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Moroccan photography today For a geo-photo-graphy of daily life! / Text Fatima Mazmouz

In something we Africans got issue #6
In issue #6 find our selection on : Panafricanism in part 1,
Morocco’s intellectual and art scene, in part 2
Cultural links Africa – USA in part 3


In this age of image-submersion via social networks, facebook, and instagram, photography has become an essential ingredient of daily life in Morocco, which has given fresh impetus to an artistic scene that has never really embraced photography as an art. Festivals have flourished (2) (Rencontres Photographiques in Rabat, Nuits Photographiques in Essaouira, La Chambre Claire, etc) and publications have boomed (La Photographie au Maghreb, and more). Professionals everywhere are staging exhibitions and debates devoted specifically to the art of photography, an irrefutable proof that photography has become a key landmark on the Moroccan cultural and artistic landscape (3).

Since the photography of Daoud Aoulad Syad (4) in the 1980s, it would seem that photography as an art (5) in Morocco has greatly progressed; genre photography, street photography, documentary photography: the styles abound. Amid this cascade of images, we cannot help but wonder: what is the value of photography, and more precisely, in which photographic territory do these images belong? What different approaches emerge within Moroccan photography? And what types of space does Moroccan photography create? 

It is through this spatial perspective that we intend to look at Moroccan photography of today (6): the street, the city, the rural, non-places, imaginary places, photographic territories which inform us of photographers’ preoccupations today. 

 THE STREET, THE CITY

The street forces us to ask questions of ourselves; it inspires us, teaches us, piques our curiosity. It is the primary locus of sharing and discovery, offering a mise en abîme of daily life. The photographer Rachid Ouettassi has been capturing street scenes in Tangiers for the last twenty years. From winding alleys of the Medina to the banks of the Mediterranean, his photography is unequivocally philanthropic, stripped of artifice, giving us especially moving perspectives of children absorbed in their meandering play. 

Children in a different setting, the seaside, is the subject of Fouad Maazouz’s photography, marked with strong black/white contrasts in large format prints which amplify the aesthetics of the Hellenistic masculine body. The way he constructs his photography typically deploys oblique convergent lines, like the image of the flip-flops, apparently racing across the sand in the foreground, apparently awaiting the protagonist in the background, as he performs his acrobatic leap. 

Between yearnings for the street caught in perpetual motion, its constant tide of waves washing in the unexpected and an urban space banished of all formal and structural hierarchy, street photography relentlessly explores the unremitting turmoil of contemporary Moroccan daily life, driven by its intense passion for urban popular culture. It rivets the photographer’s attention and, to the keenest observers, it is a visual feast for the eyes brimming with graphic potential. 

In the last few years, Yorias Yassine Alaoui’s work has drawn great attention for its sense of acute observation. His photography is something breath-taking and always surprises the eye. His comical scenes, tinged with derision, manage to perfectly capture the situation. His Casablanca Not The Movie series depicts scenes of the daily lives of some of the poorest, turning these humdrum moments into acrobatic feats. 

While for some photographers, the street is a space for experimentation, for others it is a stage for political issues, the locus for social injustice. From Souad Guennoun‘s Incendiaires [Incendiaries] to Yto Barrada’s Dormeurs [Sleepers], for Moroccan photographers, social photography is an explicit political weapon. Among them is the young M’hammed Kilito, a budding militant, for whom photography is a political act, as with his pieces Fuck the Police or The City. 

© Yto Barrada
© Yto Barrada
© Yto Barrada

While many photographers keep permanent watch on the street for the slightest potential « photographic moment », for others, the City is the sole subject of their research. In 2013, the Moroccan Association of the Photographic Arts (AMAP) in Rabat staged an exhibition of works of the City as photographic subject: Ville en Mutations [The City in Changes]. Thami Benkirane’s works Fès and Geste [Gesture] revealed the fine line between the categories of street and city photography and their dialectical relationship. In one interview, Thami Benkirane stated: « I don’t see myself as a street photographer. My practice is manifold. I examine everything but above all, I favour an experimental approach that seeks to show how realities collide. » (7) This middle ground is also where Rachid Ouettassi might situate himself and many others in the city of Tangiers. (8)

What differentiates researching the city from street observation? Firstly, the city possibly has an iconic role and deeper exploration enables us to reveal its soul, to reflect and offer new perceptions. 

