Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 15th April 2018

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Reliving the Agadir quake in London’s Barbican Centre

The exhibition has universal appeal and significance.

Surreal dimension. A view of the interior of a lamp shop at the “Agadir” exhibition at the Curve Barbican Centre in London, on February 6. (Getty Images)

Surreal dimension. A view of the interior of a lamp shop at the “Agadir” exhibition at the Curve Barbican Centre in London, on February 6. (Getty Images)

LONDON - A devastating earthquake in February 1960, which reduced most of the Moroccan port town of Agadir to rubble, was the catalyst for “Agadir,” an amazing multimedia exhibition in London’s Barbican, which features line sketches, collages, a documentary film, an awesome installation of wicker crafts and book readings by actors from the novel “Agadir.”

Moroccan artist Yto Barrada transformed the sweeping expansive Curve Gallery into a surreal setting where visitors relive the destruction of Agadir.

“The Barbican Curve is as scary as a haunted house. Some pretty great ghosts have already installed wonderful projects using the space in every possible way and now, for my sins, it’s my turn. I’m honoured to have a chance to try. In my performance and installation piece, I explore relationships between spatial proximity, affliction and trauma,” Barrada said.

One wall of the gallery is devoted to white blackboard-like sketches of buildings in Agadir before and after the quake. The buildings float in a void as solo objects without relationship to one another and include a cinema and a chalet garden in the industrial quarter.

“A children’s technique of drawing when you cut into an etched surface was used,” curator Lotte Johnson said. “You cover a piece of paper with wax crayons and then put a layer of black paint and trace off that top surface to reveal a design. We blew up that technique into a very large-scale design. Barrada etched into the surface of the Barbican. She sketched an artist’s vision of a new Agadir on the walls of the curve.”

Johnson stressed the parallels between the Barbican and Agadir. “The Barbican was built on a former blitz site in an area of London that was levelled in world war two. Agadir has a very different social and political history but it was a site that was destroyed and then rebuilt in brutalist style. It heralded a new style of architecture in Morocco and in London the Barbican showcased brutalist architecture.”

Wicker chairs in front of the drawings enable visitors to contemplate the artwork while they listen to sound recordings of readings from “Agadir,” the hybrid novel/play by Mohammed Khair-Eddine who was commissioned by the Moroccan government to write a report about the earthquake. Instead, he came up with a surreal novel. The book has been translated into English so passages could be acted and read in the exhibition.

Visitors feel energised as they walk into the gallery and hear characters engage in a fervent debate over how best to reform the structures governing their lives. The earthquake seems to represent the rising tensions of society facing the ruin of urban environment. It forces the characters to think about political and religious power and social relationships.

“Our country takes on a new historic dawn,” one man says. “We are liberated by a catastrophe.” Another comments that the king sold the country at a discount and a woman pleads with a prophet to make her a passport so she can leave for France. On selected Saturdays actors from London’s Guildhall speak, walk and dance among the drawings and mingle with the audience.

Collages adorn the wall opposite the sketches. They are intricate works with complex messages. A lorry load of people made homeless by the earthquake is set against the background of colourful, homely wallpaper showing how life changed in an instant for the earthquake victims.

A video compiled from archive footage in which the quake’s victims talk about their experiences runs on a loop on a large screen on textured concrete walls. It begins with an aerial view of the city and then focuses on the destruction, the piles of rubble and the eerie aftermath: overturned empty chairs and crushed Venetian blinds. “The city was knocked out, people were in the street in their pyjamas,” one survivor recalled.

At the end of the exhibition is a scene from the interior of a lamp shop: wicker light shades are suspended from the ceiling and cast a ghostly shadow on the walls. The mural starts to fragment and leads the eye upward to a surreal dimension.

The exhibition has universal appeal and significance. “We are constantly dealing with the idea of reinvention after disasters be they natural disasters, climate change or cities ravaged by wars, which continues to happen in much of the world,” Johnson said.

Barrada lives and works in New York. She is the founder of Cinematheque de Tangier, North Africa’s premiere cinema cultural centre and film archive. Her work has been exhibited internationally at Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and other venues.

“Agadir,” runs through May 20 at the Curve Gallery, Barbican Centre in London.