Conflict to stop conflict

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Interview and words by: Barbara Vanderlinden
Barbara Vanderlinden is an art curator, critic and art historian who is currently Professor of Exhibitions Studies at the University of the Arts Helsinki, Academy of Fine Arts and the Director of its Exhibition Laboratory, Helsinki. Vanderlinden is the co-author of The Manifest Decade, Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe, the first major multidisciplinary publication on current exhibition practices. Her curatorial work in the 1990s is associated with the decade-long experimental project Roomade and its related exhibition Laboratorium. She held the position of Artistic Director of the Brussels Biennial, and has curated exhibitions and biennial exhibitions including the Taipei Biennial, Manifesta, European Biennial for Contemporary Art, and the large-scale survey exhibitions Generation Z at P.S.1 in New York.

Somewhere between the Maghreb in North Africa and Western Europe, there exists an inbetween place where different cultures cross and migrants of diverse origins mingle. It is impossible to grasp the full scope or the number of connections that emerge when so many disparate histories, cultures and experiences come together in one place, but the French- Moroccan artist Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, son of a Muslim jeweller and a Catholic flamenco dancer, is an artist dedicated to creating and revealing correspondences. I sat down with him to discuss the influence of his multicultural background on his work. I wanted to find out how his experience of different cultures related to the creation of his work and explore how his art probes subjectivity and difference.

I would like to start by going somewhat back in time and ask what initially inspired you to make art? You grew up in France and lived with your father in Casablanca as a teenager; did your experience of these different cultures affect your development as an artist in the early 1990s?
I first became interested in art in la Vendée and in particular Les Sables-d’Olonne, where I grew up until the age of eight. I was particularly drawn to the work of the painter and poet Gaston Chaissac, an Art Brut artist who made very colourful and quite naïve paintings. When I think about art, his work is what first comes to mind. Before turning to art myself, I became a dancer, and I worked for several dance companies and choreographers until I was sixteen. The problem was that I soon realized that dance did not enable me to express myself the way I wanted: I needed to find another medium.

So how did that come about?
Back then, I was becoming increasingly interested in the work of choreographer and performer Maria La Ribot, as well as in feminism and the Fluxus movement and things happened quickly. I didn’t have much money, but in 2002 I enrolled in art school in Nantes and started making performance works. The connection with religion and Arabic aesthetics did not come about when I was a student: I was more interested in the deconstruction of masculinity and the condition of women. I made a number of moving visual works about rape, mainly using sound. I also did a lot of performances involving poetry reading, often using Pierre de Ronsard’s work. Some of his texts are misogynistic and I wanted to use them in a different way: to give them a twist. These performances often involved me wearing a wedding dress. The bride is important because of its connection with art history: Duchamp used it for example in his 1912 The Passage from Virgin to Bride.

Having obtained my MA in Nantes in 2007, I went to Brussels. I was still interested in gender, but I needed to take a new direction – to start making more material work. I was asked to do a performance soon after leaving and I decided I would use an object to explore what the nature and significance of cross-dressing actually is: the way it constructs gender but also how it illustrates a category crisis or irresolvable conflict: in short about how it creates trouble in society. I began with the red high heels, doing a performance which involved wearing them and running for an hour and a half through Ghent. This led to a long performance in 2009 that involved walking thirty kilometres with red high heels on, starting at noon from the Transit Gallery in Mechelen and ending eight and half hours later in the contemporary art centre Lokaal 01 in Antwerp. I often used objects like the red stilettos again later, playing on the contrast between my feet and people’s assumptions about my face. The way I look evokes Arab history and maybe religious affiliations. The high heels represent woman, fetishism and even flamenco. The opposition was therefore clear. But in this work I was also exploring childhood – what it is to try to walk in your mother’s shoes for example.

The work you’re describing relates to the construction and deconstruction of gender and gender differences, a theme that ties in with the construction and deconstruction of cultural identities. You have direct experience of moving from one culture to another. Were there any seminal experiences in your childhood or later that triggered these themes in your work?
Well, I met my father for the first time when I was eight, and one year later I went to live with him in Casablanca, where I stayed for six years. I’d been living in France with no Arab culture around me at all and the move to Morocco was a real shock because of the extreme culture differences. So that moment of discovering something so different but something that was also part of me, was definitely crucial. From my childhood on, I had to compare things, and I tried, of course, to correlate my experiences, but sometimes this wasn’t possible at all What was allowed or not differed in the two countries, for example.

Cross-cultural experiences definitely seem to have fed into your artistic work. Would you say that your childhood experiences have been powerful forces in shaping your artistic personality?
Yes. My development as an artist was a long process, and it involved aesthetic and cultural elements. At the beginning it was very difficult to explore the kind of images I am able to focus on now.

Would you say that, on a personal level, your artistic work evokes your personal movement between cultures and identities? Do you feel that the process of making art helped you to ground yourself?
I think it helped me to understand certain things, but it also made me feel quite lost sometimes…

If I’ve understood correctly, wearing red high heels and dressing as a woman caused direct conflict with both official Arab culture and your family. Is that right?
Yes, but the conflict was not only connected with Arab culture, it also related to the conflicting social interests of different cultures. Arab culture, for example, places a lot of emphasis on family loyalty, which contrasts heavily with the extreme individualism of the West. Going against the values of a group or family has strong repercussions in both cultures.