© Ziad Naitaddi
© Ziad Naitaddi
© Ziad Naitaddi

Surfing a less journalistic wave than his colleagues and working more in a territory of personal perception, Ziad Naitaddi, a short-film director influenced by the cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, offers us photography of hypersensitive, poetic dimensions. He explores the misty, gloomy ambiances of his birth town, Salé, pervading the mind with his ethereal introspection. Ziad’s images well up from inside. In one interview he stated: « As a photographer, all I seek is to reach out to and capture the depths of the human soul. In this series of dark hazy photos, I try to express my own feelings by photographing people with whom I identify and have an emotional resemblance – melancholic, solitary and isolated »(9).

Where Ziad Naitaddi’s work experiences the city as pure emotion, for the architect Zineb Andress Arraki it becomes a subject of investigation in its own right. An emissary of Casablanca, Zineb Andress Arraki studies the memory of the city. To him photography is about preserving and saving the heritage. His work is undeniably the most remarkable documentary of Casablanca of recent times. With perseverance and devotion, Zineb Andress Arraki regularly exhibits the finest images of his beloved city but also shares them on social media. He forces the gaze to discover the accidental (and accident damaged) architecture concealed within archetypal city spaces while bringing a bygone grace to the urban chaos and transforming it into a celebratory choreography where the familiar gives way to a strange feeling of pleasure. An expression of the « intimate immensity » and « joy » of which Gaston Bachelard speaks. (11)

Other photographers are also sensitive to preserving the past, especially those who specialise in Morocco’s unusual locations outside the city, on its outskirts and beyond, in disappearing rural worlds and forgotten spaces. Like Marc Augé, we shall here call those spaces, « Non-Places ». (12)

NON-PLACES

© Hakim Benchekroun « Lost in Morocco « 

Motivated by the discovery for « forgotten architectures », Hakim Benchekroun explores the length and breadth of Morocco in search of the country’s abandoned industrial heritage. As he says: « I look at obsolescent architecture, imagine how it was designed and built, and celebrate its existence before it becomes a tomb to itself. »(13) Termination is also the theme of his Lost In Morocco series, a collection of sharply contrasted black and white images in which the architecture melts into a lost, barren, almost polar landscape. In the desolation of the settings we hear the bitter moan of the fragments of life now departed. As well as a locus for memory, photography becomes the site of a tragedy unfolding, where the absence of human forms is glaring, the human being and its creations fossilise and sediment within a vaster environment ruled by silence.   

© Hakim Benchekroun « Lost in Morocco « 
© Hakim Benchekroun « Lost in Morocco « 

Sensitive to this ongoing transformation and to break the silence of oblivion, the photo-journalist Mehdy Mariouch produced Bribes de vie [Snatches of Life], a photo story of deep emotional finesse on the mines of Jerrada, a small town in the mining basin of L’Oriental region. After their closure in 2000, the mines left job insecurity and social deprivation. The inhabitants rebelled and reopened the pits with their own resources, recreating their daily lives with their own anachronistic tools, propelling them backward into the world of the 19th century. Mehdy Mariouch’s photographs illustrate these contrasting worlds: we find the shell of a locomotive, faces black with coal dust, and machines stripped down to their barebones, the distinguished elegance and gravity in the miners’ eyes, amid spaces that speak only of absence and abandonment held together by the slightest of threads. Altogether, it is a beautiful tribute from a truly humanist photographer.

In his own examination of abandonment and « non-places », Abderrahmane Doukkane revives the memory of abandoned country farmhouses, in Bouskoura for example where the memory of his childhood is still very present. “I have a close bond with farmhouses, » he confides, « When I was young I lived on a farm in Azbane. We had to sell the land for peanuts and move to the city. I felt like had been cast out of my home. The feeling has never left me.”(14). In his Jidariat series, we see walls transformed into a personal diary emblazoned with drawing and Nizar Kabbani poems. Superimposed on the wall is a burning body. Abderrahmane Doukkane conjures up an aesthetics of effacement, an almost carnal expression of his reminiscences. 

The merging of abandoned places and the memories they hold within personal recollections and life stories leads us onto another photographic territory where nostalgia meets in fiction in Yasmine Hatimi’s series, Amarcord. « Amarcord » means « I remember » in Italian dialect, a reference to Federico Fellini’s films. The series has the pictorial perspective and qualities of post-war aesthetics. My Amarcord series looks at nostalgia and memory in relation to a given space. I photographed several abandoned space in Morocco with the idea in mind that abandoned spaces have an ability to reimmerse us in a certain period of our lives: the smell of a room, its curtains and the objects that inhabit it remain intact. » (15) In their quest for daily lives from ages past, Yasmine Hatimi’s images of abandoned spaces resurrect absence and offer a space of salutary resurgence for a brief shutter flick, the instant when the past is « over-exposed ». 

