Dr. Carol Solomon of Haverford College, Pennsylvania, in Morocco on a Fulbright grant, was intrigued by that very question: in many of the textbooks and survey courses of African art, the art of North Africa was always given the shortest chapter. Odd, as the region's recorded history goes further back than much that is available on sub-Saharan Africa. She set out to find out "where were the Maghrebi artists?"
In Algiers a few years ago for the opening of MAMA, the national museum of contemporary art, Carol Solomon heard the lament of a number of artists about the general lack of galleries and facilities for artists. In Morocco, only Tetouan (Beaux Arts) and Casablanca (Design) offer art schools. "How do I survive as an artist in my country?" Many choose to emigrate, and it was this vein which Dr. Solomon has mined.
For her presentation at TALIM yesterday, Dr. Solomon chose to focus on "Women Artists of the North African Diaspora," a subject rich in diversity. Indeed, such descriptions as "third space," "limnal," "edge," and "hybridity" pepper Carol's vision of the art of the daughters of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia who not only fly back and forth between the Maghreb and Europe or North America, but whose art inhabits that in-between territory. She shares Edward Said's view of the "plurality of vision" of these multi-state citizens.
Said, whose book "Orientalism" informed and shaped much study of West – MidEast cultural relations, might be surprised at the lingering popularity of much Orientalist art, and not just among European art collectors nostalgic for sepia-toned views of harems and fantasias.
No, as Solomon says, Orientalist works are the rage too in places like the Gulf, where wealthy sheikhs buy up art to populate new museums and galleries, and 19th century Orientalist paintings offer a measure of "topographic, ethnographic, and historic" accuracy, along with nostalgic appeal to buyers whose grandfathers were Bedouins with little contact with the Seraglio.
Carol Solomon presented the audience with the works of a hometown star, Yto Barrada, who might be better known in Tangier for her pioneering work in restoring the historic Cinema Rif and turning it into a respected and much-appreciated institution, the Cinémathèque Tanger. But Yto Barrada is also a prize-winning photographer, and her "projects" like the "Strait Project" involve photography but also sculpture, often providing a biting commentary on the rampant over-development that not only wipes out historic vestiges of Tangier's rich architectural past, but endangers the unique flora and fauna of this zone that is Africa's closest point to Europe.
Another Moroccan, who has settled in the United States, Lalla Essaydi, has been recognized as worthy of a Smithsonian exhibition, "Revisions." Carol, who curated an exhibit in 2008 at Amherst College, introduced a work by Essaydi that received a review in her native Morocco. Essaydi later told Carol Solomon that the picture of her work was the first time that any of her images was seen in Morocco.
TALIM – thanks to a grant from the Moroccan American Cultural Center (MACC) in Washington – will soon be mounting a new permanent exhibit at the Legation Pavilion, entitled "Moroccans in America," featuring talent from across the spectrum of the arts, literature, academia, and public service. We will be featuring, thanks to Lalla Essaydi, one of her works from "Les Femmes du Maroc," currently exhibited at the Banque al-Maghrib.
Back to the Orientalists. Today's women artists from the Maghreb will often do what Lalla Essaydi terms "neo-Orientalist" takes on works like that of Delacroix's "The Women of Algiers," even naming their works with more than a nod to the 19th century exoticists. Franco-Algerian Zoulikha Bouabdellah, whose performance art "Dansons," or the Marseillaise, belly-dance version, turns Orientalism on its head, and would make both Front National and Front Islamique partisans equally livid with its cross-cultural identity-blurring juxtapostion of bleu-blanc-rouge "nationalism" and sequinned hip-swiveling.
But that's what the women artists of the Maghreb diaspora do best: challenge stereotypes, mix media, and generally get their native Maghreb on the stage of the world. Carol Solomon gave us a taste of what is out there, and we appreciate the wisdom she imparted.