Mohssin Harraki in conversation with Karima Boudou
In this conversation, Moroccan-born and France-based Mohssin Harraki discusses his practice over the last decade and how it relates to the reality of everyday life. A graduate from Institut National des Beaux-Arts of Tetouan, as well as the Ecoles Supérieures d'Art of Toulon and Dijon, this conversation brings into play postcolonial questions in the context of Morocco and how these are addressed in Harraki's work through themes such as genealogy, the transmission of power, and fragile cultural constructs. His sources include books, treaties, scientific texts and stories, articulated in his work through drawing, photography, installations, the shaping and assembling of texts, images and material which he meticulously reads, rereads, copies and sometimes reproduces out of their original contexts. Harraki has exhibited his work in institutions and biennales internationally, most recently at the 2016 Marrakech Biennale (Jeux de Mémoire/Memory Games) and at the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum of Rabat (Volumes fugitifs), both in Morocco.
Karima Boudou: You come from Asilah, in the north of Morocco. I always remember that the writer Jean Genet is buried not very far from Asilah in the city of Larache: in a Spanish marine cemetery that overlooks the Atlantic coast. What memories do you have of Asilah?
Mohssin Harraki: My parent's settled in Larrache for some time before they moved to Asilah. I lived in Asilah until the age of 21. Indeed, there are some memories of the city that are echoed in what I do today. I remember celebrating Throne Day in school very well, when we used to each bring a biscuit for one dirham and a bottle of soda.
I was the family's sixth child and the first to study science; I was always good at maths and arithmetic, since I know how to follow the logic of numbers. But at some point art took over in a way that made me view logic differently. All my siblings studied literature and, as such, I acquired many books from them. I found books, as objects, very beautiful (I enjoyed textbooks less, aside from their smell of printing). I remember the first book I found, called Al-Maraya [Mirrors] (1971) by Naguib Mahfouz, a multi-narrative novel of real and fictional characters in Egypt that paints a portrait of Egyptian social and political life. I was impressed by the fact that one could find such great satisfaction from the experience of reading. Afterwards, I read Al-Ayyam [The Days] (1926) by Taha Hussein.
Reading became like a ritual – in school I learned about different subjects and at home I shared the books that I found with my siblings. Rijal fi ash-shams [Men in the Sun] (1962), by Ghassan Kanafani, a hard and cruel story of three characters who travel across the desert in a water tank in order to cross the borders, which ends with the three protagonists dying from suffocation inside the tank when it was stopped at Kuwaiti border control. The book then ends with a fundamental and heart-breaking question that symbolizes the Palestinian and Arab tragedy: Why didn't the men knock on the walls of the tank? This book often returns to me – I reread it recently.
KB: What did you do after completing your fine arts degree in Tetouan, Morocco?
MH: In 2007, I left the School of Fine Arts in Tetouan and, together with artist Mohamed El Mahdaoui and Othman Fekraoui, I knocked on several doors to find professional work. We quickly realized that institutions were not interested in working on this or that issue, that their money and their way of thinking was 'dirty' or corrupt, and that we didn't want to pursue this path. We worked on a project entitled La création de l'extérieur [Creation from the outside] (2007) – it's a CD with a cover similar to the kitsch music groups in Morocco and we documented performances. At the time, we tried to create immaterial art spaces that did not have an artistic history behind them (a CD, a café, a village home). We wanted the space to go to the people and not the other way around. The second exhibition we put together was in a popular coffee shop in Asilah, along with Faouzi Laatiris, Batoul S'himi, Khalil El Ghrib and Mohamed El Mahdaoui. Over time, one learns to work with different spaces and different typologies but in a personal manner and using one's artistic power to create a dialogue with the public.
KB: How did the idea of working with family trees come to you? With Problème 5 (2010–11), you are filmed tracing the genealogies of Arab ruling families with chalk on a blackboard, as if trying to solve an equation. The project, which you consider a work in progress, is a result of your research into the dynamics of succession, governance and the inheritance of power. Could you talk about the link between the figure of Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka and the family tree of Arab rulers you produce in the work?
MH: I started working on family trees while looking for some kind of logic within them and I quickly realized that these trees are in some way 'sick'. Problème 5, the first family tree I created, originated from a maths exercise in which I replaced numbers with people, and the more I advanced I got in my research the more I dove into history and tried to understand certain events of the past. Why must one say, 'I am the grandson of…'? Is it to stress their lineage or conceal their weakness? Or is it to build the power to scare others, which then becomes a naive kind of respect? Today we constantly speak of ecology, organic products and the prevention of chemical products, but there was once a time when people could plant fruit trees without using pesticides because the earth was rich. This was the case of Mehdi Ben Barka, but sadly it was against the vertical machine of progression in the field of economy and politics, which prefers to graft and nurture these trees: Greffer, Espalier, Dresser – we tear branches and add others instead.
