الفنون: Contemporary Arts of the Middle East & North Africa

an enthusiastic novice's thoughts

Understanding our Alien-Nation: An Interview with the Artist Collective AWIIILY

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Editor’s Note: I originally wrote this article in February in anticipation of AWIIILY’s participation in the 2014 Marrakech Biennale. Due to editing decisions at Reorient, my article on Moroccan artist Yassine Balbzioui was published instead. Since writing this article, I got to see AWIIILY’s performances, installations, and works in L’Blassa, their hub for the Biennale. It’s only two months later that I’m beginning to work through the artists and works I experienced during my week at the Biennale. This article begins that work. 



Uttered out of shock, tinged with disbelief or humor, and always repeated in dramatic and immediate succession for a cumulative effect of whatever it is that needs to be communicated in the moment: this is awily. The phonetically pleasing word hails from religious origins but has been appropriated into everyday Moroccan culture during moments of shaming and of laughter. The paradox of the word— its simultaneous fluidity and site-specific sensibility— make it a hallmark of both contemporary and traditional Moroccan life. Despite its widespread use, or perhaps as a result of it, awily’s multi-faceted entity is often overlooked. It falls flat embedded in the gossip of overenthusiastic teenagers, bundled in the blankets and the lamentations of Amazigh grandmothers, and is tossed too freely in the street fights of bored youth.

The selection of AWIIILY as the name of a contemporary artistic collective proves to be an interesting choice. Balancing both historical and contemporary implications, this term now represents young voices and visions. AWIIILY’s manifesto highlights their interest in the dichotomy of the new and the old, the traditional and the modern:

Today’s world goes faster than we can describe its contemporaneity, new medias, new formats, new technologies, new ideologies are rising everyday. We’re flooded by an ever growing images production, should we kill the image as visual artists ? Should we create new forms of images or change the genuine definition of it ?

These, among many other open-ended inquiries into the nature of art, form the core of the AWIILY entity. Co-founded by Yasmine Laraqui, Alice Ito, and Gaétan Henrioux in 2013, AWIIILY now includes twelve resident artists. In addition to this lineup, guest artists are invited to participate in AWIIILY’s shows. The collective built upon the 2010 Moroccan association of young artists, Youth’s talking. This initiative was created by Laraqui as a venue for the promotion of young Moroccan artists. Shortly thereafter, the majority of the current group connected while studying at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Arts Paris-Cergy. Laraqui describes the artists as “linked by the conceptual and aesthetic aspect of their work.” Abdeslam Alaoui, Sépànd Danesh, Raphaël Faon, Omeyma Gzara, Gaëtan Henrioux, Chahine Icöne, Alice Ito, Lina Laraki, Yasmine Laraqui, Léa Portier, Andres Salgado, and Zahra Sebti, with guests Talal Ibn Khatib, Hicham Matini, Tarek Rahel, and Sarah Trouche make up the AWIIIY contingent that will be participating in the upcoming Marrakech Biennale.

So far, they have participated in two renditions of their ALIEN-NATION show: New York, at Nothing Space, and Paris, at Atelier 31. Both shows examined the following premise:

Processes of colonization, globalization and immigration created spaces for acculturation and alienation. These spaces can be thought as physical but also as a mental creation of experimental geographies. For each location, we can imagine a visual partition informed by universal layers of understanding creating a borderless comprehension of each cultural environment. But there are also layers informed by more subjective approaches, depending on the degree of alienation or assimilation felt through personal experiences within each environment. These layers are precisely what this show navigates.

The communication between each piece create acculturated spaces of interaction with the public. Here the artists elaborate a space of participative abstractions, of shared language both transcending and blurring identity notions.

Favoring technologically-driven media, AWIIILY’s work in ALIEN-NATION replicates the many venues through which we obtain information. Art is communicated and consumed with familiarity. From Omeyma Gzara’s Webcam TV, a video installation set up on two different computer monitors continuously looping a video camera diary, to Odalisque, Gaëtan Henrioux’s digital painting mounted on an iPad, AWIIILY uses the languages we speak daily to propose the questions we never confront. The viewer is jarred into consciousness, for example, with Andres Salgado’s No matter where they lead you. This video loops highlights the suffocation of advertising by superimposing a stream of catch-phrases over an image of what appears to be the many screens of Times Square.

