Collective Mentorship: Yto Barrada and The Mothership
In a garden overlooking the meeting point between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, artist Yto Barrada unveils her new project, reflecting on the experiences that in recent years have involved the inhabitants of Tangier.
Valerio Rocco Orlando: First of all, thank you for inviting me here. It’s inspiring to follow the process of your new initiative in Morocco. After establishing the non-profit Cinémathèque de Tanger in 2006, where archives of Arabic and Maghreb films are preserved and screened, you are now setting up The Mothership, which will serve as a color and textile research center. How did this idea come about?
Yto Barrada: I fell in love with natural dyes. I am not a dyer, I’m a student dyer, and I’m a student gardener, which means I have a lot to learn, but that’s what I want to do with the rest of my life. Instead of doing it alone and having this place where I have friends come over, artists to use it, and do workshops as we did with friends who are dyers, I thought of organizing this space to do this, not only in the short time when I can come from New York and stay here, which is the school holidays in the summer—and the rest of the year it’s empty—but to find a way that this place stays alive outside the time that we use it as a family. Also, I’m thinking of the future of the space where my parents live in because they’re getting old. And also to imagine the whole ecology around Tangier since the green areas are shrinking. This was just another garden. My neighbors have incredible gardens, but they’re all private. They’re fantastic, but they’re for The World of Interiors. We’re interested in another world. I’m interested in permaculture, which is a way of gardening. My mentor is an Italian botanist called Umberto Pasti. Then there’s an extraordinary place where my children and I were taught in New York called the Textile Arts Center. I’ve seen many inspiring programs where classes are introduced to a very different population: professionals who want to improve and people who discovered it for the first time. There’s this common idea in the textile community to be open source, and that, for me, was a step away from the artistic community, which is more competitive. Here the beginning was to start planting some of the dyes, and then, for me, it was evident that in all the dye places in Morocco, the tanneries were using natural dyes. The more I researched, the more it’s been gone for years. There are a few experiments: the only communities that still use natural dyes are isolated communities that don’t have access to the available chemical products. What we want to do here is to have a teaching garden, a sort of conservatory garden with the plants that were used in Morocco. What we want to do is to have a dye garden and to host classes, but also to have people come here in residence, or for retreats, that we would choose and have time to work with the local communities so that the inks they use soon will be inks that we can make. That’s why it’s called The Mothership. I own the land, but I don’t really own the land. The boss is my mom, and she still makes all the decisions. I can’t touch a plant almost without checking three times upstairs. I’m interested in feminism and also in Afro-futurism. In Afro-futurism, there was no place. It was during the civil rights movement, but there was no place. No place to think of freedom and freedom in the future. My idea is to have a space to be able to think of ideas of resistance in a shrinking environment. Questions of how we work and who owns the land: this is also a political project in that sense. The Mothership is a place where you come, you recharge your batteries, but then you’re autonomous. It’s also to learn autonomy, learn how to grow your own food and stuff. And trust that you can make more things than you think you can make. This is one of the most expensive neighborhoods today, but it’s also a farming community. So, the idea of a community is also a community of knowledge, a community of users. They have a lot of knowledge that they think is necessary to transmit. Every time I see something interesting, I guess I have to bring it back to Tangier. I don’t have that with New York. I don’t care about bringing anything back to New York, but I always want to bring things home. So, I think that means what home is.
VRO: How do you feel when you come back here?
YB: I could sit and do nothing, and sometimes that’s all I do. Because there’s a lot to do, since I’m learning, there’s a lot that I thought I wasn’t capable of. I felt I had to learn everything to do everything myself initially. And now I’m like: wait, I don’t need to be alone. And I found a little bit of financing to start, which is a tiny push. I have many doubts sometimes, and I’m like: do I really need to start a new project now after the Cinémathèque was a nightmare to build? Do I really need to start from scratch with all the doubts? The idea is also to see my future as an artist. I’m interested in education. I always was, and I like the community of artists. I think I can contribute with all my failures and all the things I haven’t done. So yeah, I’m thinking of how this can be a nourishing space. We have a very strong community, and we have this shared dream of making things grow here and re-working with the local knowledge of the craft. The relationship between arts and crafts is fundamental to our knowledge.