Was exploring this part of the way you conceived your role as an artist?
Yes. We try to understand society through the father figure or through our parents in general, but really the individual has to find their own place in society. The thing is that it’s not always possible to be the person you want to be in certain places. Nowadays—even in Morocco—it’s easier to speak about sexuality, homosexuality and so on. But for me, talking about such things—even in France—was very difficult.

So would you say that for you, exploring subjectivity and difference in a society or a particular cultural context lies at the core of art-making?
Yes. Art for me also involves creating a fake nostalgia. Context is relevant here. Intellectual, geographical or sexuaI context: I mix it all together. My work is purposefully imprecise and therefore sometimes “fake”, but it is also visceral, direct, in a childlike way…

The more I think about it, the more I feel it would be possible to classify your work as a type of life performance, because of the way you use a subjective framework to transcend your environment and ground yourself in the world. So perhaps we should split this conversation into two parts, focusing first on the themes that trigger change in you and then on how these themes relate to society. Could you describe the events in your life that defined your artistic process and how they relate to the development of your identity?
The overlapping of male and female and Arab and Western culture is a key theme in my work, and making art obviously had partly to do with finding myself, but it also had to do with family and society. In Morocco, I had to fit into a different society in which the body language was different due to the religious and social context. I wanted to understand how such a change is possible and how it affected my own behaviour: to look at what it means to act in different ways—whether some actions really are good and others bad. The issue of which things are forbidden and why is very important to me.

Was it some sort of refusal to conform to those conflicting demands that triggered your work?
There were so many value differences between the worlds I lived in: so many things were possible in Europe but not in Morocco and vice versa. I was dealing with two very different social constructs that implied very different cultural expectations.

Was that difficult to deal with: something you didn’t want to accept?
It didn’t make me angry but anxious, because it was hard to grasp why things weren’t consistent. When differences are confined within the family it’s one thing, but when they also reflect differences in society, it’s very different. My father’s rules were more about society than about himself for example, they all had to do with how people would look at us.

So there was external pressure imposed upon the family?
Yes, though that’s not specific to Arab culture, there’s a similar dynamic in the Western world.

How do these questions about cultural conflict connect to your artist in residency project in Ypres at the In Flanders Fields Museum, a museum dedicated to the First World War and questions concerning conflict, war and peace today?
My work does deal with conflict in the domain of images, identity, sexuality and politics. During the First World War, Moroccan and Algerian people were obliged to help fight because the French governed Morocco as a protectorate and Algeria as a colony. The First and Second World Wars are not covered in school in Morocco, which I think is a shame.

Yes, but I was interested to find out how the theme of conflict in your work relates to your exhibition at the In Flanders Fields Museum? Perhaps today’s wars are more closely related to the conflicts you touch upon in your work, particularly the conflict between Western and Non-Western culture and religion?
Yes, but conflicts exist everywhere, even within Western countries. France is a good example in this sense. It’s important to me that I make my work in a number of different places: Europe, Morocco and so on.

But would you agree that the concept of conflict in your art is related to the so-called clash of civilizations: the theory that peoples’ cultural and religious identities are the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War period? Do your artworks explore and help us understand religious and cultural conflicts?
I think my work is primarily there to ask questions. I like exploring people’s beliefs through the way they look at me and question what is forbidden and why. Everyone looks at art from a particular perspective, formed by their background and knowledge. It’s amazing how often we assume that our knowledge is shared by others. I like to play on assumptions: to disturb reality. But contexts do change. I just had a solo exhibition in Morocco. Six years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible. I couldn’t go back there because I had received threats. My artwork wasn’t accepted: the piece involving my naked body with the Koran printed on it was considered particularly problematic. After that, I thought I might never be able to do anything in Morocco. But now things are different. Art is there for that too – to cross boundaries and make people ask new questions.

What is your opinion of the art world as a context for your work? Do you feel it limits your potential as an artist?
It’s above all about context. The sculpture 72 Virgins (2012) has posed problems of that sort. This piece—among others—still sparks off huge debates today.

So you feel the art world is complicated and not necessarily open to ideas?
Not really, but many curators are afraid—and I understand—of being attacked or to show works with a strong political element and the risk to shut down the exhibition. I can not change what I do, but sometimes I feel I’ll have to make something that’s easier to show… (laughs)

What would your dream project be?
I would simply like the sort of work I do to be more easily shown. Ideally, political conflicts wouldn’t prevent the showing of art…

Yes. Your work has dealt with a lot of opposition.
Maybe I’m also making conflict to stop conflict in a way…

That’s a good ending!
Barbara Vanderlinden, (critic) 2015

About the artist
Mehdi-Georges Lahlou is the enfant terrible of an art that does not exist. Or not yet, since he is in the process of inventing it. How to be an artist of the interstice today, when navigating between north and south, between cultures, between several media, between multiple intertwined notions? "Do not see the problem through the wrong end of the telescope", is what he seems to (omit to) tell us...

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