In their ALIEN-NATION work and individually, the artists of AWIIILY strive to awaken consciousness within the viewer: by asking what universal language we can create, by questioning the roles of artists and art, by stripping down history and exposing its biases, and by seeking to liberate form. AWIIILY is currently preparing for the upcoming Marrakech Biennale, where viewers can expect these probes and more. An interview with the collective provides insight into their preparations and expectations for this show.

From Alien Nation, Paris

From Alien Nation, Paris

Congratulations on being invited to participate in the Marrakech Biennale! The theme, “Where are we now?”, seems very relevant to AWIIILY’s core principles and explorations. AWIIILY’s response to curator Hicham Khalidi’s prompt notes the paradox of how cultivating a national identity “draws his imagination away from the reality of the nation which is being built”. What is AWIIILY’s opinion on the reality of the Morocco that is currently being built?

As we don’t live in Morocco, it would be inappropriate to tell today’s reality of Morocco. Let’s say we’re very happy that Sina came out, not for what she sings but for the symbolism of her dancing. As far as Moroccans in the group are concerned, they would feel a lot more in peace if artists were protected by effective laws there and if they weren’t sometimes forced to self-censor themselves.

We think “national identity” is dangerous, and we don’t believe in it because it has no meaning for us. National identity brings fascist ideas. Morocco was first inhabited by Berbers, Jews and then Arabs, Morocco was occupied by Portugal, Spain and France (even by the Roman Empire and the Vandals if you want to go further) and because of all those heritages, one cannot pretend to build a “national” identity. Identity is a matter of individuality; being an individual within a group, not following a group that swallows your individuality.

There is a very honest assessment of the pros and cons of Marrakech’s development into a tourist hub in your press packet. You mention using the form of a tourist stand to showcase your work at the Biennale to mitigate these, while still respecting the culture of the site. I’m curious to see how this is interpreted by Western and by Moroccan viewers. What media (if any) do you find to be most effective in communicating yourselves and your art to audiences in the West? In Morocco?

The most effective media might be installation. The tourist stand won’t be just there to showcase our work like a sculpture base but as a part of the installation. It will make the viewer participate in the installation and reflect on both societal issues and the relation to its own consumption pattern, culture and history.

The work included in the press packet, specifically that of Lina Laraki and Omeyma Gzara, seems to address components of the national identity that Moroccans have constructed for themselves. The curatorial choices made when presenting one’s self on the web and the household “worship” of the TV are everyday activities for the “average” Moroccan. How has the availability of technology (TVs, cyber cafes, 3G phones) contributed to the “fictionalized identity” of Moroccans today?

Regarding the piece Please Emove Me, it doesn’t entirely address a ‘fictionalized identity’ of Moroccans, but rather something that expresses the very dichotomy and paradox of the Moroccan society. The TV has been taking a graviton center in every home, literally under every roof. What I’m looking at is the “decentralization” and “relocation” of oneself, its problems, a preoccupation towards a squared window to the outer-world, whether it is an Egyptian TV show, French news or American blockbuster. “TV worship” is of course not a Moroccan-specific phenomena, but in this context its specificity is related to how it is placed in the center of a home, often the room comprising the Moroccan carpet and its sacred aura, and other figurative trinkets, portraits etc., referring to the Moroccan and Muslim culture, history. In a way it depicts this schizophrenia that I find in the Moroccan culture: a constant displacement and projection of past acquired cultural notions to which we are strongly tied, and an unconscious bound to foreign cultures, part of our daily lives without noticing it. It appears to me that access to technological devices doesn’t impact the Moroccan identity any different comparing to other cultures, but it surely reinforce its cultural hybridity, and the collision of two different cultures in a globalized world.

 What do you hope viewers will take away from your work at the Biennale?

We’re making works for ourselves first, what we propose is a conceptual interpretation of our different personal experiences within different contexts through artworks. If viewers like what we propose it would certainly please us, if it questions the public it is even better.


Author: quinninmorocco

Served as a Youth Development Peace Corps Volunteer in Tameslouht, Morocco from 2011 - 2014.

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