Goodman Gallery Johannesburg
25 May - 1 July 2017
A copy of the Koran.
A photograph of a Moroccan King.
A calligraphic painting.
These are the only three cultural objects remembered by mounir fatmi from his childhood home in 1970s Tangier – all of which vividly captured his imagination, but he was forbidden to touch.
Fragmented Memory marks a rare autobiographical approach for the Paris-based multimedia artist, in which fatmi takes these coveted objects as a starting point ‘to show how the few elements of culture I had in my childhood home has shaped my artistic research, my aesthetic choices and my entire career’, he says. fatmi adds that ‘in this show, I draw a direct relationship to language, to memory, and to history, because, for me, these three elements depend on one another: without language there is no memory and with no memory there is no history.’
In Suspect Language (Goodman Gallery, 2012), fatmi’s first solo show in South Africa, the artist sort to construct visual and linguistic games aimed at freeing the viewer from their preconceptions of politics and religion to prompt new ways of seeing these structures.
Fragmented Memory expands on this objective, presenting thought-provoking recent work in a variety of mediums (sculpture, installation, photography), some of which use poetic text, to create what he calls ‘aesthetic traps’.
Almost 20 years ago, when fatmi was still in Morocco but about to move to France, the artist wrote a personal manifesto, titled the Coma Manifesto. It is made up of ‘very concentrated sentences that function like medicine’, fatmi says, ‘and started with the poetic and provocative statement: ‘My father has lost all his teeth, I can bite him now’.’ The document has since grown into a series of one-line warnings, remarks, instructions and advice that continue to inform and guide his practice.
In putting this show together, fatmi deviated from previous methods of referencing his manifesto, such as writing lines on gallery walls with black paint, and turns to sculpture to cut out three statements from metal plates for the first time. In this tri-part sculpture, letters have fallen out and lie scattered on the floor as an expression of the disillusionment and disorientation felt by the artist who exists between Christian Europe and a European colonised country, which is also African and Muslim.
fatmi calls himself ‘a migrant worker’, having left home at seventeen to study in Italy and Holland before moving to France, which has given rise to enthralling recent work, such as Roots (2016), a large triptych wall relief made from reels of painstakingly twisted cable wire. The labyrinthine patterns of meandering roots references patterns found in ancient Islamic artwork through which the artist asks, ‘just how deep can a person’s roots go?’.
This exhibition suggests an excitingly self-reflective moment for fatmi who left Morocco because he ‘needed to step back from my country to be able to understand it and analyze its history’ (fatmi) and now takes this journey deeper by mining personal memories.
Fragmented Memory also features works grappling with the concept of collective national memory, such as the new photographic series, The Visible Side of the King 2017, which explores the weight of myths that can be projected onto history. The work looks specifically at the year 1953, during Morocco’s colonisation by France and Spain, when Moroccans reported seeing the face of King Mohammed V on the moon. According to fatmi, ‘the Moroccan people were under the influence of a collective hallucination. To reinforce the image of the king in exile and push citizens to revolt against the regime of France, Moroccan nationalists asked people to stare at photographs of the sultan that they had distributed and then to look up at the moon. There they saw his visage, not realising they were being tricked by an optical illusion. The subterfuge worked: Mohammed V, unaware of the ploy, received demonstrations of support in 1955, just before his return to Morocco and became known as the ‘moon king’.’
Other works, such as the photographic series, History is not mine 2015, also explore subjectivity in historical memory and fatmi’s self-portrait, The Blind Man 2015, forms part of a series in which the artist obscures his eyes with objects symbolising Moroccan identity.
Several works tackle the fleeting nature of language, such as Mother Language 2017, in which laser cut Arabic calligraphy is fragmented, making certain words impossible to read. In The Weight 2017, copies of the Koran published in French, Arabic, Italian and English weigh down one side of a scale, representing all the languages that fatmi has read verses from the Koran in. After many years living in Europe, the artist’s mother tongue now feels awkward even as it remains a core part of his identity, creating the feeling of suspension between two different worlds.