Capturing the silence of forgotten places, neglected and erased from the map, sometimes becomes the photographer’s goal as they seek to capture the poetry of non-places and grasp their multiple facets. This is the case with Khalil Nemmaoui who, in his series, La Maison de L’arbre [The House of the Tree], aestheticises isolation itself, the space between « nature and civilisation », so dear to the photographer. His photography is more than a mere recording. It calls for introspection, opening the inner space of meditation, the very life breath of deserted architecture. 

In a similar vein, Hicham Gardaf replaces Khalil Nemmaoui’s introspective approach with symbolism, depicting closed worlds emanating impassive strangeness. In his photography, so expressive of Tangiers, the protagonists are immobile and trapped in silent temporality, like the little girl in the red waistcoat standing before a pile of rubble, or the moustachioed man whose eyes are riveted to the window. Hicham Gardaf’s voiceless photography is a blunt reminder of the atmospheres of Edward Hopper’s painting and its nostalgic chronicle of deep change. 

Ymane Fakhir is not to be outdone. In his photography for the Ajammar exhibition presented at the Abderrahman Slaoui Museum in March 2018, the photographer examines the venerated site of Sidi Abderhaman in Casablanca made famous for its occult practices. Of this non-place par excellence, in Michel Foucault’s terms (16), the photographer only depicts the silence of secrecy, disregarding the swarms of people who come here to release their suffering and frustrations with life. The only living creatures in his work are a handful of goats gazing out at the sea. 

Among these uncountable non-places gaining ground in Morocco, there are also the suburbs. The development of real estate on the fringes cities like Casablanca is gradually encroaching on the rural space, creating territories of dissonant temporality. With her Annexes series, Zakria Ait Wakrim, absorbs these silences and translates them via her infrared technique to create sense of trapped gravity, the cruellest emanations of which can already be felt in the changing countryside. 

To bring a close to non-places and the silence they encapsulate, the humour of work by Othman Zine, also a director of cinematic photography, and the work of the Chambre Claire prize winner, Youssef Lahrichci, offer other possible directions for photography. Youssef Lahrichci’s series, Nouveaux Mondes [New Worlds], produced for the Burning Man Festival in Nevada offers a surrealist dream world in which the solitary protagonists are caught mid-activity or contemplation, and clearly part of some bigger drama. The sense of space in Othman Zine’s work troubles the gaze. His photography offers an ambiguous perception of the real world as it merges with the imaginary, demonstrating how close in nature the staged and constructed imaginary scene and the photographic space of the non-place revived through inner poetry can be. Youssef Lahrichi breaks these codes by using the city as a stage setting for his own tableaux. Emptied of its inhabitants, Casablanca seems to pose beside the protagonists as they perform their quirky activities. By displacing meaning, Rêveries Urbaines [Urban Dreams] accesses a photographic space of the absurd disturbing Casablanca’s usual visual codes, and in the process, those of the altruistic recognition of the individual. This theatricality brings humour and social criticism. 

IMAGINARY WORLDS / STAGED SETTINGS

Imaginary places are brought to life through staging which in photography creates worlds of make-believe or artifice. Both require total control of what is captured with the frame. (17)

Among staged photography in Morocco, Hicham Benohoud’s work is perfectly executed in this respect, whether it is La salle de classe [The Classroom] or more recently the Acrobatics series, where nothing is taken for chance in the photographic performance. In his series Down in the Rabbit Hole begun in 2013, Amina Benbouchta offers similar theatrical works in which she poses regally in kaftans in Moroccan interiors, her face masked by domestic objects. Since Shadi Ghadirian and her famous series from 2000, Like Every Day, in which her female protagonists’ faces were covered by household implements expressing women’s status in Arab-Islamic society and their feeling of enclosure, many other artists have used the same process to create critiques of their worsening daily conditions. With equally querulous verve, Amina Benbouchta had the ingenuity to imbue her photography with her own poetic and artistic world. By staging her photographs, rather than create an arena for direct confrontation, she constructs territories based on the outlandish: we find the photographer, her face covered by a coal shovel, standing amid a pile of apples on a living room table; or we find piling up metal lampshade frames to form a skirt. The iconographical world she creates metamorphoses the photographic space into a locus for writing, vacillating between allegory and fable. 

In a very different photographic register, Amine Oulmakki plays on these hybrid worlds the strangeness of which emanates from a sense of suspended temporality. The young set-photographer, video editor and filmmaker sets her characters in freeze-frame against a black background in quirky settings, lit by sardonic half-light, an aesthetic which combines the Spanish tenebrist heritage with Pedro Almodovar’s offhandedness. The space produced by Amine Oulmakki initially emerges in a feeling of gravity soon counterbalanced by the artifice of theatricality. In her Intérieurs [Interiors] series, her photography creates a space for derision. 