KB: How do you avoid this aspect of historiography in which a history may at times be manipulated and its strands, ambiguities and transparencies localized and reified in an artwork? Why make a family tree in a country like Morocco, for example, knowing that this directly poses a question about power and the writing of history? Further to this, how do you see the evolution of these family trees today, with this shift towards genealogies that are composed of textual elements, fictitious trees and, more recently, into networks of association between who and what you know and the fate of important historical figures?
MH: The nineteenth-century French historian and diplomat, Alexis de Tocqueville, once said that, 'History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.' The gap between official histories and the work of an artist is very wide and so I, like everybody else, would like to say 'Give us back our history!' but also that, 'History is written by assassins.' Fortunately, it is not the role of the artist to judge or correct the mistakes of such histories. I believe that it is the artist's role to offer a different version of history based on a bottom up, not a top down, approach. In a situation where we lack the means or sufficient power to write and produce history because official history forces us to believe only what is written in books, we are thus obliged to consume what others produce. History doesn't need an artwork to correct it; it's already too late. Rather, it requires that we write a different version, one that takes a parallel position that is not a position of counter-history: but a parallel position that allows us to clarify the situation and turn the minority into a majority and vice versa. This allows us to pose the question: can we consider artistic works as a tool for historical reconstruction?
Of course, I think it is enough to see some statues and paintings in caves from the Middle Ages to understand the development of social life at the time. I believe that history is the memory of the people. My project about the family trees of Moroccan families remains an open-ended area of research. It started with an observation and was followed by fictitious trees – I used made up names or names of people who did not contribute their share to history. This finally developed into family trees of people tied by things other than family links – friendships, for example, shared experiences, or certain historical events.
KB: Could you talk about your connection with writers from the medieval period? What is your relation to their ideas and materials?
MH: The latter corresponds to the last works I made. For example, for the work Le ciel dessine la terre (2015), I returned to a group of thinkers from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries such as Ibn al-Shatir and Al-Biruni, who worked between various subjects, such as mathematics and medicine. What interests me here is these writers' commitment to their time and their writing and the fact that they did not follow Islamic rules at the time because they deemed them too restrictive in relation to their practice. They also mixed drawing and science together and for me it is very important to see these two things coexist. This is also the case in my own work, where I start with science and intersect it with artistic forms.
In terms of the disassembling and reassembling in my work, I also work from the names of writers and thinkers today, as with Ahmed Bouanani, for example. It is a way for me to dismantle their work in order to start again by trying to reassemble and search between the lines of their thought.
KB: You extended your work on genealogy with Greffer, Espalier, Dresser, an exhibition you realized at L'Appartement 22 in Morocco in 2014. The project featured an installation composed of 33 drawings, putting into perspective botanical vocabularies and family trees. Which family (or families) were you evoking in this project? Can you talk about the use of materials such as metal and your use of manual work for the engravings?
MH: For my exhibition at L'Appartement 22 I presented a work with my last Moroccan families trees, but this time the trees were for political families. For example, I used the surnames that appear in the Manifeste de l'Istiqlal, the manifesto of a Moroccan national party founded in 1943. In this work, I tried to recreate existing ties between political men before and after colonization. The botanical metaphor of grafting, training and dressing is a way of speaking about patrilineal history and its transmission. History has long been fixed with historical figures from the religious or political order and the botanical approach offers a way to explore the processes of manipulation and the exclusion that marks this history. The family tree becomes a bureaucratic diagram or a well-traced graph and this is also the case of our history, especially the one taught in schools. By using metal and metalwork tools the work manages to stay in line with this practice of grafting, training and dressing.
KB: In one of your last projects in the exhibition Jeux de mémoire (Memory Games) as part of the last Marrakech Biennale, you presented one of your works entitled Tagant (2016), which is a Berber word that signifies both 'forest' and 'isolated site'. What did it look like? You worked by taking as a starting point the archive of Ahmed Bouanani, a Moroccan poet, writer and filmmaker, whose archive is kept in Rabat by his daughter Touda Bouanani. By working from his archive, what were you trying to say to Bouanani? How did you translate this into an artwork?
