Yto Barrada, The Dye Garden
May 10–July 8, 2018
Curated by Peter Benson Miller
American Academy in Rome
Via Angelo Masina, 5, Rome, Italy
The Dye Garden features new work by the acclaimed Moroccan-French artist Yto Barrada, whose artistic practice weaves together family history and broader sociopolitical narratives, employing a variety of media, including photography, film, installation, sculpture, books, and hand-dyed textiles.
Barrada has long investigated gestures and grammar of resistance to structures of power and control. She has an abiding interest in mechanisms of displacement and dislocation, as well as questions of appropriation and authenticity. All of these themes she treats with humor and a taste for enigma.
A short film and artist’s book entitled Tree Identification for Beginners (2017), commissioned for Performa 17 in New York, were developed during Barrada’s Residency at the American Academy in Rome. In the film, Barrada revisits her mother Mounira Bouzid’s 1966 trip to the United States as part of a travel program sponsored by the US State Department. Operation Crossroads Africa attempted to convince African students identified as future leaders “that the US is a vital society worthy of sympathetic or at least serious consideration.” But the turbulent summer ’66 was the time of Pan-Africanism, the Tricontinental Conference, and the Black Power and anti–Vietnam War movements.
Over rhythmically edited 16mm stop-motion animation of Montessori toys and grammar symbols, the film’s voiceovers, drawn from archival research (and many of which were read by members of the community at the American Academy in Rome), juxtaposes Barrada’s mother’s stories of the summer with the organizer’s perspectives on the Africans’ attitudes toward this cross-cultural experiment, and other voices of this era.
Long engaged with the botanical—palm trees, Tangier’s native irises, weeds, and the ragged edges of the urban landscape—Barrada has lately explored the foraging and extraction of natural pigments and the dyeing of fabric, an ancient tradition codified in the modern period by, among others, the English textile designer and socialist activist William Morris in The Art of Dyeing (1889). Among Barrada’s upcoming projects is the creation of a dye garden in Tangier—in the same spirit as the garden laid-out by the Dada artist Hannah Höch in Germany—as an extension of her multidisciplinary community building projects, which date back to her founding of the Cinémathèque de Tanger eleven years ago.
The new textile works shown in this exhibition—designed and hand-dyed by Barrada—reference Frank Stella’s series of fluorescent paintings from 1964–65, inspired in part by the Moroccan cities he visited on his honeymoon. Stella is one of many international artists who sought aesthetic inspiration and self-discovery in North Africa. These artistic epiphanies, lived out in the colonial and postcolonial space, have often been invoked to explain changes in the artists’ palettes. Paul Klee’s experience in Tunisia, for example, sparked the revelation, expressed in his diary, that “color possesses me … color and I are one. I am a painter.” Robert Rauschenberg, too, traveled to Morocco in 1953, where he gathered materials from antiquarian bookstalls that he incorporated into a series of collages mounted on shirt cardboard; a selection of these works is on display in the vitrines.
The colors in Barrada’s textiles reappropriate the forms and hues of Stella’s modernist abstractions and transpose them onto fabric using dyes made in her studio from plants, minerals, and insects. The results recall works by painters Mohamed Chebaa, Farid Belkahia, and Mohammed Melehi, founders of the Casablanca School in the 1960s, who pioneered a North African modernist abstraction derived from the motifs and materials of popular, local art forms.
In the interlinked logic behind the hard-candy photograms, sculptures, and film in The Dye Garden, Barrada engages abstraction, undermines occidental assumptions, unearths new grammars of resistance, and celebrates disobedience.