VRO: How do you think this local knowledge can also create additional development at the local level? Not only here but also outside the country. I’m interested in your experience because you spend some time on the other side of the ocean and sometimes here. I believe that there is a way to recreate some kind of educational path from one side to the other in terms of exchange.
YB: Yeah, that’s something on my mind. I’m interested in the Bauhaus, the Black Mountain College, and the experimental schools my mother worked in, in Rabat, for psychotic children. I’m interested in integrating independent ways of working with different communities. Every time I liked the school was when the public of the school was not the public you expected.
VRO: How do you think it is possible to renovate a traditional art school from the inside?
YB: I would work with local resources. When you’re an adjunct professor, you’re independent. There’s a core curriculum, and then there’s a different thing. I’m a visiting artist. I don’t have all the constraints. I’m here to rock the students’ world and make them feel uncomfortable because all they want to do is build their portfolio during your class. And you’re like: Fuck the portfolio. But you know, it’s essentially the same way as the kids tell you that it’s necessary to have a diploma to reassure their parents. I know the portfolio is critical. I pretend that I don’t give a shit about the portfolio. But we have to drop it to make it interesting. I’m going to give them that space. Many people hate my class. It’s not for everybody. And in a class, it’s not for everybody. We all had professors that we remember and that changed our life. Mentors are not the same for everybody. When we went to INBA Institut National des Beaux-Arts, Tétouan, those kids opened up. You asked the right questions, or you triggered something or the present.
VRO: The Cinémathèque de Tanger was initiated as a free school. Can you tell me how everything started?
YB: I wanted to call it Cinémathèque to make it respectable, but my partner disagreed. They just wanted to do an art-house cinema. The cafe was never very important, but the two screening rooms were important. The small one of fifty seats was always planned for education. We also built a project with the adversity we encountered, bankers, and my family. They’re like: who’s going to go to see good films? Nobody, you know, and there’s no public here. And we said: oh, well, we will open the doors. And the kids will be the first. So, the first thing we did before we opened was the kids’ classes. We did a booklet, and the film program was inspired by a Swiss group of friends who did that in villages called Magic Lantern. They were teaching the technique of cinema to children. So that was the first thing we did. They don’t take children from school, but any kids. That’s what I was interested in. Many kids who were there are the people who are working with the Cinémathèque now. So, we were building the audience, finding the old audience. You create a space, a destination, and then the rest, you know, people trust you. They like the tote bag. They’ll check the film, and we were also in a cultural desert where most buildings were disappearing. I mean, the whole square was a parking lot. So, the square was redone. After we renovated one building, we knew that the city’s centers were forgotten. When we got the chance to buy the building, we went to sign, but somebody else bought it for more. We lost one year. And then, when we had permission to start the construction site, they closed the square to build the fountain. We didn’t have access to the construction, so there were obstacles. And then they put the parking in front of the door after they took it out. They put it back in front of the gate with trucks parked in front of us. When you have a film at that time because it wasn’t digital, you have to get a print, and a print, as you know, is 35mm, and it’s many different boxes, it’s very heavy. Then you have to send the print to censorship and wait for the print to come back. It was too expensive. And the rights, for example, in The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin: a company has the rights in Paris at 6,000 euros. Even if I sell 900 tickets, I can’t pay for that. And the same film is available for 10 or 15 dirhams in the streets on a DVD. When you buy a movie, you get publicity and the trailers. We never got them. So, we would ask friends sitting in the cafe in the bar: Can you paint the poster? And we started doing that. So, we had to produce our own material. Programming is very complicated in a space where there is no mode d’emploi. So, I had the vision, but there I wasn’t alone. There were interns; there were partners. There were interns because we had no money. Interns were running the cinema.