© Amine Oulmakki
© Amine Oulmakki
© Amine Oulmakki
© Amine Oulmakki

Caught up in the desire to transcend the day-to-day through the banalities of our surroundings, Déborah Benzaquen produces photography of surrealist inner poetry. She sets her Désenchantée [Disenchanted] series in the abattoirs of Casablanca, a legend in its own right. Within this setting she writes a new story with carefully selected objects, such as a blouse and pants hanging above a pit between two meat hooks. In this landscape of deliquescent beauty, a site in ruins, replete with its own history and aura, Déborah Benzaquen’s photography is both enigmatic and irresistibly insolent. 

© Déborah Benzaquen
© Déborah Benzaquen
© Safaa Mazirh « autoportrait »
© Safaa Mazirh  » Poupées « 

Safaa Mazirh takes intimacy to its ultimate conclusion to create photography with a very different approach and perception of daily life. The only tool and setting she deploys is her own body, which she uses to ask searching questions of the private space, using it as a shelter for the stigmata of a life, while abandoning herself to it with a highly delicate photographic expressiveness similar to early 20th century pictorialism. With this ineffably charming pictorial approach, the photographer examines the identity of her female body, its movements and postures. The site of the imaginary becomes the site of the unspeakable for Safaa Mazirh, a space for ultimate regeneration, recasting the fragmentation of the identity in a poetic space sometimes ornamented with traces of the Berber culture which cloud her evanescent memory. 

© Safaa Mazirh
© Safaa Mazirh  » Amazigh »

Through this intervention, the territory of photography, a space of expression for the unspeakable, is a locus of reparation and healing. It begins to rewrite history, becoming a valve through which the banes and blights of the past can drain out. It enables tragedy to be experienced afresh in calmer settings. In his series Chronique d’un deuil familial [Chronicle of Family Grief], Jaafar Akil daubs photos from the family album with splashes of colour, as though dressing the still-open wound of his father’s death, the truth of which was hidden for so many years. With this series, Jaafar Akil is able to drain the tumult of life and of his family history and, in the process, abandons operative classicism for a more committed form of photography. Family albums and reparation also form the basis of Carolle Bénitah’s work, who day-by-day explores the joy and impulsiveness of her Moroccan childhood. The reparative photographic space is a space of atonement where the galactic free-floating fragments of memory become reconciled with their real space, Morocco. For both photographers, the imaginary places within the photographic territory when staged, embroidered, sculpted, drawn upon and repaired function as a form of therapeutic transfer, as though « patching up the incurable »(18), promising new, less tortuous routes within an inner topography in turmoil.

© Carolle Benitah
© Carolle Benitah
© Carolle Benitah
© Carolle Benitah

 

Conclusion 

The many varied aesthetics of contemporary Moroccan photography are vibrant proof of its great creative and artist output. Whether as street, city or rural photography or as imaginary scenes, the spaces created speak volumes of the « global organisation of society » (19) in Morocco today. It is a space which seeks out a deep sense of individuality bringing great subjectivity to their modes of perception. 

This whole new generation of photographers has appropriated the territory of photography for itself in the express goal of creating a personal form of writing, influenced naturally by cinema. Through it they demonstrate a common interest in mankind depicting either memory in transition as in the work of Mehdy Mariouch or recounting personal worlds like Ziad Naitaddi’s photos or creating poetic realism like Yasmine Hatimi. Human beings and sensitivities are at the heart of Moroccan photography whether speaking of human absence, of metaphysical human presence in constructed spaces, or of peoples’ place in society or in their personal lives: all cast a devious critical eye on Moroccan society today. 

©Fatima Mazmouz, From the series « Bouzbir »
©Fatima Mazmouz, From the series  « Bouzbir »

A mode of legitimizing individuality, Moroccan photography today could be defined as a critique of daily existence caught between the compromise of Roland Barthes’ ça a été and Gilles Deleuze’s famous « Time-Image » offering a glimpse of the joyous becoming inherent in the « Movement-Image » of photography, a territory to be conquered.

1 – In reference to the title of Michel Foucault's work, Des espaces autres (conférence au Cercle d'études architecturales, 14 mars 1967), in Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, no. 5, October 1984, pp. 46-49. "Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias", a lecture to architects translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/foucault1.pdf

2 - La Chambre Claire is an innovative African program which supports emerging African photography. It is organised by Fondation Alliances and was founded by Othmane Lazraq and Meriem Berrada. 

