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HEAD ON: A conversation between Yasmina Benabderrahmane and Adrien Genoudet

A.G: You went back to Morocco for the first time in 2012, after fourteen years of absence. This work is the result of numerous trips, and the images you have created from them make up, in a sense, a cartography that is both real and intimate. On the one hand, they present characters who are members of your family and, on the other, precise places with which you have a parti- cular relationship. Can you discuss your arrival in Morocco and how you discovered “the Beast”?

Y.BEarly on, I travelled around the region of Rabat with my uncle and his wife. One day, they showed me the site of an enormous building project, the Grand Theatre, which was to be constructed in the Bouregreg Valley. It used to be said that no building would ever be constucted in this valley, known as the Potters’ Valley, because the earth in the marshlands is soft, crumbly, unstable, and unsuitable for development. You could still feel the living traces of people who took clay from the valley to make pottery, tagine dishes, and other ornaments. It was a beautiful and moving experience, and it seemed unlikely that anything would ever be built there. My uncle, who is a geologist working for the state, runs a research laboratory in charge of evaluating terrain and developing soil solidification methods while respecting the local terrain. You can’t just move in and develop this site, because the earth is alive. And so rocks were brought in from the Middle East to harden the soft earth and create new ground through which water could still pass and penetrate. I found this story quite incredible. I only realised later on that the Grand Theatre project had been initiated by the King himself. He had asked Zaha Hadid to design the architecture and she had accepted. The project began in 2014 but unfortunately she died during the construction, in 2016. Consequently, it is her last architectural achievement, a posthumous work in a manner of speaking.

A.G: And so you didn’t have a precise project in mind when you returned there for the first time?

Y.BNo, not really. This trip for me was a little like a return to my roots. I wanted to enquire into my origins, understand where I come from and who I am. There comes a moment, around the age of thirty, when you want to know these things. I told my Aunt Hnia that I wanted to return to Morocco and she said, “Go on then, do it! We’ll get tickets and I’ll take you.” Being with her was important for me; she was the one who made going back possible.

A.G: And so, first of all, thanks to your uncle, you discovered this valley marked by an enormous building site. Then there were the family reunions, in an isolated village in the Atlas Mountains, where your grandmother was born and lived. She would become one of the central characters in your work. 

Y.B: We hadn’t been in Morocco together since I was five. We went to Chichaoua, near the village she grew up in, where her ninety-six-year-old sister lives. We arrived during the Eid celebrations. The other territory that features heavily is Immintanout, a Berber valley in the Middle Atlas. My uncle works there from time to time, evaluating the types of rock that can be used to make concrete in potential quarries, to construct bridges or other structures. He is very close to this Berber earth; he has always been familiar with the soil and the stones.

A.G: The question of the materiality of the places you film is essential to your work, which is dominated by an extremely sensitive relationship with the elements. Were you struck by these places for what they are or for what was actually happening there? 

Y.B: It was an encounter. I often approach places as I do people, by stumbling in the dark. I’m as curious as a child and I let myself be surprised, open to the notion of time that flows through space. I saw the Bouregreg Valley change little by little, rutted and ripped apart; day by day the landscape was assaulted. And I observed the inhabitants who remained there, who fought and resisted. They were surprised, saying: “What’s the use? Why such an enormous construction site? There’s already a theatre in Rabat.” After a while, you realise that the project will take place no matter what because it was decided upon by the King. In those first moments, I also remember the silence. When I visited the site in the beginning, everything was calm. I went there during the breaks or during Ramadan, when people weren’t working; they were either eating or praying. Around the site, you could see vast areas of land, flat and bare, with new roads and immense, empty, rocky expanses. A desert was slowly emerging from nowhere, because before there was no desert. Mountains started to appear. They grew larger and larger, like enormous pyramids. Everything was very dry, very powdery, without water. The whole picture was lifeless because the animals had moved away. Everything seemed strange. My first films try to show the strangeness of these non-zones, with things flying through the air, dust, and silence.

