“Have you seen the moon, Oh habibti? What? Did they tell you I was blind? ‘Course I seen it!”
In a new exhibition curated by Yasmina Naji at the Mosaic Rooms in London, Meriem Bennani and Fatima Mazmouz shed light on Moroccan female experiences. In an attempt to re-evaluate perceptions of women in the Arab world – and specifically in a Moroccan context – the two artists work to shift orientalist perceptions of both the female body and the female identity.
Walking into the main gallery space, the viewer is confronted with large-scale photographs of a woman dressed in traditional costume, whipping her hair back and forth, and wielding a gun (Chikhates (2018)). This woman – who is in fact the artist Fatima Mazmouz herself – is playing the role of the Chikha, a female performer of Morocco’s Aïta tradition. To Mazmouz, the Chikha is a fundamental figure in the political feminist history in Morocco. “They have very sexual connotations today”, she explains, “[but] they have a vocabulary that is truly a language of war. The Aïta means the call. One of the opening lyrics of one of the famous singers goes ‘my call is my weapon and my words are my bullets.’ This phrase is in a song sung a lot at the start of colonization, when colonial powers began to take territory in the villages and the tribal chiefs began to work with colonial representatives. There were villages, whose families who had been killed continued to sing these songs, and gave the will to fight to all those who had stayed.”
Within her images, Mazmouz arms the Chikha with weapons, emphasizing her power and strength, presenting them as both disturbing and free. Surrounding the photographs are wall-vinyls of guns positioned to make the shape of a uterus, stressing the power of the female anatomy. Mazmouz also presents the Chikha morphing into snakes, roosters and horses, personas that the Chikha embodies when she is dancing, with the vinyls taking on physical form in large-scale 3D printouts.
In the next room, Mazmouz uses her own body as subject again in Made in Mode Grossesse: La Danse du Ventre (Made in Pregnancy Mode: the Belly Dance) (2009). The video work shows the artist belly dance while pregnant. “The body of pregnancy has got a power and a new identity, so you don’t exist as you know yourself, it’s like a small colonization”, she says, “Little by little, the body of pregnancy gave me the response to a problem that I had been asking myself, the identity of an immigrant. Because when I was pregnant, I feel a lot of things but at the same time I say to myself its very familiar to me, this kind of feeling…I’m not in my body, I’m ejected from my body, I’m never in the centre I’m always in the periphery…it’s like the body of the immigrant…and now I begin a correspondence between the body of the mother and the motherland. Little by little I understand that the body of pregnancy is a body of repair…step by step it gives me the means to see the rupture of us, from memory, from so many things.” The film never shows the artist’s face or the musicians playing the music to accompany her, thus it highlights how both pregnancy and belly dancing bring the physicality of the body to the forefront, with the stomach becoming the belly part of the woman’s identity.
“Tell me something sweet! He said ‘honey!’ Her: ‘No! Something that will go right into my heart!’ He goes ‘knife?’”
Downstairs meanwhile, Meriem Bennani’s film Ghariba/Stranger (2009) plays on repeat. Bringing together multiple women, the video work comments on female relationships and how it intersects with secular pop culture. Staged at times as a soap opera and others like a reality TV documentary, the women talk about love and friendship. Giggling, joking and laughing, the women are endearing, people we wish were our best friends. We meet Atika, the joker, as well as another character, divorced, obsessed with her dog Sweetie, and who has recently joined Tinder. The film also includes moments of digital enhancements and glitches, with the women disappearing or turning into technological objects from time to time. This strange experience relates to the work’s title, with Ghariba meaning “stranger” in English. The “digital enhancements” are also commented on through moments where one of the characters visits a cosmetologist.
Raw Queens subverts the stereotype of Arab women, re-presenting them as powerful, multilayered and diverse; questioning identity and gender, as well as touching on race and colonialism.
Raw Queens is on display at The Mosaic Rooms, 226 Cromwell Road, London SW5 0SW until 14 September 2019