-La photographie au Maghreb, Enjeux symboliques et créations artistique, [Photography in the Maghreb, Symbolic Stakes and Artistic Creation] edited by Abdelghani Fennane, and published in January of this year with Editions Aimance Sud, 2018

3 – The art scene in Morocco is still dependent on an unfortunate and damaging amalgamation of different artistic statuses – professional, amateur and occasional dabbler – devoid of distinction, which greatly affects the reception of photography in Morocco. Criticism is based on the simple following premise: command of the tool and technique is paramount; creative processes and approaches have no role to play. There is no interest in educating the gaze or in photographic sensibilities. This is not just true of Morocco but applies to contemporary art in general. 

4 – Le Maroc de Daoua Aoulad Syad - Daoua Aoulad Syad's Morocco: a touring exhibition of French Institutes in Morocco, February 2018 to January 2019

5 - Dominique BAQUÉ, La Photographie plasticienne, un art paradoxal [Photography – a Paradoxical Art], Paris, Éditions du regard, 1998

6 - This article will only look at work that could be termed "auteur photography". I shall disregard photography that is part of the broader contemporary art scene. See La photographie au Maghreb, the essay by Mohamed Rachdi, "De l'usage de la photographie dans les pratiques des artistes contemporains du Maroc" [Photography as practiced by contemporary Moroccan artists].

7 - Thami Benkirane , interview with the artist, 13 September 2018

8 - Taferssiti - Ouettassi , Tanger, cité de rêve [Tangiers, City of Dreams], édition, Paris Méditerrannée, 2002

9 – From Ziad Naitaddi's website:

 https://loeildelaphotographie.com/fr/ziad-naitaddi/

10 - "Holding Casablanca", exhibition curated by Salma Lahlou, presented in Dubai and at the Moussem festival in February 2018

11 - Gaston Bachelard, La poétique de l’espace [The Poetics of Space], Press universitaire de France, 3rd edition, 1961,  p.211

12- Marc Augé, Non Lieux [Non-Places], Seuil, 2015

13- Source: the Essaouira Nuits website:

https://essaouiranuitsphotographiques.com/hakim-benchekroun/

14 – Quoted from an article by Kaouthar Oudrhiri, "Jidariat: Doukkane règle la focale sur l'abandon" [Jidariat: Doukkane focuses on abandonment] 

 https://telquel.ma/ HYPERLINK "https://telquel.ma/2016/04/28/jidariat-doukkane-regle-focale-labandon_1492304" HYPERLINK "https://telquel.ma/2016/04/28/jidariat-doukkane-regle-focale-labandon_1492304" HYPERLINK "https://telquel.ma/2016/04/28/jidariat-doukkane-regle-focale-labandon_1492304" HYPERLINK "https://telquel.ma/ HYPERLINK "https://telquel.ma/2016/04/28/jidariat-doukkane-regle-focale-labandon_1492304"2016 HYPERLINK "https://telquel.ma/2016/04/28/jidariat-doukkane-regle-focale-labandon_1492304"/ HYPERLINK "https://telquel.ma/2016/04/28/jidariat-doukkane-regle-focale-labandon_1492304"04 HYPERLINK "https://telquel.ma/2016/04/28/jidariat-doukkane-regle-focale-labandon_1492304"/ HYPERLINK "https://telquel.ma/2016/04/28/jidariat-doukkane-regle-focale-labandon_1492304"28 HYPERLINK "https://telquel.ma/2016/04/28/jidariat-doukkane-regle-focale-labandon_1492304"/jidariat-doukkane-regle-focale-labandon  

15 - Article by Selma Naguib, "Autoportrait d'une passionnée: Yasmine Hatimi" [A self-portrait of a Passionate Artist]

http://www.kawnculture.com/autoportrait-dune-passionnee-de-photographie-yasmine-hatimi/

16 - Michel Foucault, Les corps utopiques, Les hétérotopies, édition Lignes, 2009. A collection featuring "The Utopian Body" and "Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias".

17 - Jean Baudrillard, Simulacres et simulation [Simulacrum and Simulation], 1985, Galilée

18 - Emil Michel Cioran, Syllogismes de l'amertume [Syllogisms of Bitterness], Gallimard, Folio Essais, Paris, 1987, p. 27: "Being modern means patching up with the Incurable". Mohamed Elbaz used the expression to describe his whole artistic production.

19 - Henri Lefebvre, La production de l’espace, Paris: Anthropos, 1974, p 35: "The (social) space is a (social) product (…) space thus produced also serves as a tool of thought and of action; (...) in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control and hence of domination, of power." The Production of Space, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Wiley-Blackwell Hoboken, New Jersey, 1992, p26.