A.G: So you started to make images early on?

Y.B: Yes, very early on. In 2012, I rediscovered a country I had completely forgotten and that had changed dramatically. I didn’t even recognize my family. At first I couldn’t stop crying. My grandmother’s sister would say that I had abandoned them, because I hadn’t come back before. Really, I think she was talking to my mother, but I was quite shaken. It’s terrible when you don’t see your family growing up. So I started to film everything. I wanted to give a form to everything. I was inspired by the effects of passing time on things and beings. When I was a child, I took photographs all the time. It was a way of interacting with the world and being in the world. I also find it helpful to look through a filter, a screen, a glass structure. These images are embedded in my own story and in my family’s story. When you look at them, you can tell that my grandmother lived simply, in close contact with tradition. Since I was brought up by her, this contact was always important for me, even though we live in France, not in the country where she was born and raised.

A.G: Due to the way you film your grandmother, she also becomes a metaphorical character. She embodies tradition through her gestures and words. How did she become the central figure in your work?

Y.B: One day my grandmother said to me: “You can’t force anyone to be filmed or to pose for you. But you can film me; I have nothing to lose. I’m old.” My grandmother is a very devout, extremely chaste person. The only visible parts of her body are her feet and hands. I started to film her day-to-day life. It started naturally, like a game. My grandmother doesn’t speak French very well. I understand everyday Moroccan Arabic, but don’t speak it well because I haven’t lived in Morocco long enough to understand the subtleties. People often say to me: “Yasmina, what are you saying? How can you behave like that? You can’t do this or that.” Since my grandmother is someone I love, I wanted to capture all these moments, to collect them and seal them up somehow. In the end, it’s quite a selfish activity. Somebody recently said to my mother: “Yasmina comes and steals from us by filming everything she can.” But for me it’s something else. We share moments: someone takes care of you and in exchange you give them what you have to give.

A.G: The figure of your uncle is more ambiguous and complex. He trained as a geologist and a concrete specialist; he works for the state and is, in a sense, responsible for the smooth running of the site. You film him appraising and testing the reliability of the soil, mapping the land… and also during more intimate moments, such as when he is washing and praying, or during Eid with your grandmother, his mother. He still has ties with tradition, but he is also a person who authorises and causes these vast building sites to exist, a kind of “hand of modernity”. What is your relationship with him?

Y.B: My uncle never says no, in accordance with the rules of Moroccan hospitality. I am his niece. He is proud of me, always happy to introduce me to others. However, although I was warmly welcomed, nobody really knew what I was doing there. My uncle is my mother’s little brother. He studied extensively in France and completed his doctorate in geology. When he completed his thesis, he said he wanted to go back home: “Morocco is my country. It’s the most beautiful country in the world, a paradise for geologists.” He has worked on many urban projects, including the extension of the tram network in Rabat. Developing the Bouregreg Valley in this way, deforming the landscape with all that concrete, goes against all my values. But modernising Morocco’s infrastructure is very important. There are so many poor roads, very few connections between villages, ineffective hydro networks – some villages don’t even have running water. In the region of Immintanout, a river was recently diverted to bring water to the villagers, which is essential. I feel like I’m between two positions.

A.G: In a way, your uncle and your grandmother are opposed in their relationships with contemporary Morocco, and yet they are not antithetic or contrary figures – they come together in the photographs you took during Eid. Do you see them as two figures or as two metaphors for different Moroccan values of time?

