Marrakesh Artist Mo Baala Returns to Galerie 127 with Collage

3 October, 2022


Mo Baala, “La terre est bleue comme une orange”/“Earth is Blue Like an Orange”
Gallery 127, 127, Av. Mohamed V, Mar­rakesh, through Octo­ber 30, 2022


El Habib Louai


In homage to French poet Paul Elu­ard’s poem “La terre est bleue,” with its daz­zling open­ing line, “La terre est bleue comme une orange,” avant-garde artist Mo Baala is show­ing 365 col­lages through the end of Octo­ber in Mar­rakesh, where he has lived for many years.

The Moroc­can painter and mul­ti­me­dia cre­ator fum­bled through the long and tir­ing years of a tumul­tuous and at times heartrend­ing child­hood and ado­les­cence. Born Mohamed Baala in Casablan­ca in 1986, he grew up in Taroudant with his grand­moth­er Lala Fati­ma, liv­ing in pre­car­i­ous con­di­tions result­ing from the unex­pect­ed divorce of his par­ents. Like Guy Debord, who strolled the streets of Paris, Baala roamed the lone­ly streets of Taroudant, duck­ing into and out of his grandmother’s and oth­ers’ homes, seek­ing shel­ter from dan­ger and sex­u­al preda­tors. Dur­ing the day, he would ven­ture into the nar­row lanes of the med­i­na, hop­ing to earn a few dirhams that would assist with house­hold expens­es. He did all kinds of odd jobs, rang­ing from shoe shin­er, car­pen­ter and porter to couri­er, bike mechan­ic and bazaar assis­tant. All this opened his eyes to diverse forms of con artist swin­dles, trick­ery, oppor­tunism, favoritism and cun­ning in the open and free mar­ket of the old bazaar.

Mo Baala — “Les chaus­sures” col­lage (cour­tesy Galerie 127).

Dur­ing his time at the bazaar, Baala start­ed to read the great works of world lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy, works he often quotes today in his rich and engag­ing con­ver­sa­tions with fel­low artists and casu­al friends. Influ­en­tial musi­cians who led the Amer­i­can Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion of the 1960s and ’70s left an indeli­ble impres­sion on his char­ac­ter and his view of the shab­by real­i­ty of his every­day world, even before he turned to visu­al arts. Through noc­tur­nal con­ver­sa­tions and long phone calls with me, he opened up on his expe­ri­ences of social vices and inhu­man treat­ment when he was employed in the work­shops of car­pen­ters and bicy­cle mechan­ics. Dri­ven by a kind of mad­ness that makes him a stranger to the actu­al wild world around him, Baala chose art, per­haps acci­den­tal­ly, as a means to cre­ate a dif­fer­ent world that he alone inhab­its, albeit with the con­scious­ness of those who might share sim­i­lar experiences.

Late­ly, Baala has pro­duced exquis­ite­ly intrigu­ing works dis­tinc­tive for their unique struc­ture, tex­ture and sin­gu­lar qual­i­ties. “Earth is Blue Like an Orange” includes the set of works he pro­duced over the past two or three years, con­sist­ing of col­lages, draw­ings and over­paint­ings. The first set of his col­lages is com­posed of pieces of Ara­bic writ­ing tak­en from a Pan-Ara­bic mag­a­zine called Al Ara­bi, pub­lished by Kuwait’s Nation­al Coun­cil for Cul­ture and Arts. The font of the writ­ing, its col­or and size change con­stant­ly, and it is some­times ital­i­cized and high­light­ed in col­ors from the whole spec­trum of the palette. The excerpt­ed sen­tences and phras­es are lined up hor­i­zon­tal­ly in dis­pro­por­tion­ate rows. The space on the white page where the col­lages are dis/placed is used dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly, depend­ing on the size of the phras­es and the sen­tences’ font. Each col­lage is a sig­nif­i­cant land­scape that lends itself to mul­ti­ple interpretations.

