Paraboles / Vu’ Cumprà
Younes Baba-Ali divides his time between Brussels and Casablanca. In his multidisciplinary work, the young artist poses hard-hitting questions about identity, diversity, migration, and integration. Baba-Ali is presenting two new projects at this year’s festival. On the Galerie Ravenstein façade he has installed a sculpture of satellite dishes – so banal and yet so typical within the street scenery of Brussels. They are here but are searching for something else, far away. They seem undecided, moving incessantly as in a mechanical ballet. In an empty shop a bit further along, Baba-Ali brings to life a series of works in which he observes the daily lives of illegal street vendors in southern Europe. The street vendors embody a reality of survival, a troublesome black market, but also a fragile beauty. As sculptures of flesh and blood, they penetrate our urban environment. Vu’ cumprà? Do you want to buy? Younes Baba-Ali stimulates an open dialogue.
A project by
Greg Bertrand, Sébastien Fauvet, Ayoko Mensah
Collaborators Vu’ Cumprà
Anna Raimondo, Antone Israel, Eddy Ekete, Louis Benjamin Ndang, Pasquale Napolitano, Amedeo Benestante, Pierre Preira, Marco Ehlardo, Leandro Pisano
The Paraboles of Younes Baba-Ali
Paraboles. This installation by Younes Baba-Ali has something of a secret commando operation about it. A provocation, an unauthorised gesture that is sure not to leave anyone indifferent. Twenty satellite dishes burst out of the façade of the Galerie Ravenstein, a listed building that houses the offices of the Centre for Fine Arts. What are these twenty everyday items suddenly positioned on the front of a prestigious cultural institution in the heart of Brussels actually saying? What do they mean? The person behind the work summarises his approach as follows: “I like to take away the sacred aura of art, to democratise it and identify strategies for interaction with the audience. I see myself as something of an alchemist, an intermediary in society asking open questions. I’m addressing spectators directly, asking them to enter into an intimate dialogue with my propositions”.
Younes Baba-Ali has had this installation project in mind since 2010, offering it to various countries and cities, including Brussels, but always encountering rejection. The people he talked to felt the project was too risky: the social and cultural subjects tackled in it would be too sensitive. He had to wait for the engagement and clear-sightedness of Christophe Slagmuylder of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts for this project to finally be realised… in 2016.
Paraboles features the many different dimensions that characterise Baba-Ali’s work. The artist forces us to come out of our intellectual, aesthetic, social and sensitive comfort zones and take a different look at our relationship with the world, with other people and ultimately with ourselves. By subverting the use of satellite dishes, everyday objects whose image is associated with the presence of immigrant communities in a country, Baba-Ali questions our ability to transcend their status as objects and turn them into “revelations”.
Satellite dishes are usually fixed onto the walls of blocks of flats, directed to pick up signals so that people can watch TV channels from all over the world. It is an essential item for several families who have come from elsewhere and allows them to remain connected with their country of origin through their TV. Baba-Ali remembers the importance this object always had for his family after they left Morocco for France in 1991. Today, he is turning it into a piece of art with just a hint of provocation and humour. The twenty satellite dishes are no longer pointing at satellites. They are mechanised and programmed to keep oscillating, in a perpetual coming and going, as if they are seeking in vain to pick up a signal that is escaping them. Anyone watching will notice immediately this incessant sound of their movement, but a few of them will perhaps be struck by exactly where these objects are pointing: a precise location, East-South 123.48° North exactly from the centre of Brussels. Yes, they really are pointing towards Mecca, also known as the Qibla. Five times a day, 1.6 billion Muslims turn in this direction to pray.
So twenty satellite dishes are colonising the façade of the Galerie Ravenstein, turned towards a “spiritual satellite” as if constantly searching for a sign. Skilled at ready made, Baba Ali turns each of them not just into a piece of art but also into the symbol of an individual, of a life. “Each one has a life of its own and corresponds to the identity of one person in particular. These satellite dishes aren’t new. They belong to people and come from all over Brussels. They’re unique from a functional point of view but also aesthetically. Each one is programmed in a different way and has a particular speed and angle of rotation.”
In these hugely paradoxical times combining planetary communication and cultural isolationism, could these satellite dishes be a perfect means for understanding our contradictions and those encountered in the world today? Objects that are open to the world, that connect billions of people to their country or continent of origin, but also tools of cultural and religious isolationism. “Before, in Arab countries,” remembers Baba-Ali, “lots of satellite dishes were pointed at European satellites. Today, when an engineer comes to install one, he keeps it fixed on Arab satellites. Plenty of people don’t want to take the risk of installing moving dishes.”
