Interview with Tina Barouti | AMCA | Association for Modern + Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran + Turkey

Interview with Tina Barouti

The 2022 Rhonda A. Saad Prize for Best Paper in Modern and Contemporary Arab Art was awarded to Tina Barouti for her paper “Politicizing Art and Public Space in the Years of Lead, 1970s– 1980s.” The Rhonda A. Saad Prize review committee found that Tina’s paper offers an insightful account of art production in the 1980s, when Morocco witnessed a period of political instability and coercion of citizens under King Hassan II. Otherwise known as the Years of Lead, this period saw a series of brave ephemeral art exhibitions in Tetouan’s al-Faddan square, a prominent gathering site. Tina’s paper argues how these exhibitions played a significant role in pushing the boundaries of artmaking beyond the academy and in fostering opportunities for political activism. The committee applauds the paper for its clear prose as well as its innovative methodological approach, involving insightful observations, oral interviews, and usage of primary and secondary resources.Tina Barouti completed her PhD in the History of Art from Boston University in 2022 and is a Lecturer in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her dissertation “A Critical Moroccan Chronology: The National Institute of Fine Arts in Tetouan Since 1946,” offers the first in-depth, socio-political history of the National Institute of Fine Arts in Tetouan, illustrating how generations of artists laid the groundwork for the development of modern and contemporary art in Morocco.

The following interview, which is the sixth in our Rhonda A. Saad Prize interview series, was conducted by Pamela Karimi on behalf of AMCA in May 2022:

  1. How did you become interested in the subject of Tetouan’s National Institute of Fine Arts?

In 2013 I began my graduate studies and first traveled to northern Africa. By 2016 I was set to begin my preliminary dissertation research. With my short-term grant from the American Institute for Maghrib Studies, I originally wanted to conduct research in Algeria on modern painters active in the mid-twentieth century, but those plans fell through. I was able to apply my grant money to another country in the Maghrib, so I went to Morocco, where I lived the summer prior. I was very interested in examining key artists of the Casablanca Group, such as Farid Belkahia, Mohammed Chabâa, and Mohamed Melehi, but I knew that a colleague of mine had just completed her dissertation on the topic. I certainly don’t believe that only one scholar can work on the subject. In fact, the more scholarship the better, especially on underexamined non-Western art histories. However, I wanted to challenge myself and write about a topic that had not been thoroughly examined in North American scholarship. I had to quickly strategize.

I really admired the work of contemporary Moroccan artists such as Mohamed Larbi Rahhali, Younès Rahmoun, and Safaa Erruas but I did not want to concentrate solely on the twenty-first century. What these artists all have in common is that they are alumni of the National Institute of Fine Arts in Tetouan. My advisor, Dr. Cynthia Becker, encouraged me to spend more time in Tetouan and speak to as many artists as possible. In my initial investigations I learned that the art school in Tetouan was the first of its kind in Morocco and that the city (and the Rif region in which it is located) was heavily impacted by Spanish colonialism. Up until that point, my understanding of Morocco’s colonial history was entirely from a Francophone perspective. I wanted to learn more about the Spanish Protectorate and the revolutionary history of the Rif. Most importantly, I wanted to know why the Tetouan art school’s modern period was relatively underexamined.

When I returned to the United States after that preliminary research trip in 2016, I went to the Middle East Studies Association conference in Boston. I attended two events Dr. Eric Calderwood was participating in on the topic of Spanish colonialism in Morocco. He noticed me in the audience and introduced himself. Later that day he shared with me some of his writings on Mariano Bertuchi Nieto, the Spanish painter who founded Tetouan’s art school during the Protectorate period. Meeting Calderwood came at a perfect time; he became a mentor of mine and by 2021 he was on my dissertation committee. His book Colonial al-Andalus: Spain and the Making of Modern Moroccan Culture (2018) also served as a major reference for my study. After our initial meeting in 2016 I became more enthusiastic about the work and my upcoming move to Tetouan, where I lived from 2017 until 2019 with the support of a U.S. Student Fulbright Fellowship.

Installation by Bouabid Bouzaid at the fourth edition of the Spring Exhibitions, al-Faddān square, Tetouan, 1985. Bouabid Bouzaid Archive.

  1. Tell us a little about your approach/methodologies, and how you situate your work within the field of modern and contemporary Arab art?

