I was unpleasantly surprised when I saw that Art Review magazine had decided to dedicate the cover of its last issue to the uneventful Moroccan artists Latifa Echakhch. However, that decision might allow us to explore the ways top institutions are coping with the demands of filling vast exhibitions spaces at low costs. Having said this, there is something in the way allegories work and appear to be linked to her own personal history that deserves a bit of discussion.
In her own words: ‘Suddenly I, Latifa Echakhch, first generation immigrant, so to speak, since I arrived so young in France, was nominated for the Prix Marcel Duchamp, rewarded and invited to exhibit in one of the most important cultural institutions, the Centre Pompidou. Through in the end it is the ultimate recognition from the French art scene, the experience was really disturbing for me, because it is reminded me of what I hated within sports -the competition- applied to the arts. Also I couldn’t ignore that somewhere in this process there was this little part of me that was looked at as alien. With another name, I wouldn’t feel the same pressure and I wouldn’t carry the same weight’.
Immediately after this opening statement, Art Review finds it necessary to tell us that she was born in El Knhansa, Morocco, with a very humble background, about which she has always remained very reserved. Clearly, not any more! Then the question is why? Well, Latifah was only three years old when her parents moved to France and settled in Aix-les-Bains on the shores of the Lake Bourget. With this, Art Review wants to inform us that not only she is a foreign national but that she is also foreign from a class point of view since she was not born into the upper echelons of society where the contemporary art world seems to dwell. This manipulation of her personal history as introduction to her work present a problem which is the way foreignness is often addressed in the contemporary art world.
By this I mean that even though she refers to herself as a girl from humble origins that went to France (that is, as a more or less virtual exile), then she behaves as a ‘willing foreigner’. In fact, she says that ‘the Alpine region has had a deep impact in shaping her sensibility and aesthetics and after having been to Paris and Stockholm, she now returned ‘home’ (Matigny in the Swiss Alps)’. There is nothing of the exile in this. Edward Said, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian-American scholar, caught the romance and pain of exile when he called it “a strangely compelling idea, but a terrible experience”. The true exile, he said, was somebody who could “return home neither in spirit nor in fact”, and whose achievements were “permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind for ever”.
The willing foreigner is in exactly the reverse position, for a while at any rate. His enjoyment of life is intensified, not undermined, by the absence of a homeland. And the homeland is a place to which he could return at any time. The funny thing is, with the passage of time, something does happen to long-term foreigners which makes them more like real exiles, and they do not like it at all. The homeland which they left behind changes. The culture, the politics and their old friends all change, die, forget them. They come to feel that they are foreigners even when visiting “home”. Jhumpa Lahiri, a British-born writer of Indian descent living in America, catches something of this in her novel, “The Namesake”. Ashima, who is an Indian émigré, compares the experience of foreignness to that of “a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that the previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding”.
Beware, then: however well you carry it off, however much you enjoy it, there is a dangerous undertow to being a foreigner, even a genteel foreigner. Somewhere at the back of it all lurks homesickness, which metastasises over time into its incurable variant, nostalgia. And nostalgia has much in common with the Freudian idea of melancholia—a continuing, debilitating sense of loss, somewhere within which lies anger at the thing lost. It is not the possibility of returning home which feeds nostalgia, but the impossibility of it. Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-born intellectual resettled in France, has caught this sense of deprivation by comparing the experience of foreignness with the loss of a mother.
Back to Latifa, her art comes in two shapes: installations and/or compositions of found objects. In spite of the fact that these are considered by Art Review as ‘romantic ready mades’, we should ask ourselves whether this sort of artist functions as an excuse to whitewash the issues of contemporary migrant workers (of all levels) while at the same time filling as much space as possible for it would be truly expensive to take as much as space as these kind of art takes with paintings or sculptures. Is this Romantic ‘stageism’ a cheap way to address big issues in a banal way. In other words, is this installationist romanticism (or lyricism?) an opportunity to superficially mix conceptualism and, for example, surrealism in order to charge the artist background with more symbolic power that it should have. Are we in front of the monumentalisation of the aesthetics of the corporate resumé? J A T
HAVE YOU WATCH MY ‘THE PILL’ ON LYGIA CLARK AT MOMA?