barrada produces art that is never simply a sculpture, a photograph, or a film, but always a series of propositions that situate the work within a complex cultural and historical narrative.
In A Raft, Barrada gathers artworks from The Museum of Modern Art’s collection that resonate with the ideas of the French social work pioneer Fernand Deligny to “consider art as a mode of being beyond language.” By focusing on Deligny’s attempt during the late 1960s to enact a new way of living “outside of language,” attuned to children with nonverbal autism, Barrada asks us to reconsider new modes of being in community. This question of community is also a question of survival: Barrada shows us that political courage can be found everywhere—we just have to use it.
River Encalada Bullock, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, Department of Photography, 2021
Note: opening quote is from “Yto Barrada with Osman Can Yerebakan,” in The Brooklyn Rail, June 2018. https://brooklynrail.org/2018/06/art/YTO-BARRADA-with-Osman-Yerebakan.