MH: The word tagant is most often to mean 'forest' but the word has another meaning, which refers to an 'isolated site' that is a place devoid of any presence. As a forest, it will 'absorb' the word overtime, so that it will remain a forest even when it only contains one tree. In that case we say tagant. At the time when both the French and Arabic language could not offer the right word, the Berber word tagant – the isolated, empty and deserted place that would in time become a forest – proved a beautiful solution.
For me, Ahmed Bouanani is one of the major witnesses of a non-official history. As with most Moroccans of my generation, I was not familiar with his work when I was younger, but when I immersed myself in his manuscripts, writings and films it was a great encounter. As I read his personal letters and writings, I hoped to delve further into his archive but I eventually realized that it contained too many things and that it would be impossible to reduce Bouanani's work into one small detail.
The project represents a plant form similar to a forest and creates a sort of mind map. The branches diverge, converge and sometimes part ways to open up the possibility of redrawing the ties, specifically to draw them with electric cable and 87 light bulbs. Each light bulb carries a theme or a book title, and they are all controlled by a dimmer that embodies the process of breathing. I worked on all his books and writings, but I wasn't really able to work on his productions, which consists mostly of films, drawings and writings, since some of these were burnt during a fire that destroyed half his archive in 2006 in his apartment in Rabat.
In my project, I thus wanted to refer to his entire body of work. When I finished the installation, I received a very curious document from Bouanani's archive that had been discovered by Omar Barrada and that explains Tagant very well. When I saw the document, a note handwritten by Bouanani, I asked myself: Has Bouanani predicted the future? Or have I predicted the past?
KB: You said that the word tagant represents 'an empty space' that 'transforms into a forest which absorbs the meaning of the word overtime'. What connections and genealogies are you trying to establish here? To what extent do you consider the form and structure of the family tree a tactical, conceptual and formal tool to use in the face of a historiography that may be perceived today as hegemonic and problematic?
MH: There is an official history that has long circulated and settled in Morocco with respect to certain moments and events in history. I consider this a sort of void – similar to the act of cutting down trees – and this act allows a curiosity that builds something new. For me, to have a forest or trees in a place is a way to have something real and concrete. If we look back at the history of Morocco, we might well think that it's almost a little too late to make any efficient changes in the sense that we don't have enough power in the face of the status quo to implement structural and ideological changes in the country for the people, which could circulate, be understood and benefit as many people as possible. It's similar to this 'naïve fear' that is instilled in people by the authorities in Morocco. We took for granted these defined moments in history and consider these as landmarks in our lives. In terms of the language, if we look at the education system in Morocco in the 1960s and 70s, the schools were like laboratories in the process of Arabizing national systems. At one point, we changed the way we learned French – even today everything is in Arabic until the baccalaureate, then university is taught in French. We couldn't really find ourselves through a language and a linguistic identity in Morocco. The Amazigh (or Berber) language has also not claimed its place in history since independence. This creates a multi-faceted system of life that we came to believe as truth, but was in fact a creation by a manipulated education system produced by minorities in power with particular interests. I don't take my work and my approach as educational or didactic – it's just a way for me to offer testimonies, to historians and people who are interested, to the history that will become.
KB: In your videos, installations, drawings, photography and performance, the viewer often comes across statements that evoke the development, erosion and fragility of collective memory and the question of education, as you mentioned. You have addressed these questions in relation to the Moroccan context many times, notably in your book project A Stone in a Pond (2010), where you examine publications with a strong nationalist rhetoric, printed following independence in Morocco. These pose problems today (in terms of both their identity and language) because they were intended as postcolonial products.
MH: This was a project I did at Cinémathèque de Tanger following an invitation by Yto Barrada to do an art residency with artists Seamus Farrell and Mohamed Aredjal, which coincided with my interest at the time to work with educational books. At the time, I had collected all these educational textbooks and transformed them by covering them with cement. There is a formal shift from a traditional book to a more compact form produced when cement covers the books. It is a way for me, on a formal level, to keep the shape of a book while purposely not being able to access any of its content. This divide between content and form is a way for me to translate observations about education in post-Independence Morocco. These textbooks have, for me, the shape of usual books of knowledge but they have failed in their initial mission to educate because often they dealt with propaganda and falsified information about culture, history and other topics related to society.
It was also a little self-reminder of the total hatred I had towards these textbooks when I was at school. I didn't necessarily have the means to buy all of the books I needed or wanted and yet it was required to have at least one book, which resulted in my feeling humiliated among my classmates. But when I did get to go home and read all the content of these books, I realized that I was lucky not be friends with such materials. And so my residency in Tangier came as a reaction to these forms, a sort of answer in the form of the textbook.