Y.B: Above all, what we see is the relationship between a mother and her child. I think of these two characters as a pair, one couldn’t be without the other. When I speak about this enormous building site, I often call it a deus ex machina, because all this disruption of the landscape projects us into an improbable, fantasized future. And the fact that a theatre is being constructed there interests me all the more, with its entrances and exits, upstage left and downstage right, rather like a huge continuous stage on which life and infra-life are played out. I imagine thousands of ants on an enormous slagheap constructing an oversized, off-the-scale project commissioned by the King. On worksites such as this one, work is not inhumane, but it is almost superhuman. Even though machines are present, most of the work is done by the workmen, by their bodies and their exact gestures. And the same applies, in my opinion, to ancestral rites. During Eid, I filmed my grandmother and my uncle “sacrifice” an animal – a sacred animal. They both, every year, carry out the same precise, ancestral gestures of the Prophet. This sacrificial rite is deeply embedded in the lives of my family members. It is a moment to be shared. And this animal truly nourishes, as every single piece of meat is used. These forms of knowledge are mutually supportive, rather than representing opposing worlds.

A.GI would like to know what you think about the notion of “intimacy”? Your Super 8 films are marked by the aesthetics of the fragment and dominated by close-ups and details of bodies, objects, and elements that define or embody the person you are filming.

Y.B: I try, as much as possible, to maintain a certain distance between myself and what I’m filming, and to not be demonstrative when filming my intimate world and the everyday life of family members. It’s an unstable, fragile balance between wanting to go somewhere and film something without imposing on others. And, at the same time, there are many things happening off-camera that make me angry. For example, my second cousin has leukaemia. And my grandmother cooks for him, so he can be properly fed and get better. The suffering bodies of my second cousin and my elderly grandmother are present in my work, indirectly. I don’t want to show things or talk just for the sake of it. My emotional state finds other images to express itself, almost like relayed images.

A.G: We’ve come to a metaphorical point in your work here that is marked, from one end to the other, by the animal’s double presence: the beast of the mechanical, modern, devouring building site, and the traditional beast, the sheep, sacrificed from generation to generation to perpetuate the rite.

Y.B: The whole project, from the beginning, has been affected by this viscous material, by the presence of flesh. Little by little, visual links are established between the textures of the building site: the pouring of concrete; melted tar; and the carapace of the construction itself… At one point all these elements came together. In 2016, the construction site came to a complete halt because of the architect’s sudden death. To “ward off bad luck”, the authorities had one hundred sheep and white calves sacrificed on the site. Blood flowed to purify the earth, as opposed to water, whose role is to fertilize it. I was inspired by the symbolic aspect of these fluids. This bond with the sacred pleased me, having being brought up in a devout family where it had a natural place in the gestures of everyday life, memorised by our bodies. I chose to show this in fragments in order to attain a general, almost universal, scope.

A.G: You film and photograph your family members from up close, on a “microscopic” scale. This builds up to the larger, macroscopic scale of Moroccan history, caught between traditional life and outrageous, at times brutal modernization, marked by the intensive exploitation of resources and excessive use of concrete. Is this an important point for you, to incorporate this everyday, intimate, and traditional aspect into something larger? Are you seeking to document Morocco’s cleaved contemporaneity?

Y.B: Artists should try to speak about these things, because who else could do so? I’m not here to simply criticize what’s happening or formally denounce an issue. I’d like it to be suggested, so that those who see my work perceive this division and it becomes food for thought. The disparity in wealth is so striking in Morocco. Very rich people live alongside others in a state of extreme destitution. There are also huge discrepancies between urban and rural life, and plenty of slum areas. Young people that come to the city looking for something find nothing and sniff glue. Every two hundred metres or so someone is begging, while limousines drive past. Why spend so much money on constructing such a beautiful theatre in a cultural mall that will also serve as a space for a new archaeological museum, when the immense majority of Moroccans can’t even afford the entrance fee? All the families living in the Bouregreg Valley have been displaced. The authorities gave them money so they would go and live elsewhere. So, of course, the building’s story is marked by politics and power. To my great surprise, when I started taking photographs, I think I was approached by the Moroccan secret services, who asked me some very precise political questions. Once my uncle said to me: “Yasmina, you’ll always be a spy because you’re filming in a country that isn’t yours and you’re disseminating visual and audio information. No matter what form you choose for your work, or where it will be seen, you’ll always be considered a spy…” All the artists I met in Morocco had reached the same conclusion: Morocco is a very beautiful, rich, relatively open country, but creation will always be tied to the struggles of yesterday and today.

