MARIAM ABOUZID SOUALI
From Tetouan To Duchamp : An Artist Across The Ocean
Words by ALEXANDRE COLLIEX
Mariam was born in a small town in the Rif mountains in Eastern Morocco, far from the cosmopolitan flair of Tanger. “I was born in the countryside” she says. She just had a solo show at the Comptoir des Mines gallery in Marrakech, following another one in the Villa des arts in Casablanca. She is now living between Rabat and Philadelphia, where she is completing a PhD in literature and art history at Bryn Mawr College. In her research, Sophie Calle meets French Oulipo writer George Perec.
I met her in her studio at Galerie Comptoir des Mines Marrakech where she is hard at work on her new project for the 1:54 Fair that opens February 22nd.
Mariam is sitting in the middle of her studio, surrounded by three towering children painted on large-scale canvasses that are set directly on the floor. These children are less threatening than mute, yet their presence in the room is electrifying. Their density, the intensity of their gaze, and the actual, quite palpable relationships between them makes a tremendous impression. At first, it almost overshadows the sheer talent on display. This girl from the Riff has a gift. Each child is lifelike in its ultra-precise rendering. And yet, thin layers of paint have been running down the canvas like they do in Cy Twombly’s Greek compositions. Then, one starts noticing that the floor pattern in the paintings duplicates that of the gallery space. Those giant children are literally sitting in our space, living in our world, which adds to the Unheimlich, this disquieting feeling of strangeness in coming face to face with them.
Indeed, they sit stiff, facing the viewer, very still. As I query Mariam on her life in Philadelphia, a city of famed collections and museums, she quickly refers with great delight to the time she spent in the newly reopened Barnes Foundation which moved downtown from its legendary secluded home in Merion. There she met the Seated Riffian by Matisse. In the portrait of this old man, ablaze in colors, which Matisse painted after his visit to Morocco, she recognized her own Riffian grand-father, in his woolen burnou.
“When I come to the Barnes, it is like mining my childhood memories of him in my small village in the Rif mountains. My grand-father would dress and sit exactly like that”. Nothing short of a Matisse miracle indeed. “To be a student both in Morocco and Philadelphia at the same time has given me the necessary distance and brought a new dimension to my works. My drawings have evolved a lot. I can compare different sets of memories”.
It is obvious that childhood memories are central to Mariam’s creative process and her paintings often depict young children playing. In a recent body of graphic work, children were playing leapfrog over the city. They were running and jumping everywhere, dashing above buildings in so many of the recent drawings which were presented in her previous solo exhibition at Comptoir des Mines. She insists that children games are a universal language and yet they also represent her very own marvelously free childhood in a small countryside village in the Rif. She felt harshly the loss of this freedom when moving to the city of Rabat, the capital, and then to Tetouan, when she joined the highly respected National School of Fine Arts. For her, life in the city has remained a very rational space, filled with constraints. Children’s games on the contrary are universal. Beyond representing her own freedom, she believes this unlocks for her a better understanding of society, the harsh world of grown-ups. The hidden cruelty of the adults masquerading as “child play” is actually at the core of the installation she is creating for the 1:54 Art fair. A game of chess is being played by three children. They wear elaborated boots and poker faces and in between them will be a three-way chess board. Players need to side with one another to eject the other players. Are they playing some elaborate and perverse diplomatic game ? Mariam is discussing details of the chess pieces she is creating, a foray into sculpture which will turn those portraits into a whole installation.
In coming to Philadelphia, Mariam encountered the work of a master chess player. An old artist who had remained a young kid at heart and kept creating small suitcases and a large glass. Duchamp, whose masterpieces are the pride of the Philadelphia Art Museum, is an inspiration and now a neighbor for the young artist fascinated by elaborate games whose works display a discrete dose of Dada extravaganza. Mariam is quite candid about the overwhelming presence of Duchamp and his enduring influence on her work although she is still quite preoccupied with the painted canvas.
In Philadelphia, Mariam says she also felt mesmerized by the big Western city. “Philadelphia is a modern city: the sheer strength of the modern urban world is something that is creeping in all my works now.” Indeed, cityscapes are finding their ways discretely in the corners of her large-scale paintings. Philadelphia is also known around America for its strong tradition of mural paintings which have impressed Mariam and may additionaly account for the much larger-scale of these painted portraits and the wall drawing she has been commissioned for the entrance corridor to the gallery.
No less striking are the delicate transparencies in the painted surface which allow the viewer to peer beyond the figure into fragments of urban landscapes: a non-descriptive Mediterranean casbah in one, a modern metropolis in another. And those exquisite walls and townhouses in the corner of the canvas are dwarfed by the sitting giant pretty much like the houses of Arezzo seem so small behind Giotto’s Saints.
Mariam’s paintings are modern-day palimpsests in which her memories of growing carefree in the mountains of the Rif keep surfacing underneath in the dazzling canvasses of the globe-trotting artist.