Yto Barrada, Moi Je suis la langue et vous êtes les dents
The Project Space – Modern Collection of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum has worked as a lab for works or artists under a critical dialogue with contemporaneity or history. In this case, there is a story, several stories actually, all by women, which have motivated the emergence of this exhibition. Thérèse Rivière, an ethnologist who went to live in Algeria in the 30s, is the leitmotif, and the title provides the first hint (I’m the tongue and you’re the teeth), an account found in one of Thérèse’s notebooks, pointing to a relation of power: the tongue comes first as a symbol of language. This relation of power is, in her account, that of a grandmother over the grandson, in other words, of women over men and is also a metaphor for the French colonial occupation of Algeria. This is the starting point for the set of works that integrate the exhibition of the artist Yto Barrada (Paris, 1971) raised in Tangier.
According to the curator Rita Fabiana, ethnology was, during the colonial period, an instrument to control the populations and she also believes that Ângela Ferreira has the same kind of approach as Yto Barrada. Actually, there are similarities between Moi je suis la langue et vous êtes les dents and the exhibition by Francisco Tropa entitled O Pirgo de Chaves (revealed to the public in the Conversations space of the Founder’s Collection), summoning an ethnographic and archaeological heritage that consubstantiates a work deeply attached to anthropology, forcing us to think thoroughly about how we relate, as a civilization, to our past, more or less distant.
But Yto Barrada is not merely a copycat of someone else’s work. She is part of that community, shared by several European countries (Portugal, for instance), of colonizers who lived in (subjugated) host countries and whose return to the countries of origin never appear capable of fully healing that universal feeling that is only translatable in Portuguese: saudade. Thus, the stories unveiled in this exhibition are both of Thérèse and Yto herself, as they are of so many people who grew up in the middle of the 20th century.
Yto relies on her own and her family’s memorabilia, turning them into fiction with a meaning. Such is the case of Hand-me-down (2011), a title that evokes the children’s clothing, which is shared by the different youngsters of the same family. This work screens a set of home movies found in an archive in Marseilles, from different families living in Tangier, some from Yto’s own family, as the artist reveals the story of her mother, something between a documentary and fiction, since the image and the voice don’t match. Part of the realm of family references as well is The Telephone Book (The Recipe Books) (2010-2018), which gathers different phone books (nowadays a rarity) of her maternal grandmother who, being illiterate, created a system of symbols to write down and identify the contacts of family members. The artist photographed these small books and printed them in large format, removing their portability and emphasizing the only thing that her grandmother has left.
There is also an Untitled work (Bonbon series) (2017) in which Yto references Lourdes Castro and her 1965 chocolate wrapper collages and there is also a single work or, rather, a set of Untitled (after Stella) works (2018), which point to a man named Frank Stella and his series of Morocco paintings (1964-65). Yto is inspired by this series, using textiles dyed by women, retrieving historical handicraft processes of plant extraction, which she herself has learned, now organizing workshops on these dyeing methods. The way Yto appropriates a History that is part of American Art, male-made, in order to turn it into to a female-created history, through occupations that are identifiable as feminine, is nothing short of striking as a work and as social and political criticism.
Although Thérèse Rivière lends her name and works to this exhibition, we believe that there is much more of Yto Barrada than of Thérèse in it, and that the ethnologist’s story was the start of a thread that keeps being unfolded by Yto, the exhibition’s pivotal figure. Therefore, the story of Yto and her family is interesting, both from a private standpoint and also in what she reverberates in terms of stories and filiations related to a historical moment, whose study is still being carried.