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Inside the artist’s studio : Emma Chubb | By Georgia Kotretsos

By Georgia Kotretsos
mardi 30 septembre 2014

After over 60 posts over nearly 5 years, my column “Inside the Artist’s Studio,” featured on Art in the Twenty-first Century blog (Art21), found a new home on LABKULTUR in Germany in 2013 and it finally culminates with this post for L’appartement22.

The column was initially born out my need to engage in one constructive dialogue on art a month with a fellow artist about his/her practice, which happened to coincide with my decision to spend longer periods in Greece and the culmination of my editorial post in Boot Print journal. The column was initially supported by Art21 editor Kelly Shindler whose input on the early stage of the column helped shape it to what it later became. At its start, the column set out to inquire about the dynamic of the artist’s studio ; in other words, it was originally launched to discover where some of today’s art was being produced. Halfway into this creative query Claudine Isé undertook the editorial post on Art21 where together again we breathed some fresh air into the column by shifting the focus from emerging artists to established art professionals whose practice was distinct. It has been a joyful journey, and for that I would like to take this opportunity to thank Art21 for its hospitality, Kelly Shindler, Claudine Isé and all the interviewees for the engaging conversations that preceded the published version you got to read.

On the occasion of my residency at L’appartment22 in January 2014, I interviewed Elisabeth Piskernic of Le Cube, Yasmina Naji of Kulte Galerie & Editions and for this third and final installment, researcher, scholar and art historian, Emma Chubb. It’s been a great journey and I have had the most stimulating mental vacations. Thank you all for welcoming me into your studios, head-spaces and lives.

Emma Chubb [1] is an American researcher, scholar, art historian and currently a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Northwestern University, in Evanston, IL. Her research focuses on the representation of Moroccan national identity ("Moroccanness") in contemporary art and official visual culture. Chubb’s entry point to this inquisitive quest was the contemporary postcolonial Maghrebi literature she was introduced to while at Haverford College. She first went to Morocco in 2007 and since then, many awards and traveling grants later, this serene force is revising, re-writing and re-thinking the art history of Morocco after 1999.

Chubb has been the recipient of the American Institute for Maghreb Studies Long-Term Research Grant (2013-14), a Critical Language Scholarship for Arabic Study (2007), as well as several grants from Northwestern University, including the Paris Program in Critical Theory (2012-13) and the Crown Family Middle East Travel Award (2011).

Most recently, she curated Mohssin Harraki [2], Graft, Trellis, Tame, which opened on 25 June 2014 at L’appartement 22 in Rabat, Morocco. For his first solo exhibition at L’appartement 22, Mohssin Harraki produced a new body of work which takes the form of an installation entitled Graft, Trellis, Tame. Each of Harraki’s three large drawings on sheet metal and his book of thirty drawings, also on metal, combine drawing, sculpture, and engraving. With Graft, Trellis, Tame, the artist expanded his previous investigations into the family tree motif as a symbol of patrilineal history and its transmission, particularly in Moroccan public school manuals. Here, Harraki extends the botanical metaphor of the family tree, exploring the process of grafting as “a kind of forced education […] in order to obtain desired results, far from the nature of things” [3].

She takes the intimidation out of scholarly pursuits, by paving a path so exhilarating that makes it nearly impossible not to envy. Also, her devotion, tenacity and genuineness towards her field of inquiry remain intact to this day. Somehow oddly enough our paths crossed again and again, meeting at different capital cities three consecutive times before I recognized in this generous and open-hearted woman a new friend.

It is an absolutely joy presenting to you Emma Chubb with this post.

My inquiry on art spaces in Rabat and researcher Emma Chubb was supported by L’appartement22, the alternative space that has significantly contributed to the formation of the creative safety net discussed earlier and this lasting personal account.

I’m always interested in how we come to know of the world, and for that reason I’d like to take you back, way back and ask you to tell me a bit and perhaps link Mrs. Birru’s, your middle-school teacher’s invention "Où dans l’Afrique est Carmen Sandiego [Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego] ?” to the kind of mission/research you’ve set out for yourself in the Maghreb region.