Every work by Baba-Ali questions spectators differently depending on the venue in which it is presented. Paraboles, “a mechanical self-portrait, an image of a spiritual and identity crisis”, has a particularly strong resonance in a multicultural city such as Brussels. The installation makes reference to the experience of migration and the need to stay connected with the country of origin. It also refers to the risks of being enclosed in a community, of conditioning, of schizophrenia. Beyond this initial interpretation, it is addressed to each and every one of us, living beings in a quest for meaning, and opens us up to a third space where it is possible to take a new look at how we see ourselves and the group to which we belong. Paraboles is a social sculpture in the sense attributed to it by Joseph Beuys. It is also a profoundly and subtly political work, interacting with the city in which it is being staged.
Ayoko Mensah is a journalist and cultural consultant. She currently works on the Bozar Africa Desk.
Porous cartographies of art in Naples
The Neapolitan works of Younes Baba-Ali, in the words of the artist himself, “problematize and open a reflection on the south-to-north migration fluxes by questioning their traces and signs.” In Vu’ cumprà, Italianisation, Pulizia, and Social Painting, the complex and deeply layered spaces of interaction with migrants in the city of Naples are revealed through the perspective of an aesthetic inquiry.
In 1925, Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis wrote that Naples is made of a ‘porous architecture’. The main building material in Naples is the yellow tuff stone, volcanic matter springing from the depths of the sea that solidifies when immersed in seawater. Once this porous rock becomes part of the city’s built structures, it reveals the moisture of its origins. As Iain Chambershas written, the incalculable extremes that coordinate everyday life for Neapolitans are already present in this dramatic encounter with the elements of ancient times (earth, air, fire, and water). Thus, the crumbly tuff, born from the violent union of the volcano and the sea, fire and water, is symptomatic of the unstable construction of the city, which Baba-Ali has explored during an artist’s residency in March 2016.
“Questioning in a contradictory way how social systems are able to adapt to migratory fluxes”, Baba-Ali delves into narrations on the instability, the movements, the reciprocal adapting processes, and the dynamic intersections between migrants and the city of Naples. These works deal with the unity and multidimensionality of the Mediterranean Sea: crossing territories, unfolding hidden stories and recognising their complexity, they focus on translation as the place of language, not in a narrow linguistic sense but in the broader sense of a historical and cultural background. It is the transit of the language that disseminates the sites of translation and makes sense of the work. In this complex translation space of languages and cultures, there is a chance to reflect upon themes such as invisibility, borders, maps, and negotiations of agency in public space.
The title Vu’ cumprà comes from an expression that means “Do you want to buy?” in Neapolitan dialect, attested to since the late-1970s as an example of the sort of Italian loosely spoken by foreigners in reference to the hawkers, the North Africans, and in particular, the Sub-Saharan Africans, transmitting a mocking attitude through the use of an expressly derisory language register. “Vu’ cumprà proposes a specific and alternative approach to the notion of market, which generally implies a means of survival.” Illegal stands erected by migrants in Naples are made of cardboard boxes: “they are easily set up and can close quickly to escape the police” as well as illegal hawkers. Vu’ cumprà speaks of transitory stories, of people temporarily occupying the public space before disappearing into the city centre’s labyrinthine streets. In some way, Vu’ cumprà comprises elements of a narrative unrepresented by maps that builds cartographies on the opposition between inclusiveness and exclusiveness, on all that separates the outside world, on all that divides the representation of the Western world from what is outside it, according to the rhetoric of modernity that marks a boundary between civilisation and lack of civilisation, between inside and outside, between security and all that is scary because it is outside of the border.
Baba-Ali puts into action an un-mapping process through what he calls an “aesthetic of precariousness”, returning invisible people to the map and making visible what exceeds authorised narration. In this sense, art can deconstruct the political and geographical boundaries – these can be ‘resewn’ through artistic practices, as in Baba-Ali’s Neapolitan series of works focused on a complexity of overlapped and intertwined stories and territories from which another idea of the Mediterranean can emerge: a multidimensional sea that challenges the political and cultural structure of its representation.
In the crowded streets of Naples, in its porous architectures, in its buildings crossed by different cultures and stories, Baba-Ali finds a way to raise – through his work – some of the questions dealing with art and what Papastergiadis has called “turbulence of migration”: how art can problematize and open “a reflection on the south-to-north migration by questioning its traces and signs.” How it can be possible to analyse, through aesthetic languages, the dynamic of the integration of migrants in a Mediterranean city like Naples.
