Yto Barrada / Interview Ludovic Delalande

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

« Isn’t Africa the centre of the world? It’s my centre, and my projects all radiate from this terrestrial position. Even when I took an interest in a new subject like dinosaurs, the project was only able to take off after I discovered a Moroccan dinosaur in an auction house. Everything took off from there: the long list of African dinosaurs, the lack of a natural history museum, and the forgers’ famous know-how. »

– Yto Barrada

Yto Barrada © Benoît Peverelli

Yto Barrada was born in Paris in 1971, and grew up between Tangier and the French capital where she studied History, Anthropology, and Political Sciences at the Sorbonne University. While she was working on military checkpoints in Cisjordania, she realised the importance of the role images played in her approach, and decided to perfect her studies at The International Center of Photography in New York. This was a turning point in her career, one that lead her to choosing an artistic path. Ever since the first photographic body of work she created in Tangier at the end of the 1990s’, Morocco appears as an essential starting point and ongoing source of inspiration. Yto Barrada revisits the shifts of the postcolonial country through a variety of lenses: political, economical, social, urban, geographic and cultural. She explores its recent and distant past, its heritage and memory, and examines new challenges brought forth by globalisation. Influenced by poetry, cinema, literature, and philosophy, her multidisciplinary work mixes medias and materials, including photography, sculpture, installation, print, models, objects, textile, as well as film. An empath towards her environment, Barrada’s oeuvre is polysemic and universal, singular and sensible, poetic and political, and echoes in a very strong way the rumours and rustle of our contemporary world. Based in New York since 2012, the French-moroccan artist still regularly visits Tangier, where she is currently developing a new project, a dye plant garden-farm.

Ludovic Delalande  :  What is your evaluation of your setting up of the Tangier Cinémathèque in 2006? Have the initial objectives been met?

Yto Barrada  : For over ten years, creating the Cinémathèque in Tangier’s former Rif Cinema took up most of my time. Today, it would seem that the wager has been won. It’s the only place in the country where you can see the classics of world cinema, art films and documentaries. It has become a tricontinental of cinema, with Moroccan, African, Asian, and Latin American films. The Cinémathèque was first born to fill a void and to re-invest a city. The cinemas were shutting down one by one. At the same time, satellite dishes were popping up on every roof terrace in the city and, with the application of the Schengen Agreement, Europe’s borders were closing. A weird atmosphere of isolation reigned in Tangier. This project was thus born out of the desire to conserve a historic building – which has since been listed – to show films that are impossible to see elsewhere, and to offer Tangier a real centre of culture, creativity and debate. Moreover, it was made possible thanks to the help of a group of artists; it must thus also be seen as an artistic intervention in the urban space.  

Twelve years after the Cinémathèque, you are developing a new ambitious project in Tangier: a tinctorial plant garden-farm. Can you tell us more about it? I have been using natural dyes for several years now, and I wanted to make my own colours. I have lots of varieties of tinctorial plants in my house in Tangiers’ garden. So, alongside the orchard and vegetable plot, I decided to add the missing species and to organize them by colour. I’m going to start with dyer’s madder, Reseda (mignonette), and Indigofera. Red, yellow, blue. It will be a place of production, of cloth dyeing, but also an educational place with workshops and courses. I want it to be open to specialists and to amateurs, to students and to local groups. I would also like to open it up to cooks who use plants and to invite them to come. I am really interested in artists who cook. I have a few friends who are very good cooks and who are interested in plants; I’d like to bring all of this together, to find a way to invite them. I want to create a place of exchange, of sharing, of knowledge and of transmitting expertise; a pluri-disciplinary place that brings people together around a shared interest in plants and their uses. I also want to associate local craftspeople with the project, such as weavers, but also basket-makers and potters. I hope to be able to invite people by next Spring. 

How did you come up with the idea?  The idea was to start out from what already existed. While talking to botanists and gardeners, and reading a manual, I realized that 70% of the flowers, plants and trees used in dyes were already present on the grounds. There are local plants and others that have become naturalized, which either come from the next-door garden, or which were planted by former owners. I am interested in the question of plant propagation and migration. Some ornamental flowers at times have a function. It being possible to turn their flowers and stalks into colours. As for trees, we can use their leaves, bark and roots. As the Florentine dyers of the 15th century used to say, « All weeds make dye » (Ogni erbaccia fa tinta); it was their motto. You need large quantities of some plants to get colour from them. It’s exhilarating and laborious at the same time.

How did you first become interested in botany? My interest in botany was born in my family, in Tangier, which was a very green city, a countryside-city. Located between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, it has a very rich biodiversity, but this is threatened by standardization today. Over the last fifteen or so years, the countryside has been disappearing with the relentless pace of extensive urbanization. This destructive modernity has of course modified the way of life. In reaction to this phenomenon of dispossession and uprooting, I became interested in the things that are disappearing and those that are being invented. I rediscovered a whole array of possible forms through plants, through my lack of knowledge of them. But I was lucky enough to be initiated by botanists and gardeners. I was thus able to reconnect with a way of working, of expressing myself, by taking interest in their ways of life, the places where the plants were found and the practices that surround them. I also began meeting people who had a real knowledge of plants and who conserve the memory of them. For example, I discovered that some people come to admire flowers in the Rif and that they go on long treks simply to look at a flower at the very same time that we are destroying this patrimony. In Tangier, in Morocco, there are extraordinary people who have spent their lives collecting these plants.