I think the story of how one finds her academic terrain is often very autobiographical. In my case, I would say it began with a series of excellent French teachers in middle school, high school, and then college/university (and I think it’s important to mention that I was in Pittsburgh Public Schools until college), because it was French that led me to the Maghreb. In my middle school, we had two years of French beginning in seventh grade, when I was eleven, taught by the incredibly dynamic Mrs. Birru. I remember that sometime early in the year she informed us that once in high school, we would only learn about France and Quebec but that the French-speaking world was much vaster and so for our two years together, we would focus on Francophone Africa. Of course, we were total beginners in French and learning basic vocabulary and verb conjugations, so this focus manifested in games like “Où dans l’Afrique est Carmen Sandiego  ?”, a variation of a popular kids TV show at the time. I don’t remember if the Maghreb was included, but I do remember us singing-shouting “Côte d’Ivoire !” or “Niger !” In high school, I had teachers in English, history, and French who incorporated much more material than the state and city curricula required and I’m guessing that was the case with Mr. Casorio, my French teacher during the last two years of high school. We read standards like Camus’ L’étranger but also Oyono’s Une vie de boy, a book I reread in a college Francophone literature class. My last year of high school was the year France’s extreme right Front National party made it to the second round of the presidential elections, and I remember Mr. Casorio being aghast and having us talk about it.

How have French literature, French imperial history and post-colonial Maghrebi literature influenced the way in which you relate to your subject and the focus of your research ?

It was in college that I learned more about the French-speaking Caribbean (reading Senghor especially) and the literature of first- and second-generation immigrants in France as well as the most well known writers from Morocco and Algeria, such as Tahar Ben Jelloun, Driss Chraibi, and Assia Djebar. A part of me really identified with the novels and memoirs by the French-born children of immigrants. Despite the difference in geographic and historical context, these books articulated many of my own experiences of feeling like an outsider in the country where I was born. I’m straight, but my parents are gay and I grew up at a time in the U.S. where there were no protections or legal recognition for gay couples and families. Every time I filled out a form, whether to apply for college, get a passport, or provide a medical history at a doctor’s office, the lines asking to list “mother” and “father” were a reminder that my family was not “normal,” that we didn’t belong. College was also when I first went to France. I spent a summer in Avignon, living with an older woman and her male partner. They were lovely to me, but they also introduced me to France’s particular kind of xenophobia, complaining about “les arabes” who celebrated their weddings loudly on the street, which, I was told, the French would never do. Looking back, it’s easy to see the early genesis of my current research in these biographical elements. One of my primary interests is how national belonging is defined and how visual culture is a powerful tool for articulating and disseminating such definitions. Who is excluded in these definitions and how do they change over time ? Can visual art challenge or expand these definitions in ways that have a broader impact ?

In your own words, "Since 1999, a new generation of Moroccan artists has begun to interrogate the legacy of Moroccan nationalism and how it defined Moroccanness." I have a visual on my mind of a circle in 1999 with a well defined edge all around, in what way has this edge been challenged ? Is the circle being redefined, stretched and/or expanded in any way ?

For my research focus, I picked 1999 because it’s such an important year in Morocco history, one that lends itself well to demarcating a historical period. Brian Edwards has argued that it marks the shift from Morocco’s postcolonial period to the current moment, however we want to name it. 1999 was the year that current King Mohammed VI ascended to the throne, opening up a new public space for reflecting on the history and legacy of Morocco’s postcolonial period. 1999 was also the year that a number of young Moroccan artists—this new generation—graduated from the National Institute for Fine Arts in Tetouan and exhibited their work for the first time in France, as part of the exhibition L’objet désorienté [The Disoriented Object]. In addition, it coincides with the influx of satellite television and tightening borders in the European Union, such that the outside world was at once much more present—on television—and much further away, due to increased visa restrictions placed on Moroccan passport holders.  

What’s the relationship between artistic and political representation ?

