April 5 – May 5, 2018
Yto Barrada’s How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself oscillates between ethnography and abstraction, with bits of documentary images mixed in. This impressive show ranges chronologically from prehistory—more specifically, the Late Early Jurassic Period—to the present, the former represented by a partly reconstructed Tazoudasaurus dinosaur fossil hanging from the ceiling in separate pieces. On a different floor, Barrada has installed a wall vitrine containing bowls and stone implements from the Neolithic period in North Africa, along with shells and coral from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as arrowheads all the way from west Texas.
If documentary art of the 2000s frequently sought to fictionalize itself, perhaps most visibly in Walid Raad’s The Atlas Group project, Barrada returns to a previous decade to assume the role of “artist as ethnographer,” to quote the title of a 1995 Hal Foster essay that investigated this artistic practice. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say that she works as an ethnographer of the ethnographers. Untitled (North African toys, Musée du quai Branly, Mission Dakar-Djibouti, Mission, Mission Charles le Coeur Paris, Mission Thérèse Rivère; c. 1930s) (2014–15) is a series of sixteen photographs of cloth dolls and other toys collected by French ethnographers and anthropologists in North Africa which were relocated to Paris museums. Barrada furthers this investigation with a series of photographs of “indigenous drawings” and another group of toys, this one primarily consisting of wood. These three works document the French colonial presence in North Africa as administrators not only of people but of history and culture. They also seek to reclaim these objects—to repossess them, in a way—as part of a North African aesthetic and cultural tradition in which Barrada locates aspects of her work.
In a taxonomy superimposed on Barrada’s exhibition, her work is divided among Pace’s internal categories: Pace proper on the second floor displays her more abstract and formalist art; Pace African and Oceanic Art on the seventh floor features ethnographic work; and on the ninth floor Pace/MacGill, which specializes in photography, mostly presents her photographs, including some of the oldest pieces in the exhibition. A few depict migrant life in Tangiers, such as colorful logos on buses used by stowaways to enter Europe via ferries, or individuals sleeping in a public park. All art is ethnographic, even if most does not admit to it, or seeks to disguise this fact. Barrada’s work is sophisticated in dealing with these issues, but it is troubling to see her own taxonomies subsumed within the larger taxonomies of Pace’s art markets.
Moreover, is the work in the exhibition a series of ethnographic objects with formal qualities or a series of formal objects with ethnographic qualities? Because of the clean way in which Barrada presents her materials, the titles—as in Untitled (North African toys, musée du quai Branly . . .—are forced to do much of the explaining, despite her art’s efforts at visual directness and accessibility. Ornament repertoire of all the Moroccan terra cotta tilework pieces [Zellige], CC (2013) is one of three collages on paper featuring various abstracted designs. This floor also contains textile works addressing Frank Stella’s Morocco series (1964–65), which was inspired by his experiences of that country (a couple more are on the ninth floor). Barrada transfers Stella’s geometric patterns to cloth with ingredients such as turmeric, cochineal, and chamomile in an act of thoughtful homage to his homage to Morocco and subtle resistance via the reappropriation of Stella’s art back into its original context.
This process of translation is at the heart of How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself, which is as ironic a title as one will encounter. Barrada’s art transmutes both within and between cultures, which is appropriate given her own experience moving between the peoples, cultures, and education systems of Morocco, France, and more recently the United States. The context for her ethnographic work is the influence of the French colonial presence in Morocco before and after independence in 1956, just as the context for the abstract Untitled (After Stella) series (2017–2018) is modernism’s exchange between East and West, which itself is inseparable from wars of independence fought by former European colonies. Barrada’s work gestures at these political situations in a struggle over histories and their narrations.