VRO: First time I came to Tangier was two years ago. I was impressed by the Cinémathèque and the variety of people involved. Then I came back, and after one week of meetings with NGOs, no-profit organizations, and artist-run spaces, I understood the broader vision around the questions about public space and the mutations at work in this territory. Before visiting La Ferme Pédagogique and Darna, I didn’t know about the fundamental role of your mother—Mounira Bouzid El Alami, a psychoanalyst and social worker—in the process of inspiring this constellation of organizations and independent initiatives all around the city. It’s like a cascade. I would define it as cascading mentorship. How does this experience impact The Mothership?
YB: There’s a direct link between all these, the Cinémathèque de Tanger and, for example, an archive in Beirut, Arab Image Foundation, where I worked for fifteen years. My mother was working with a very particular technique: she would squat public buildings that were abandoned until they were given to her. And then she would find the financing. So, she occupied Darna. It was a ruin; it was a British police station and then a Moroccan jail. And she squatted it until she got it. La Ferme Pédagogique is a sad story because she found many great places and huge farms. The army took it. Of course, you’re also competing. Now it’s real estate, and the farm was surrounded by nothing, which is very hard for you to imagine, but it looked big. Now it’s surrounded by massive buildings. I think we create a network with the people we meet, the places we go, and the network we all have. I have a family network, a friend network, and a colleague network. The idea is to make these people work together or use that baggage to let people have a place where you invite people, instead of just profiting alone. I mean, that’s, again, the same idea. Having a space makes it concrete so that you can realize that goal, which is to have the changes happen outside your personal realm. And the network of Arab Image Foundation is still my network. People you meet, you find them exceptional: it happens all over your life. And instead of you alone, you can be partners; it’s like a collective mentorship instead of being a mentor. It’s my gang and me. It’s from my territory. There’s something also magic here: we’re a big fish in a small pond. It’s not the same as being a small fish in a big pond. In New York, we’re nobody. And you don’t see the impact you have because there are so many incredible projects. Here there’s everything to do, and there are already fantastic people. You just want to connect them.
VRO: I agree with you. This is why I chose Matera instead of Milan for South of Imagination. Because it’s a smaller place and there are already some excellent relationships with local social workers, communities, and institutions: it’s much easier to create something that impacts the territory.
YB: During a lifetime, you can see change. And that, I think, is so valuable.
VRO: In the book Album: Cinémathèque de Tanger I read about the isolation of Tangier. In the last twenty years, the city has been changing profoundly in urban development and the spread of all these organizations and independent initiatives, both in the suburbs and the center, next to the Casbah. Can you describe this idea of isolation? Do you still feel the same, or has it changed?
YB: There’s different isolation. There’s historical isolation by being an international zone. The central government abandoned Tangier for thirty years. And then, the European community closed its borders when The Schengen Agreement was signed. There are other forms of isolation. When you’re an artist, I guess you feel you’re different. My parents still think I should get a good job. And I also come from a politically isolated family. We are outcasts. I’m an outcast in an outcast family. Of course, the city is changing. When I see things transform and repaired, I remember that there’s an ergonomics of destruction in Tangier that is more powerful because we’re a port and live next to the sea. For every ugly building they built, nature takes over, and the corrosion and the erosion. There’s an extreme power of destruction here, which I think is very important to observe.
VRO: What’s the relationship between social work and art? And how can they both regenerate each other?
YB: My practice has always been to rub shoulders with people who were invested in social work, and the work I’m interested in doing as an artist has to do with bringing art into places where social justice is essential. And also, the artists that I’ve been interested in are artists or social workers and practitioners who wear different hats. When in 2021, I was invited to the Artist’s Choice at MOMA in New York—an exhibition series where you choose works from the collection and create new work—I decided to focus on the pedagogy of Fernand Deligny, a French social work pioneer and writer. In the late 1960s, he lived with other volunteers and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in an informal network in rural France. It was an attempt to create a new way of living, “outside language,” adapted for nonverbal children. His practice lasted until his death, and his writings still influenced many experiments that artists did in social work.