Yto Barrada, « Bouquet d’iris », Jalobey, 2008
Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg
Yto Barrada  » Field of Irises « , Tangier 2007
Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg


While your interest in botany seems to have always been present in your work, dyeing cloth with natural pigments is a more recent practice. How did you learn this technique? In 2012, I took a generalist course in weaving, sewing and dyeing during a year-long residency at the New York Textile Arts Center. In the classes on the history of textiles, I realized the importance that the quest for colours has had in the world’s aesthetic, economic and political history. With dyeing, you have the labouring of the land, the history of workers’ struggles, aesthetic history, the history of art, economic and political history, colonial and precolonial history. During this year-long initiation, I realized that I wasn’t the only one interested in these now burning questions, which had been abandoned at the end of the 19th century when chemical dyes were discovered. I am interested in botanical illiteracy in general. Today, no one knows the names of the trees and plants anymore; it’s like a world apart. I discovered that, here in New York, with limited space and very different climate, I could plant too. I also took horticultural classes and did several workshop to perfect myself in Japan and in Paris with the association Colore ton monde (Colour Your World), and I am now ready to go! 

Can this undertaking be understood as a form of both safeguarding and resistance? Without a doubt. At the moment, a very recent idea is spreading according to which we don’t have to look exclusively to Europe or to America and that, on the contrary, there are all sorts of local narratives to invest, reinvest and reactivate. The Moroccan patrimony is being revived by Moroccan artists and artists who come to Morocco. North African patrimonial history – be it Berber, Arabic, Muslim, or African – is very rich and little taught. The « things from home » have become legitimate again; they are asserted loud and clear and are playing a part in this new creative effervescence. Decolonization isn’t over. That’s why I really want local craftspeople to participate in the tinctorial garden project and for us to be able to teach their expertise in the workshops. There is now a real interest, notably in the artistic milieus, in these ancestral techniques. It’s encouraging. 

Is the tinctorial garden a zone of resistance too? Yes, perhaps in the sense of a movement to reappropriate lands, in the same vein as the spontaneous « pirate gardens » in Tangier photographed by the landscaper, Eugénie Denarnaud. My garden will above all be a trial garden, a initiatory garden, thanks to its power as a counter-model. Today in Morocco, the wide-scale use of natural pigments has practically disappeared, but at the same time, there’s a renewed interest in less polluting techniques, in manual work and traditional craftwork. I absolutely have to find a way to organize and transmit this knowledge. What’s lacking is a guidebook that would list both plants in Morocco and their possible usage for a local, uninitiated public. I would like to produce a publication of this kind, perhaps next year. 

Do you consider the tinctorial garden to be a work unto itself Absolutely, it’s a work unto itself. I feel like at the beginning of the Cinémathèque twelve years ago; I’m setting out again, with doubts, but the demands of a schedule and a budget will leave little time for the rest. I am also curious to discover other artists’ gardens, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Virginia Woolf’s and in particular Hannah Höch’s, which I want to photograph.

While your works are characterized by a great variety of forms and media (photography, writing, video, objects, sound, sculpture, books, etc.), textiles appear to be increasingly present in your work. How do you explain this choice? I prefer working with constraints. I have been forcing myself to use a minimum of elements from outside my studio. I have a huge collection of cloths, collected over the years: sheets, tablecloths, curtains that are inherited from my family, picked up in the street, or bought in flea markets. I thus started with a series of flags with the poems of Mejdoub, a 16th-century Moroccan hermit. This project, which I carried out with Omar Berrada on the occasion of the Marrakech Biennale (2016), was born out of the constraint of giving a second life to these cloths. It also answered an economic question, but above all the desire to play with these constraints.

More recently, during a trip to the South Pole (Antarctica Biennale 2017), I had to write a project in the space of a few days. As it is forbidden for visitors to collect anything whatsoever from the ice floe and given that, in any case, there was only penguin guano (pink), I used just food waste to make the dye. I managed to make a dozen colours. When we reached Paradise Bay, I presented my cloths laid out on the ice floe. For me, it was like a mobile garden. From now on, whether through sewing, embroidery or directly through dyeing, I want to use cloth to represent kinds of gardens, to translate and transpose a garden in a form of abstraction that is mobile, a kind of portable garden like a chief’s blanket.  

Does the increased presence of dyed cloths auger a shift towards a more pictorial dimension in your work, as your recent Dye Garden project suggests? I often draw and am painting more and more with my cloth collages. It’s amusing to observe that a hanging cloth can be suspect, yet when it is stretched on a frame, it’s different, it can be bought. How to display textile work is a real question. Laid out flat or on a pedestal, hanging or fixed like in ethnographic or generalist museums? I spent a lot of time thinking about how to present works of the After Stella series. They are patchworks that I stitched back-to-front and as it’s difficult to smooth them, I sewed them onto hessian, stretched them on a frame then put them inside Plexiglas boxes. 

Concomitantly, is photography, which underwent a radical shift towards text, the appearance of which sealed your entry into the sphere of art, tending to disappear in favour of new forms, and is this by chance or by choice? I think that I am still in the realm of documentary. Photography unquestionably had a more central place previously but, at the same time, I have always used different forms, such as film, sculpture and installation. There are no assumptions, in fact. I work in a highly empirical way; after, there are coincidences, discoveries. I get the impression that my activity develops in a flow, an overflow. Even if I often go off on a tangent, I always remain rooted in something very familiar. It can happen that I get interested in a same subject several times and revisit it in different forms. A film might thus be an image or a drawing. 

Are we seeing a shift from image to space, from the two- to three-dimensional? I have to think about the volume of the colours and about the volume they might take, their depth. (…) Find the full interview and its French version  in something we Africans got issue 6. Get the full pdf.

art works by  Yto Barrada © Yto Barrada, courtesy Pace Gallery; Sfeir- Semler Gallery, Hamburg, Beirut; and Galerie Polaris, Paris

in something we Africans got 
issue 6
Ludovic Delalande 
July 2018

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