The Moroccan-born artist's mind-melting immersive worlds are boundary-breaking and beautifully bizarre.
Photography Charlie Rubin
Artist Meriem Bennani's videos often take place in domestic spaces in her native Morocco, but they are far from comforting — a quality we often attach to "home." Rather than looking at them as "just videos," Bennani likes to create an immersive experience with her work, which often results in an intricately thought-out seating arrangement. For her first solo exhibition at MoMA PS1 last year, "Fly," it was benches covered with red velvet. For her latest installation at this year's Art Dubai, she designed bright cartoonish furniture with domes, equally reminiscent of government-built playgrounds, and somehow early Sims, the life-simulation video game. Using digital manipulation — animation and sound effects over reality TV-style footage of her close female relatives — the artist coats the backdrop of traditional interiors and assumed gender roles with a digital layer, pointing at what she finds interesting in these scenes, forcing the audience to look at what she really wants them to see. Combined with the Middle East's understanding of "digital" — the area ranked first for growth in internet, mobile, and social media usage in 2016 — the contrast between the embellished surroundings and the virtual is striking in Bennani's work.
Commissioned by Art Dubai, and collectively titled "Ghariba," the videos in Bennani's latest interactive installation follow her female relatives. In "Atika," an elderly women blossoms in front of the camera and gives a selection of thoughts and anecdotes about love, life, and everything in between. In the mostly female space, there is singing, dancing, and platters of sweets — as well as a four-legged animated spider, which, like the artist herself, sees and processes this world differently. In another video, "Bouchra," the artist's 55-year-old aunt talks about how Tinder in Morocco is terrible, and really just pointless, because of the surrounding culture. In both videos, the distortion is immense: it isn't uncommon for Bennani's loved ones' faces to melt and vaporize, for objects to catch fire mid-conversation, or for voices to get sucked into an invisible black hole.
"Fardaous Funjab" trailer
"My mother and aunt are completely aware of what's going to happen to the footage. They are cool with it, it's not abusive," the artist laughs. "When I edit it, I think about it a lot, and I feel a little guilty," she continues. "They don't want me to show them saying 'hide the champagne bottle' before I start shooting. They'd rather be seen when they are giving me their best. But I let them know that I'm interested in the in-between."
If one of Bennani's strengths is knowing exactly how to extract those moments, another is translating the three worlds she operates in: there is the East, the world she lived in while growing up in Rabat, Morocco; the West, where she got her art education and has lived in as an adult — in Paris and New York — and the virtual/surreal, where we all live now. No matter what medium she happens to be using, all three come together, if jerkily, in her work.
"Fardaous Funjab," the project that brought the artist into the spotlight in 2015, was a perfect combination of all three: a fictional line of hijabs for "avant-garde women" featuring hijabs with cutting-edge functions such as a tennis ball basket that can be worn over the head. There is also a headbang-friendly black Metallica hijab that carries the band's iconic logo. The joke is simultaneously on the West, which often looks at covered women as if their only identity is tied to being Muslim, and the Middle East, where women are expected to not just cover their hair, but also fit into a very precise behavioral mold, whether there is a hijab involved or not.
"Your Year" by Fardaous Funjab, at Barclays Center, 2017
In February, as part of Public Art Fund's "Commercial Break," Bennani's work "Your Year," a Fardous Funjab commercial, overtook Barclays Center's 360-LED screen, Oculus. The video features brand-new hijabs like Fourth of July and Black History Month editions, this time geared specifically towards an American audience. "Whenever it feels like the project will have more impact if I speak from Fardaous's voice, I go there," Bennani explains. Public Art Fund reached out to her the week after the U.S. election. "I immediately thought, 'OK, there is a problem, and as an artist, maybe I can say something about it," she remembers. While working on the project, she made an extra effort to ensure the commercial was "supportive and thoughtful," and enlisted real women who wear hijabs. "Maybe it's not going to change the world, but all these things together, will change the world," she adds.
Following the new president's executive order on immigration, Bennani didn't feel like it was the best time to leave New York for Art Dubai, but her schedule was set. "Something about being in Morocco felt very, very vulnerable this time around," she said from her hometown, where she stopped by on her way back from Dubai. It was two days after the U.S. ban on carrying laptops as cabin baggage from eight Muslim countries including Morocco, Turkey, and Egypt. "The way I'm experiencing [the U.S. politics] right now feels like a direct an attack, emotionally. I haven't intellectualized it and made it into a project yet."
At 28 years old, Bennani has already had a solo exhibition at New York's MoMA PS1, and showed her work at Saatchi Gallery in London and Palais de Tokyo in Paris. "I feel like I just started showing and everything is a learning experience. The first time you do the fair, the first time you do a biennial, the first time you do a solo show at the museum. It's like being a baby, discovering the world," she muses. "And the whole relationship so far, with my gallery, and with the team at PS1, has been really about love and support. With things like a great structure, great space, great team of curators who are very challenging and supportive, you can get your work really close to what you want it to be. My goal is to keep working in this environment, and just being sweet and genuine. Those are not necessarily things that are valued in the art world, but it's all I care about."
Text Busra Erkara