Yto Barrada’s exhibition title, “RIFFS,” refers to the Rif Mountains, in Morocco, which run east from Tangier, where the artist lives and works. Riff can also be understood as a monologue or spoken improvisation, like in a musical performance. The Renaissance Society’s hallway leading to the main exhibition space is covered in lists—Rue de Tanger, names of streets in French and Arabic in Tangier—referring to memories still colonized, while films of appropriated imagery bookend photographs in the main space, generate myth from a concoction of Moroccan and personal histories. In the gallery, photographs cover the walls, guiding viewers through a wealth of images and information. The experience of moving among these images is like driving in an unfamiliar land while reading a map, seeing dilapidated buildings, piles of rubble, vacant lots, landscapes and roads and people.
The photographs, either individually or in groups, at first stand like a document of a place, but they also strive to be symbols of past and present. This shifting depletes them of the possibility of stating “it is what it is,” losing their sensorial and imaginary qualities that they can hold for a viewer in their large scale blankness and instead gives them an agenda to fulfill. To deny us as viewers the act of rebuilding the vacant lots with our own imagination is in congruence with the artist’s interest in how globalization and social histories in Morocco, through economic, social and political policies have overwhelmed and hindered the lives of civilians.
Through her monotone narration of her film “Hand-Me-Downs,” Barrada illustrates the confused border between the literal and the symbolic by using her own gathered family history from questionable sources as a monologued script to archival footage of others in Morocco. In doing so, she’s suggesting that the creation and invocation of myth can be a form of surviving places filled with a mysterious past and an unknowable, malleable present and future. The Tangier that arises from Barrada’s exhibition culminates in a feeling of repeated failures, a continuous hesitation to fill holes in one’s own life in a place. (Sean Ward)
Through April 22 at the Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, 5811 South Ellis, Cobb Hall 418, (773)702-8670