I had the opportunity to present on my research approach and methodology in 2019 at a conference called “In Search of Archives: Contemporary Approaches to the Past” at silent green Kulturquartier in Berlin. Scholars Nadia Sabri and Sarah Dornhof organized the robust program. I was asked by Sabri and Dornhof to write an essay about my methodology, which will be published soon with Archive Books. In that essay I explain in detail the difficulties of conducting research on Tetouan. Essentially, I was told by the art school’s administration that an archive did not exist, so I set out to create my own. I did hundreds of studio visits, developed relationships with artists and their families, and established trust. As many scholars in AMCA have written, there is a major issue of translatability when conducting research on art history outside of the Euro-American canon. I received a U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship, which helped me improve my Spanish and my Colloquial Moroccan Arabic. I was then able to conduct hundreds of recorded interviews with artists in their native language. It was very important for me to do this to receive the most accurate information and show respect to the artists I was collaborating with.

The next step in my research process was to travel to artists’ homes or studios with a professional scanner and create digital copies of objects such as photographs, manifestoes, posters, exhibition flyers, newspaper articles, and other ephemera. When I started working on the Reina Sofía exhibition Moroccan Trilogy: 1950-2020 (2021) with Abdellah Karroum and Manuel Borja-Villel in 2018, I began conducting research on other Moroccan cities and focused not only on visual arts, but also literature, theatre, cinema, music, and architecture. This gave me me a much more holistic understanding of Morocco and allowed me to better contextualize Tetouan’s history. Often (with permission from artists) I would share the high-quality digital files with other scholars who were working on similar studies. On the topic of the Spring Exhibitions in Tetouan, all the information I had to work with came from these studio visits and interviews. Given the scarcity of art historical scholarship on Tetouan, I read a lot of books and articles from other disciplines, such as political science, anthropology, sociology, and comparative literature. When I arrived at the 1970s and 1980s, an especially tense time in Moroccan history, things were even more opaque. The Spring Exhibitions were an avenue to understanding that period, particularly the northern Moroccan context. In my essay “Politicizing Art and Public Space in the Years of Lead, 1970s– 1980s Morocco,” I showed that art and visual culture were far from neutral during this time.

Situating my work within the field of Arab art is something I’ve reflected on quite a bit. Throughout the first two chapters of my doctoral study, I drew many connections between modern art in Morocco and in other “Arab” countries. Morocco is a unique case study since it falls under the larger categories of Arab and African art. Despite this, it is somewhat marginalized in both subfields. Trying to neatly fit the country into a particular label is an impossible task. Cultural identity in Tetouan is even more complicated; many individuals I spoke with during my research period vocalized not identifying as Arab, Amazigh, African, or even Moroccan. There were many Muslim and Jewish families who arrived in Tetouan after their expulsion from medieval al-Andalus during the Spanish Inquisition. So today many families in Tetouan trace their origins to al-Andalus and adopt the Andalusi identity proudly. Eric Calderwood talks about this myth making and identity formation at great length in his book. This reminds me of other case studies from the so-called Arab world, especially Egyptians with Pharaonic culture or Lebanese with Phoenician identity.

In terms of the contemporary period, my work creates a historical context for Morocco’s contemporary artists. They did not emerge out of nowhere, rather they have been impacted by the groundwork laid down by generations before them.

  1. Can you tell us more about your dissertation/current research projects?

Since 2022 I have been lecturing in the Art History, Theory, and Criticism department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I teach a seminar on decolonization movements and their effect on arts production in Africa and West Asia. It is really rewarding to work with fine arts students and to expose them to art history that falls outside of the Euro-American canon. When I was an undergraduate art history major over ten years ago, I didn’t take any courses beyond European and American art. It is surprising that for many of my students, my seminar is their first exposure to art from Africa and West Asia.

In 2022 I was also selected as a Brooks International Fellow. With this fellowship, I participated in a six-month residency at the Delfina Foundation in London and worked in the curatorial department of Tate Modern. I was tasked with investigating networks of pan-African modernism and decolonization movements. My goal was to break down the conceptual divide that exists between Africa north and south of the Sahara. There aren’t many modern artists from northern Africa in the Tate’s collection, so I focused a lot of my attention on twentieth-century representations of Tunisians by European artists and critiqued museum didactics. I also studied the appropriation of indigenous forms by Casablanca’s artists, who are in the collection. I am currently working on publishing my research with Tate Papers.

I most recently was commissioned by a museum to write an exhibition catalogue essay about Cy Twombly’s time in Morocco and the use of photography in his artistic practice. I have always wanted to examine the influence of Morocco in his work, so I was delighted to write this. The exhibition hasn’t been announced yet so I can’t give away too much. I have also been writing a lot of arts criticism and advising galleries since returning to Los Angeles. So many people have been asking for my scholarship on Tetouan to be published – so this is my goal for the next year or two. There is a real urgency to do so since the narrative on modern Moroccan art has become so singular.