"History is my toolbox", said up-and-coming French-Moroccan visual artist Yto Barrada.
Her eyes shone as she explained the importance of investigating the past to understand the present, and of history as a source of inspiration for her eclectic work. Her lunar complexion accentuated by jet-black bangs, the 40-year-old lives in Tangiers, but spoke today at Rome's Contemporary Art Museum (MACRO), where she introduced Riffs, her first one-woman show in Italy.
The mixed-media exhibit, which runs through November 11, includes photography, sculptures and videos, some of which are being shown for the first time. It is sponsored by Deutsche Bank, which named her 2011 Artist of the Year.
"Whether it be family histories, or History with a capital H, what I am interested in is trying to put everything back together in order to unravel it", the artist tells ANSAmed in an interview. "This is a time of change, especially in North Africa. To understand Morocco's present and the meaning of events as they happen, a historical perspective is essential. We must digest our past". Her photographs of forgotten places, which her lens invests with a monumental dignity, bespeak the intentions of this artist, who defines herself as a lucky dilettante.
However, while luck (along with talent) must have its share of every human success story, hers is hardly that of a dilettante. After obtaining a history and political science degree from the Sorbonne, Barrada went on to study photography in New York, and was soon being invited by some of the world's prime exhibition spaces and events. Among these, New York's MoMA, the Venice Biennale, the Parisian Galerie du Jeu de Paume, and the London's Tate Modern, to name a few.
Tangiers remains Barrada's headquarters, and this is where she is pursuing one of her most important projects: a Cinemathèque where she screens her own and others' experimental films, as well as great Moroccan classics, some of which are donated, others of which she finds in vintage markets, and even some blockbusters. "Five years ago, I teamed up with some other artists to buy a historic movie theater (from 1938), and we turned it into a space for collective memory", Barrada explained. "It's open to everyone, we don't aim at one specific kind of person. We focus on the educational aspect of the Cinemathèque. We organize debates, screen movies for kids, run seminars. Tangiers has one million inhabitants and just two movie theaters, very few museums and no proper public library. We really needed a place to come together and talk. All cities need one". And although Morocco's public cultural funding has shrunk under the economic crisis, Barrada remains optimistic. "We have almost no funds now", she said. "But I believe my duty as an artist is also to find creative solutions to these practical problems".