Spirals, sprawling cities, and the sacred – in conversation with Morocco’s Mounir Fatmi
History is typed. Love is geometrised. Religion is sewn. Iconoclasts dream. Saw blades chisel Arab fantasies. Springs collapse, and tape twin towers are rebuilt.
The winner of prestigious awards including those of the Dakar and Cairo biennials (2006 and 2010, respectively) has starred on the mercurial stage of the contemporary art world for the past decade; yet, Mounir Fatmi’s first bona-fide encounter with fine art, as he recalls, was as a child, when he witnessed an upside-down poster of the Mona Lisa being devoured by a sheep in a local flea market in his hometown of Tangier in Morocco. Growing up in a religious society provided his childhood days with little artistic exposure. At home, there were works of calligraphy, the image of the King (which he thought belonged to his family, until later), and a volume of the Koran that he was forbidden to touch, as it was believed his hands would sully the book.
‘Growing up in Casabarata in Tangier, I was surrounded by flea market stands full of old cameras, objects, records, clothes, antennas, cables – everything’, he recalls. ‘I was constantly looking at all these discarded objects having their third, fourth, or maybe [even] tenth life being resold’. According to the artist, he ‘loved looking through all these things, discarded stuff, and thinking about a new life for them.’ As a result, Mounir wanted to become a postman, although his father envisioned him working in a bank. ‘However,’ he tells me, ‘I was very close to my uncle, a painter in construction sites and the bohemian in the family. I wanted to be a painter, an artist.’
The Beat movement of 1950s America became a catalyst for Mounir’s artistic life at the age of 17. The ethos of the Beats encompassed the advocacy of sexual liberation, the rejection of materialism, the exploration of Eastern religion and spirituality, as well as experimentations with psychedelic drugs. Its liberal International Zone, in addition to its status as a hub for artists attracted many Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, and Paul Bowles, the latter of whom Mounir met. ‘The Beat generation saved me: Paul Bowles, Burroughs, and Brion Gysin. They gave me another vision of life’, Mounir says. ‘I met Paul when I was 17, and at the age of 29, I made a film with him called Fragments and Solitude. These were the last images of his life, as if we had unconsciously filmed his death.’
Mounir attended the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca for three months before continuing his studies at the School of Fine Arts in Rome. In the Eternal City, the artist encountered a culture shock, as he had to draw nude models. ‘To look, or not to look’ was the question, remembers Mounir, who felt ill at ease as a result of his religious upbringing. Painting was his preferred medium, and his first sold piece was a painting of a fountain in Casablanca’s Esperanza neighbourhood. The fountain was visible from Mounir’s bedroom, and, until the early 80s, was a meeting place for prostitutes. A local tailor, for a mere 17 Dirhams (approximately 1.70 USD today), became the owner of the work.
It is somehow impossible to capture the manifold dimensions of Mounir’s artistic career, as he explores the world he lives in as a scientist, philosopher, traveller, observer, and critic, all at once. In Casablanca Circles, a series of drawings on stills from the 1942 film Casablanca (including some of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman kissing), he superimposes intersecting circles of the French philosopher René Descartes and the English mathematician Frederick Soddy on Bogart and Bergman, as they close in for a kiss. Mounir sees circles everywhere – in the dance of Mowlavi dervishes, in the rotation of pilgrims around the Kaaba, and in everyday life; the shape of the circle has taken root in him as a sort of machine forcing him to rotate and spin.
The circle motif also appears in a controversial video installation from 2010, Modern Times, which was recently exhibited at the Florida International University in Miami. In this piece , Mounir appears as a critic delivering a commentary on the sociopolitical events surrounding the Arab Spring. ‘Modern Times was first commissioned for the inaugural exhibition of the Mathaf Museum of Modern Art in Doha’, he tells me. ‘I wanted to highlight the modernity and fast-growing development of the region, and create a mental link between Western industrialisation and recent Eastern development.’ According to him, ‘The speed of industrialisation that started in the 19th century in the West is in perspective with the rapid development and urbanisation of the Middle East. Cities are appearing out of the desert,’ he notes, ‘with buildings thrown up so fast that there is no time to reflect on the changes’.