KB: You spoke about Taha Hussein earlier; I find his paths in the context of Egypt and the possible echoes in your work very interesting. For him, 'education is like air and water': a basic right and need for every member of the society. Hussein clearly broke down stereotypes and traditions by presenting a critical and reformist reading of Arabic language and literature. Do you think that in Morocco these issues surrounding education resonate as much as in contexts like Egypt, Libya or Jordan, particularly in terms of the printing of these educational books and their circulation across the region? For instance, in the case of Morocco and looking at Moroccan history we could argue that since King Hassan II came to the throne, the education system purposely no longer provides its basic mandate for the people.
MH: Yes, of course, the context in Morocco is not an exception and in many ways all Arab countries are in the same boat, even if there are differences in the way they approach the issue of education. In Morocco, for example, only certain people addressed the question of education and not a mass of intellectuals, as in places such as Egypt or Lebanon where many musicians also discussed the issue. It was really the major intellectual question at the time. These writers had the resources to speak up and print their books. There's an old expression that says, 'Egyptians write, the Lebanese publish and North Africans read.' But I think this is a very reductionist way of treating the problem.
KB: In Aquariums artificiels [Artificial Aquarium] (2011), you continue to reference history books translated into Amazigh, French and Arabic. In your work, the writing in the books disappears over time by the action of water. Formally, was it a way for you to criticize the classical process of showing work? I am thinking of the aquarium container as referring to a display cabinet: a symbolic element of the museum, with the water container that rots over time and books that fall apart gradually.
MH: Artists often ask themselves, 'Is this is an artwork or not?' so as to find out what the limits of being an artist are. I find it interesting to say that the limits are not clear and that there are many factors at play in giving a work its title, or to deciding to make it public and exhibiting it. It's stimulating for me to bring out similar artworks. When I conceive an artwork, I don't even ask myself whether or not it is sellable or if one could keep it; I never self-censor my work according to external pressures that attempt to shape my practice in a certain way. There is a critique vis-à-vis this idea that everything may be sold in relation to the museum or that a curious display cabinet gives the impression that an object is valuable, well-kept and untouchable. At the same time, the concept of the museum is declining and is ideologically fragile. Above all, this is linked to the question surrounding the artwork today: Can we maintain it and give it this fragility? Can we commodify it? I don't know how to maintain this particular work – I exhibit it with a copy of the same book (Histoire du Maroc) every time for the entirety of the exhibition, then it disappears.
KB: Conceptually, is it important for you that the viewer knows the exact title of the book? Or do you think of the book as an object that carries a symbolic meaning, such as the idea of the book itself?
MH: I disclose the title of the book only, but not the author. The title of the book is real: Histoire du Maroc and it's a book in Amazigh, French and Arabic. One can read pages of the book and a few lines on the history, especially in the first month of the exhibition. But gradually, the water becomes a little opaque and it becomes hard to read the story.
KB: By extension and in relation to this corpus of work that we have discussed, do you collect books, manuscripts or letters yourself that you find during your research and projects?
MH: There is a small section of my library that contains old books and sometimes I only have photocopies because some books are hard to find or acquire. This archive constitutes material for my work. And each object I use influences my work in different ways. When I was in Asilah and collected these books, it wasn't really a thought-out process – I found them in my home and I tried to read and to engage with the illustrations in these books but I was also drawn to them as objects. Then when I moved to Tetouan, a sort of rupture happened with my library in Asilah as I started working on other things such as painting. Later, in France, I tried to reconnect with this library, to find the books, archives and rituals in order to tie the books and my work together.
KB: In his last letter to his wife dating from November 1960, the Congolese militant Patrice Lumumba, who was part of a group of intellectuals and militant project leaders for the future of Africa, wrote: 'Africa will write its own history and in both north and south it will be a history of glory and dignity.' Beyond summoning the voice of Lumumba, or the Moroccan Ben Barka, where do you think we are today in terms of these questions of independence, emancipation and education, in light of your position as an artist in society?
MH: The words of Lumumba are interesting because they make a link with the politics of today and I think that artists are linked to the political. Artists observe politics and then elaborate a draft from their observations to produce an artwork. I don't see this as a work of counter-politics or counter-information in general. I speak of Morocco because I'm familiar with the country. It is quite complex to mix the work of an artist with the political situation as it is today mainly because there is always a strong dividing line marking before and after independence. Even today, artists are influenced in the way they work, and this is linked to history.
