Yto Barrada @ Barbican

The Barbican’s Curve Gallery is almost a piece of architectural art in its own right. Its sweeping structure is therefore the perfect space in which to exhibit artwork that comments on structure and form. Yto Barrada’s current show, Agadir, considers how the city and its citizens respond to reinvention – a process that inevitably involves architectural construction – after disaster.

Yto Barrada: Agadir
Yto Barrada: Agadir Installation View, 
The Curve, Barbican Centre, 
7 February – 20 May 2018
 Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

As the viewer enters the gargantuan Barbican Centre’s unique gallery space they are welcomed by a red-carpeted surrounded by black walls that have been covered in what looks like white chalk. The mural covering the darkness comprises doodles of building proposals, serving as a backdrop to sculpture, film and live and recorded performances. The conceptual framework behind the totality of the work is based on the play Agadir (1967) by Moroccan writer Mohammed Khair-Eddine. The now fifty-year old text is a reflection on the 1960 earthquake that struck the city and destroyed much of its infrastructure. Translated here into English for the first time, the narrative – through a vast array of characters which include a cook, a king, a parrot, a psychic and a trade unionist –asks questions about how best to reform the structures that govern our lives.

Just like the bay of Agadir, the gallery is curved, meaning that new surprises await the viewer around many free-flowing and soft corners. Like the Barbican Centre, which is famous for its architecture, the reconstruction of the Moroccan city was strongly influenced by brutalism. And, like Agadir, the Barbican’s foundations were laid following destruction, having been rebuilt following the second-world war with utopian ideals in mind.

Accompanying the drawings are plants, armchairs and collages, which all sit quietly beneath a sound installation in which the voices of the characters in Khair-Eddine’s play echo around the gallery. The environment that Barrada has created allows the viewer to immerse themselves in the installation, inviting them to sit on sculpture masked as furniture, on which they can look forwards to collages and backwards to mural drawings. The wicker chairs, sofas and lampshades incorporate traditional Moroccan techniques and become more intricate and complicated as the viewer moves through the rounded gallery. These structures culminate in a huge golden wicker chandelier-type construction that cast dramatic shadows against the dark walls of the exhibition space.

Yto Barrada: Agadir
Yto Barrada: Agadir Installation View with performer Rory Francis The Curve, Barbican Centre, 
7 February – 20 May 2018
Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

The sense of a city in transition is most directly reflected in Barrada’s collages. Across several A4 pieces of paper pastiches of the past are layered together to cast shadows and build context about the situation in Agadir during the 1960s. Some of the collages have descriptions that explain to the audience what they are looking at like: “Agadir, Morocco: rows of shattered windows rest amid the rubble of what was once the Hotel Saada here…March 1st several thousands of persons were killed in the disaster.” This chilling sentence is printed below an image of black and white windows against a sheet of paper covered in red shapes. The complete picture does not look tragic at all, it is only when you are forced to read what it represents that its gravity takes hold of the viewer.

The exhibition concludes with a film that questions the tensions faced by a society in ruins, trying to reconstruct itself whilst also balancing relationships and both religious and political power. On select days actors will interact with the space, turning the installation into a performance and interpreting Khair-Eddine’s play.

Yto Barrada: Agadir
Yto Barrada: Agadir Installation View with performer Nick Armfield The Curve, Barbican Centre
 7 February – 20 May 2018
 Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Barrada’s installation covers a plethora of media: performance, film, drawing, installation and sculpture. Much like the effects of the earthquake, that touched every part of the lives of the inhabitants of Agadir, it is as though there is not one art form that she has not touched. The display also mirrors the complexities of the effects of the disaster. The immersive exhibition at the Barbican not only reconstructs the events of 1960, but also constructs an arena for awareness of the Agadir earthquake for a British audience, causing them to think about the similarities to Morocco in the 1960’s and Britain in 2018.

Yto Barrada: Agadir is on display at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery until 20th May 2018

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She is the founder of Gallery Girl - a London-based curatorial platform and website dedicated to modern and contemporary art from across the globe. Her work is primarily focused on supporting emerging female artists from the Middle East and the Caucasus. She has written for Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, Suitcase and Vice Arabia among other publications. Her exhibitions in London and Armenia have been featured in Vogue Arabia, The Art Newspaper, The Art Gorgeous and numerous other news outlets. Gallery Girl has also spoken in the UK, UAE and Belgium about the contemporary art scene in the MENA region, and is planning further events in London and Amman.

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