A.G: And when you see that, doesn’t it make you want to take your camera to film and document that reality?

Y.B: No, it would be too harsh, too difficult. I feel shocked, stunned, even assaulted. And then there’s the language barrier. I don’t understand literary Arabic. And so here I am, receiving and assimilating. I work on a sensitive level. In the reality of life, I search for things that slowly deposit sediments in me as time passes. I’m not into ‘direct cinema’. If I were, I would have been a journalist or an anthropologist. My way of resisting is to confront the world with metaphors. I start working from my close family circle because I feel uneasy about confronting a larger dimension from the outset. Everything for me happens on this scale. It’s a form of transposition, from the cell to the whole organism.

A.G: You work with film. What is your relationship with the actual substance of images?

Y.B: I work with film because I like using a medium that doesn’t require seeking perfection in images. There is always the risk of something going wrong. I like capturing something without knowing if it will stay or not. The exchange with the person I’m filming is what counts in this process. I spend a lot of time developing, because I prefer to keep the memory of our encounter rather than obtaining a result. And I’m so scared that nothing will be there that I prefer to wait and forget what I did in order to rediscover it later on. I’m also very fond of film because it allows me to spend time developing, tinkering and putting a veil over this sensitive surface… It’s a fragile material and its vibrant membrane enables all sorts of experimentation to take place. Once developed, Super 8 film is often scratched by dust you can’t control. All of this is very physical, tactile and random. I often compare film to skin, because they are both sensitive to light and marked by the traces of life.

A.G: How do you explain your choice between using colour or black and white? Do they have a symbolic dimension for you?

Y.B: Filming in black and white allows me to create a connection with drawing through their shared grain, while retaining a sculptural finish. And then there’s something else: when the subject I’m filming evokes a form of softness, it makes me want to attain something more harsh and raw, and that’s when I choose to work in black and white. There’s also a “neutral” temporal value that adds an archive-type dimension to the image. Sometimes I don’t want my images to be labelled as yesterday, today, or tomorrow. I like the feeling created by this type of confusion. In Godard’s Opération Béton, filmed in 1953, there are shots that closely resemble those I took on the building site, with the same machines, conveyor belts, and mechanical processes… I like the idea of spectators questioning what they see, wondering whether or not these images of the Grand Theatre really belong to a contemporary regime that represents an architectural utopia. For me, images, like reality, have to remain an enigma. A not insignificant enigma.

A.G: Along with the choices you make concerning development, colour, and printing, you also change the formats and scale of your images, and sometimes you reframe them. There is also your editing work: in your film; in book sequences; and in the exhibition space. Why do you use these multiple formats and scales?

Y.B: Working with the grain of film and close-up images interests me because it disturbs our vision and gives the image a new form of materiality, sometimes revealing unexpected motifs that would be imperceptible in another format. I seek this sculptural effect that turns a hand in front of a landscape or stone into a face. I like to suggest a body where there is none. For example, the image I called “the nipple” is in fact a rotating nut. For me, it became a hypnotic figure that keeps on turning or stops abruptly. I like this shift in our way of looking that discovers sensuality, absurdity, and the burlesque in the vibration of a gearwheel, the shivering of a tarpaulin, or the pouring of rubble. I focus instinctively, like a child, on what moves about, comes alive, and sways. I am attracted by this machine-body that can also move gently. Even if at first glance it seems to be chewing, breaking, tearing apart and displacing the rubble, it also appears to be caressing what it touches. It all depends on extreme sensitivity to beings and things.

Conversation from La Bête A Modern Tale by Yasmina Benabderrahmane, published February 2020. Available in English and French

Coincides with a solo exhibition at Le Bal, Paris