Modern Times weaves an interconnected spider web out of the visual styles of Charlie Chaplin, Robert Delaunay, and Marcel Duchamp, resulting in entangled cogwheels of fragile modernity embellished with Arabic calligraphy. In the work, he takes on a political narrative to explore hierarchies of power in all its aspects – political, religious, capitalist, and so on. ‘At the beginning, I think I was very naïve [in] thinking my work could change things. Eventually, I realised that the most important [thing] is to make works that make me change’, he mentions. ‘The most important [thing] is to try to create another reality than the one imposed on us.’
There are those who really appreciate [my work] and are curious, and others who see it as offensive, or don’t understand what I’m trying to do
His fascination with the ideas of deconstruction and semiotics introduced by Jacques Derrida are visible in pieces such as J’aime l’Amérique (Hommage à Jacques Derrida) and Skyline. The recurring symbols of jumping pole obstacles are formed in the shape of a deconstructed American flag impossible to penetrate or pass through. ‘The flags for me are symbols of identity and borders that one must get over. That is why I used the jumping poles in several installations’, he explains. ‘It is not the visual or aesthetic qualities of the flags that matter to me; their aesthetics are only traps to attract [as many] people [as possible].’
Mounir assigns to himself a role beyond that of the marginalised avant-garde artist: a modern-day übermensch (superman) out of the pages of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. ‘American culture has a big impact on many aspects of our lives … I think that man starts to experiment [with] the world and discover other cultures without necessarily being an ethnologist or scientist’, he notes. ‘The ideas of travelling and displacement [have] become very common, [not to mention] the Internet that connects more people and cultures.’ Mounir believes that there is no difference between the mediums and messages in his works, and that at times, the medium becomes the message. ‘For instance, in the pieces I made with the VHS tapes or the antenna cables, the message is contained within the medium itself.’
Despite his bold attitude towards social and public affairs, his take on religion is subtle, yet poetically tongue-in-cheek. ‘In some of my work, I criticise, explore, and question all religions – not only Islam. Islam was the first I learned about, of course,’ he clarifies, ‘but it has not particularly influenced me in any way beyond instilling a level of skepticism about religion in general.’ Religion, according to the artist, must confront the ‘contemporary world’. ‘I think that a new reading of [religious] texts from a contemporary [perspective] is the only way to change and evolve.’
It is difficult for Mounir to keep still. He is currently working on a project entitled The Fundamental Change, an installation involving several different media including sculpture, collage, and video that focuses on how architecture and the construction of museums in the Arab world are essential elements in understanding societal change. ‘There is a long and incredibly rich artistic history throughout the [Arab] Middle East and that continues to develop today in places like the UAE, Egypt, Qatar, and elsewhere’, Mounir tells me. ‘It’s more diverse and expansive than ever before, and that is exciting. The Arab world is vast and diverse, and, as in any culture, some people are open to dialogue and critiques [while] others are not.’ Mounir’s work is certainly no exception to the rule: ‘my work elicits mixed responses’, he mentions. ‘There are those who really appreciate it and are curious, and others who see it as offensive, or don’t understand what I’m trying to do.’
Like the Andalusian hero El Cid, Mounir Fatmi champions pluralism while paying little attention to the divisive potential of race, colour, and religion. ‘Being an Arab does not mean much nowadays’, he lets it be known. ‘I am also African, Moroccan, and Mediterranean.’ The problem, he feels, most often lies in his audiences. ‘It is rather the audience that might sometimes look at an artwork and associate it with the identity of an artist’, he explains, ‘but I have always thought that art mustn’t necessarily be associated with [particular] identities or geographies’.
Mounir’s search might seem finite, and his path as leading towards a final destination; yet, his dreams take him into another parallel universe, wherein his quest for alternate visions unearth new never-ending stories.
Cover image: Casablanca Circles (detail; courtesy the artist and a private collection).