In Italianisation, a series of photographic portraits, the gaze of the artist urges us to observe the phenomenon of migrants who wear clothes bearing the Italia inscription as a form of the unconscious or conscious desire to integrate with the local culture. In another work, Baba-Ali plays with the words ‘pulizia’ (cleaning) and ‘polizia’ (police) to let emerge “who is cleaning and what has to be cleaned”, suggesting the complex relationship between what is legal and what is illegal.
Through Social Painting, Baba-Ali demonstrates that it is definitely possible to take art beyond three dimensions: he invites us to look at hidden details and layers in the object itself; he invites us to experience the object as a trace of human life and its path. In this way, travelling with and inside the image, we can register not only the limits of our rational and transparent approach to the world, but at the same time we can cut and interrogate the trajectories of sense, looking for something else to be revealed through drawing and crossing unexpected paths in the critical cartographies of contemporary art.
Leandro Pisano is a writer and curator of projects and events focused on new media, sound, and technological arts. He holds a PhD in Cultural and Postcolonial studies from the University of Naples (L’Orientale) and he is the director of Interferenze New Arts Festival.Back to top
Younes Baba-Ali was born in 1986 in Oujda (Morocco). He lives and works in both Brussels and Casablanca. A graduate of the École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg in 2008 and the École Supérieure d’Art in Aix-en-Provence in 2011, he won the Léopold Sédar Senghor prize at the Contemporary Art Biennale in Dakar in 2012 and the Boghossian Prize at the Belgian art competition Art’Contest in Brussels in 2014. He has participated in several exhibitions and biennales, including Merchants of Dreams, Brandts Museum and Viborg Kunsthal (DK); Observations sonores, Gassendi Museum, Digne-les-Bains (FR); Tomorrow’s Morocco, Ixelles Museum, Brussels (BE); All Of Us Have A Sense Of Rhythm, David Roberts Art Foundation, London (UK); Shubbak Festival, Chelsea Theatre and Victoria & Albert Museum, London (UK); Traces of the Future, MMP+ Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts, Marrakech (MA); Casablanca énergie noire, Mons 2015, Maison Folie, Mons (BE); You Must Change Your Life, Artefact Festival, STUK, Leuven (BE); Brussels Background, MAAC, Brussels (BE); Between Us, Etopia, Saragossa (ES); Digital Africa: The Future is Now, Southbank Centre, London (UK); Strange Paradoxe, MuCEM, Marseille (FR); Nass Belgica, Botanique, Brussels (BE); Where Are We Now?, 5th Biennale de Marrakech, Marrakech (MA); Travail, mode d’emploi, Centrale for Contemporary Art, Brussels (BE); Transaction Complete, FaMa Gallery, Verona (IT); Dak’Art, 10th Biennale d’Art Contemporain Africain, Dakar (SN); Regionale 12, Haus der Elektronischen Künste, Basel (CH); Taverna Especial, Sketch Gallery, London (UK); Brick & Mortar International Video Art Festival, Greenfield (US); Loop Festival d’Art Vidéo, Barcelona (ES); Flowers, Animals, Urbans, Machines, Appartement 22, Rabat (MA) and Desencuentros, Sabrina Amrani Art Gallery, Madrid (ES).
Younes Baba-Ali practises an unconventional, intelligent and critical form of art. He prefers to work in public spaces or unusual venues. A fine observer, he poses pertinent questions to society and institutions, but above all to his audiences too. He is a free thinker who holds up a mirror to society and reflects its conditioned reflexes and dysfunctions. Baba- Ali’s work is often presented in the form of ready-mades, but this apparent simplicity masks a delicate balancing exercise. Like an alchemist, the artist strikes a balance between and combines techniques, everyday objects, sounds, video and photography and addresses political, social and environmental issues. The installations distilled from it push the audience to take a position in spite of themselves. Baba-Ali does not shy away from controversy and is even often constrained to subtle negotiations with his environment to claim his artistic practice and its right to existence. His art is always specific to a context and only really takes its form in a dialogue with the audience. It is the art of disturbing intervention that at times adopts an ironic tone to confront the audience with themselves and their environment. Baba-Ali subjects the spectator to dilemmas and taboos and the challenge of acting and reacting, making him a partner in a clandestine artistic guerrilla warfare that joins together the establishment and common man.Back to top