That’s something I’m trying to figure out, particularly as it applies to Morocco. Or rather, I think Morocco challenges scholars and artists to rethink this relationship and the democratic bias that can undergird conversations about art and politics. Often, there is an assumption that greater artistic or visual representation translates into greater political representation. And indeed, it’s very appealing to make the argument that by representing an underrepresented community, an artist or an artwork opens the door to that community obtaining greater political visibility and hence rights. But I’m skeptical. This is something that Peggy Phelan addresses in her book Unmarked : The Politics of Performance (1993), writing how there’s great power in invisibility, in being unmarked. For example, in the U.S., African-Americans have long been a constant presence in media and visual culture but this has not translated into greater political representation or power. States have recently passed voting laws that are taking us back to the pre-Civil Rights Era and eroding access to voting in a way that disproportionately targets black communities. A similar situation seems to be in place in Europe. There, clandestine migrants from all over Africa are hypervisible in news media as well as in contemporary art exhibitions but they have little-to-no political representation. In both cases, visibility as “Other” is dangerous and makes one vulnerable. It means being more likely to be stopped by police or targeted by mounting xenophobia and nationalism, among other things. At the same time, there’s something very powerful about seeing oneself or one’s community represented positively in mainstream media for the first time, which can be part of building greater awareness and acceptance of minority or marginalized communities. Perhaps it’s a question of being sensitive to the kinds of visibility and representation and, when it comes to artistic representation, to attend to the particularities of a given representation and its circulation, and to consider whether a given artwork in fact perpetuates rather than contests the negative representations its author claims to disrupt.

We’ve briefly touched over Skype on a very sensitive problematization—one that is primarily a reflection of education—that of reducing non-white artists’ practices to identity and ethnicity. What’s really behind this trap, how can the discussion evolve beyond that point within the art world in our everyday interactions among art professionals and when the subject is out of scholarly hands ?

It’s an important question. I don’t know any artists in Morocco (or elsewhere) who would want to be told they were picked for an exhibition because they’re Moroccan. I wonder if it’s not also a question of time and existing published research. One of the reasons that my current research focuses on Morocco and is not, for the moment, a more transnational or comparative project, is that it takes a lot of time and work to learn about a place in all of its historical, social, artistic, and political complexities and to develop the necessary linguistic skills. As a graduate student, I have the luxury of time, at least for now, that allows me to spend nine months in Morocco for research. Nine months hardly seems to be enough, however, especially since my three years of doctoral coursework and exams in the U.S. were based in a Euro-American canon, even though my department is at the forefront of challenging this canon. But curators and art critics, generally, don’t seem to have anything close to that amount of time when they are doing research for projects or reviewing exhibitions. Perhaps they come for a couple of days, a week or two at most, and so identity and ethnicity can provide easy reference points, as can gender and sexuality.

Yet in many ways, Morocco is an ideal place from which to put pressure on such appellations because its geography, history, and multilingualism have long bucked fixed notions of identity and ethnicity. This is no less true for the history of its modern and contemporary art. Many of Morocco’s first generation of artists and filmmakers trained abroad during the last years of the Protectorate, in Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States, and were active in transnational Third World and Pan-Arab movements, participating in the 1969 Pan-African Festival, for example. Or take the examples of Pauline de Mazières, who founded Rabat’s first modern art gallery L’Atelier, and Abdellah Karroum, founder and director of L’appartement 22, the region’s first independent art space. To refer to one as French and the other as Moroccan would be not only overly simplistic but also misleading. Pauline was born in Morocco to Russian immigrants exiled by the Revolution. Married to a Frenchman, she has French citizenship but has lived her entire life in Morocco. Karroum, meanwhile, grew up in the rural, predominantly Amazigh (Berber) Rif, long Morocco’s political and geographical margin, where his mother tongue was Tarifit, a language that was only recognized as a national language in Morocco in 2011. After completing his undergraduate degree and PhD in France, he spent many years “based” in Morocco while traveling the world on a visa-filled Moroccan passport before landing in Doha.

On the occasion of your PhD at the Northwestern University, there have been a number of figures that mark your journey and your research, and I’d like you if possible to start with Hannah Feldman and then take us on a rather precise tour of Morocco through your experience.

