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Tristan Fenwings/Getty Images

Yto Barrada at the Barbican Centre

23 February 2018 Ekin Kurtdarcan

The French-Moroccan artist Yto Barrada’s latest exhibition Agadir explores the ways in which a city’s people respond to a devastating natural disaster, and the way the process of reconstruction and urbanisation becomes a site of tension within the context of decolonisation.

Taking as a starting point Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s 1967 novel Agadir, which reflects on the aftermath of the 1960 earthquake that killed around 15,000 people and destroyed most of the city of Agadir in Morocco, Barrada weaves together multiple narratives to question the relationship between a city and its inhabitants during a period of major urban and cultural transition.
 
Natural history, geology and the city are recurring themes in Barrada’s previous works, which the artist uses as tools of resistance to reflect on the repercussions of unchecked urban development and cultural commodification in various Moroccan cities. Within this framework, Barrada’s use of Khaïr-Eddine’s text gains a special significance. According to Spencer Segalla in his essay on the Agadir earthquake in French Mediterraneans, the novel opens up important discussions on the notions of rootlessness and disorientation in the face of modernist architecture’s disregard for local tradition. From this perspective, the configuration of Barrada’s exhibition within the gallery space gives the spectator an opportunity to question the various implications of the earthquake’s impact and the political interests that go into the reconstruction of a new urban culture.
 

Part of the mural, (c) Ekin Kurtdarcan
 
Upon entering the gallery, the viewer sees a black and white mural that extends along the wall, exhibiting several large scale drawings of establishments in Agadir before and after the earthquake. The drawings reflect the influence of the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier on the Brutalist style of the buildings. Moreover, they resonate with Barbican’s own architecture, defined in the introduction to the exhibition as a ‘utopian response to post-war destruction’. Nonetheless, within the context of Morocco’s independence from colonial rule and the destruction caused by the earthquake, this influence seems to pose the question: during the process of reconstruction, how does a city come to terms with its multiple histories?
 
As a response, Barrada places different wicker chairs and sculptures around the gallery made with local techniques, to be part of the sound installation/live performance of Khaïr-Eddine’s text. During the live performance, actors portraying characters such as a king, a cook, a peasant and a female Berber warrior walk around, simultaneously reciting parts of the text and interacting with their surroundings. Their permeating voices through space encourage the spectators to sit in the chairs and listen to the narratives of these characters, who are coping with various emotions and experiences such as distress and loss. As the performance captures the state of daze prompted by the shock of the earthquake, it also seems to trace the ambivalence within the process of transition and transformation of socio-cultural circumstances.


Actor Rory Francis performs as part of the exhibition Yto Barrada: Agadir, Getty Images Europe

On the wall facing the mural, a set of collages brings together press clippings and fragments of wallpaper designs. The contrast between the black and white pieces and the colourful backdrop highlights the surreal quality underlying the experience of the earthquake, brought forth by the shock of sudden mass destruction. Barrada’s choice of using the collage form proves significant in this context, as the assemblage of various pieces seem to parallel the multiplicity and coming together of different layers, narratives and histories within the process of reconstruction, as previously seen in the live performance. On the other hand, in the final video installation, which serves as an epilogue to the exhibition, the surreal, dream-like atmosphere is sustained through the internal contrast between the film’s cyclical structure and the scenes of rupture and destruction it conveys. The hypnotic quality of people’s bewildered expressions and vague accounts of the night of the earthquake make it difficult for the spectator to differentiate between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Agadir. On top of the film, the echo of voices from the sound installation/live performance on the other side of the gallery further consolidates the overarching sense of chaos and confusion.

Yto Barrada’s Agadir undoubtedly challenges the spectator to think about the various issues underlying the rebuilding of a city and a culture within the framework of urban development, trauma and natural disaster. Although at the end of the exhibition the viewer is left wanting to see more, the significance of Barrada’s work lies in the fact that it poses more questions than it offers answers to. It is an interesting experience for those interested in the relationship between people and their city and the socio-political implications of architecture, but it is definitely an exhibition best understood when familiar with the context.

Yto Barrada Agadir is at the Barbican 7 Februaury - 20 May
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