For example, we sometimes come across a kind of critique or counter-information that is often quite direct. Those kinds of remarks, like counter-arguments, are often rather straightforward. In my opinion, all of the above are not part of the 'solution' and we cannot move forward with such a mind-set. There are people with power and people who have access to art, too. By finding these fragile and malleable routes they are able to manipulate things to get what they want. Perhaps they received a remote kind of education, a 'French' education, and one that is far from most people. We can speak here of the remnants of colonialism in the field of art. There will always be manipulations and orders that come from above. We can even take this further and look at the monetary support behind an artist's production in Morocco. Where does it all come from? The same can be said of the art collectors or art spaces. All of these factors set the stage for the artist's work.
However, we rarely ask ourselves this question: Where does the artist work? We only hear: How does an artist live in Morocco? Is it up to the artist to adapt and find solace in what is offered? I think this question is very important and relates to my affection towards this atmosphere we have in Morocco, even if I don't know the history of Morocco perfectly. I think what will make things progress is the creation of a stream that takes some water from existing rivers but then sets out in a different direction. We must find the power to express ourselves.
Mohssin Harraki (born 1981) graduated from the Institut National des Beaux-Arts of Tetouan, the Ecole Supérieure d'Art of Toulon and the Ecole Supérieure d'Art of Dijon. Through his drawings, videos, installations, photography and performances, he elaborates a body of work that brings into play postcolonial questions in Morocco and examines the collective imaginary and the fragility of cultural constructs. The forms derived touch on themes of genealogy and transmission of power, the birth of nationalistic ideology and the formation of the collective conscience. In his installations, he explores themes of the book and the written word that he diverts out of their traditional contexts. Overall his art projects aim to explore the mechanisms of cultural construction, the constitution of memory and the collective imaginary.
Harraki has presented his work in a number of exhibitions such as Mahatta, Cinémathèque of Tangier, Morocco, 2010; Arbres généalogiques, Espace 150×295 in Martil, Morocco, 2010; Sentences on the Banks and Other Activities, Darat Al Funun, Amman, 2011; the Marrakech Biennale in 2011 and 2016; and the Independent Short Films and Media art Festival in Cairo. Other shows include Greffer, Espalier, Dresser, L'appartement 22, Rabat, Morocco, 2014; Here and Elsewhere, New Museum, New York, 2014; Songs of Loss and Songs of Love, Gwangju Museum of Art, South Korea, 2014; Merchants of Dreams, Museum of Art and Visual Culture, Odense, Denmark, 2016; Volumes fugitifs, Modern and Contemporary Art Museum of Rabat, Morocco, 2016; Museum of Manufactured Response to Absence (MoMRtA), Modern and Contemporary Art Museum, Algiers, Algeria, 2014; Absence-presence, deux fois, Galerie Imane Fares, Paris, France, 2013; and Shuffling Cards, Art-Cade, Galerie des Grands Bains, Marseille, France, 2012.
 Throne Day is a public holiday in Morocco to celebrate the King's ascension to the throne.
 Mehdi Ben Barka was a Pan Africanist, head of the left-wing National Union of Popular Forces (UNPF), sand leader of the Tricontinental Conference, the third-world movement which included progressive China to Cuba, via Algiers and black Africa.
 The exhibition Greffer, Espalier, Dresser (2014) was on show at L'appartement 22, Rabat, and was curated by Emma Chubb.
 A sentence from La Historia oficial, an Argentinian film produced by Luis Puenzo, 1985.
[vi] Ibn al-Shatir or Ibn ash-Shatir (born 1304, Syria; died 1375, Damascus, Syria) was a fourteenth-century Arab astronomer.
 Abu al-Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (born 973, Kath, Khwarezm [present day Uzbekistan], died approx. 1052, Ghazni) was a Kharezmian scholar, mathematician, astronomer, physician, encyclopaedist, philosopher, astrologist, traveller, pharmacist and tutor, who contributed immensely to the fields of mathematics, philosophy, medicine and science.
 The Manifeste l'Istiqlal, 11 January 1944, or the Declaration of Independence of Morocco is an act of great symbolic meaning in the country, which consolidates and formalizes the nationalist statements originating from the declaration against the Berber Dahir on 28 August 1930 and the demand for independence.
 Tagant is an installation realized for a project entitled Jeux de mémoires (Memory Games) around the work of Ahmed Bounani, during the 6th Marrakech Biennial in 2016.