Hannah Feldman is my wonderful advisor and mentor at Northwestern and she has challenged and supported me since the very beginning. In Morocco, the person with whom I’ve worked most closely and consistently over the years is Abdellah Karroum, who founded Rabat’s L’appartement 22 in 2002 and who is now director of Mathaf : Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. I started working with L’appartement22 on exhibitions and publications in 2007 and these experiences continue to shape and influence much of my research today. L’appartement 22 has played a fundamental role in the contemporary art scene in Morocco on both a national and international level. Not only has it been an important factor in the increase in attention to contemporary art in Morocco but on a local level, it opened doors for artist- or curator-led spaces and residencies, such as Espace 150 x 295 in Martil, Trankat in Tetouan, the Cinémathèque de Tanger in Tangier, Le Cube in Rabat, and most recently Kulte Gallery & Editions, also in Rabat. Of course each of these spaces has its own personality and unique goals and projects, but they are all private initiatives that support and exhibit a lot of—but not only—young and Moroccan artists, while also providing much needed spaces for encounter and exchange. Their publications (online and as catalogues) also will play an important role in the writing of Moroccan art history for many years to come.

If my work with L’appartement22 has significantly shaped my understanding of contemporary Morocco art, my friendship with Pauline de Mazières has taught me much about the first generation of Moroccan artists after the country’s independence from French and Spanish colonial rule in 1956. De Mazières founded L’Atelier, one of country’s first galleries, in 1971 and for twenty years she and co-director Sylvia Belhassan exhibited many of Morocco’s great modernists, as evidenced in L’Atelier’s first show, which was a solo exhibition of work by Farid Belkahia. But—and here perhaps is where we might link L’Atelier to places like L’appartement 22—L’Atelier did not just exhibit Moroccans, but showed artists from across the Maghreb and Mashreq as well as Europeans. At the same time, L’Atelier and L’appartement 22 exhibit(ed) many Moroccans, certainly because their location in Rabat encourages doing so. This comes back to your earlier question about reducing an artist’s practice to his or her identity. When we study the history of spaces like L’Atelier or L’appartement 22, it becomes evident that formal and artistic criteria—not national identity—are the common denominator.

How does the contemporary art world of Morocco relate or perhaps responds to the French and Spanish Orientalist representations of Morocco ?

Some contemporary artists explicitly take up nineteenth century Orientalist paintings and tropes in their work, especially images of the female body in various stages of (un)veiling. But when studying these works, it’s crucial to ask to what extent they reiterate rather than disrupt such imagery, what it stands for, and how it circulates. In a different realm, something that’s not usually part of Morocco’s internationally visible contemporary art world but worth considering within the context of your question is the predominantly tourist-focused market for cheap paintings of quintessentially Orientalist scenes—fantasias, odalisques, veiled women, namely—that are sold in Morocco’s streets, often in the older sections of its cities. While these paintings aren’t what those in the art world would describe as fine art, they are another important way in which representations of Morocco rooted in Orientalist imagery continue to travel.

Is there such thing as an academic-high ? Has this journey offered you moments as such ?

Definitely, although it’s always easier to focus on the frustrations. There are the highs you get when you pass your exams, get good news about a grant application, or finish a chapter draft. But your SPRING CLEANING performance in Rabat by WOMEN WITH TALENTS in collaboration with Touda Bouanani was also a moment that felt incredibly energizing for me, which is why I wrote about it. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate in Morocco to have met and worked with many wonderful people whose generosity has also been a great source of such feelings.

Georgia Kotretsos

[1] Emma Chubb (b. 1984, Pittsburgh, PA) is a PhD candidate in art history at Northwestern University where she is completing a dissertation on contemporary art in Morocco. She has collaborated with L’appartement 22 on numerous exhibition, research, and publication projects since 2007. 

[2] Mohssin Harraki (b. 1981, Asilah) is a multi-disciplinary artist whose videos, sculptures, drawings, and installations attend to the pressing challenges of education, history, memory, and power. He graduated from Tetouan’s Institut national des beaux-arts and Dijon’s Ecole nationale supérieure d’art. He lives in Asilah, Morocco, and Paris, France.

[3] Mohssin Harraki, 21 May 2014

1- Emma Chubb 2- Emma Chubb 3- August 2009, in Jean-François Fourtou's Maison du géant (Giant's (...) 4- Photo by Maud Houssais. 5- Northwestern University 2010 6- Women With Talents