Baala makes exten­sive use of the cut-up in his lat­est work. He cuts out ready­made lin­guis­tic phras­es and sen­tences from Al Ara­bi, and jux­ta­pos­es phras­es and sen­tences ran­dom­ly to cre­ate lin­guis­tic com­bi­na­tions that shock the read­er with their irra­tional state­ments, con­no­ta­tions, strik­ing wit­ti­ness and sar­cas­tic effect. By rear­rang­ing the sec­tions cut out from Al Ara­bi, Baala wants to enable dif­fer­ent read­ings of a sin­gle text whose ini­tial mean­ing was restrict­ed by the frame of a mass media mag­a­zine with cer­tain ide­o­log­i­cal lean­ings. His Ara­bic cut-up writ­ing col­lages rearrange the elite jour­nal­is­tic and aca­d­e­m­ic dis­course to point to its bom­bas­tic ambi­gu­i­ties, fal­si­ty and manip­u­la­tion of an absurd reality.

Col­lage n°1 for instance, opens with a blunt state­ment: “Satirists are not a threat any­more.” This state­ment is a direct allu­sion to the fact that writ­ers and jour­nal­ists can be unabashed­ly explic­it, unre­served and sar­cas­tic about any sub­ject or issue in their soci­ety with­out being inhib­it­ed by cen­sor­ship. Yet the abil­i­ty to bla­tant­ly sat­i­rize and ridicule cer­tain mun­dane sit­u­a­tions and actions relat­ing to social scan­dals and polit­i­cal trans­gres­sions does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean free­dom of speech in Baala’s world. The same col­lage crit­i­cizes the urgent call for the employ­ment of young peo­ple in social, polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al lead­er­ship posi­tions when it says, “engag­ing young lead­ers.” The lat­ter state­ment is fol­lowed short­ly there­after by “the edu­ca­tion­al farce” and “dual­is­tic sec­tar­i­an­ism” which clear­ly stand as a major obsta­cle to any real aspi­ra­tions to estab­lish a demo­c­ra­t­ic state where dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties, races and cul­tures coex­ist. It seems that what is need­ed in this post­mod­ern world is a new “philo­soph­i­cal and cul­tur­al vision,” one whose pro­po­nents are unafraid to sub­vert “lin­guis­tic norms” and “fail­ing pol­i­tics,” as Col­lage n°2 states.

Mo Baala, “La nou­velle édi­tion,” col­lage (cour­tesy Galerie 127).

Some of Baala’s cut-up writing/collages deal with press­ing glob­al issues and prob­lems relat­ing to increased pol­lu­tion, cli­mate change and the result­ing social dis­as­ters and envi­ron­men­tal cat­a­stro­phes. For exam­ple, Col­lage n°4 denounces the grow­ing greed exhib­it­ed by cap­i­tal­ist cor­po­ra­tions that long for “a good inter­est rate” while hop­ing to “invade and take over the sky.” Iron­i­cal­ly, humans refuse to acknowl­edge that this world of ours “will always have its needs and wants,” irre­spec­tive of their greed.

One set of col­lages is com­posed of a series of ID pho­tographs onto which var­i­ous cut-up images pil­fered from else­where, dig­i­tal­ly or phys­i­cal­ly, are past­ed in var­i­ous areas. In total, they are 60 pieces, with dimen­sions of 10cm by 15cm. The project bears the title “Show the Ears, Turn the Hat, Turn the Eye­glass­es!” The ID pic­ture, which is the prin­ci­pal ele­ment, defies ordi­nary con­cep­tions of an offi­cial ID pic­ture made for admin­is­tra­tive pur­pos­es. The pic­tured char­ac­ter looks awk­ward — with his Frank Zap­pa mous­tache, his bristly beard and his fuzzy black hair tucked under a scar­let win­ter hat. His brown ribbed sweater, under which a light pink tee-shirt shows, seems to be a bit over­size. On top of this por­trait are ran­dom­ly scat­tered var­i­ous ele­ments: blunt and used scis­sors, a stack of order­ly fold­ed sweaters, a shad­owy sil­hou­ette of a for­lorn man wear­ing a kind of beret, shoes or train­ers in dif­fer­ent col­ors, an olive green inflat­ed bal­loon with a black thread, organ­ic lime­stone, a pres­sure cook­er full of holes and the draw­ing of a foot­ball goal. All of these mate­ri­als or ele­ments (real-world objects, mass-pro­duced images and ephemera) are gleaned from mass media mag­a­zines or jour­nals. 

Baala tit­il­lates his audience’s curios­i­ty by jux­ta­pos­ing scis­sors with neat­ly fold­ed clothes, as this implies that the instru­ment should be used on the clothes. Baala’s work also crit­i­cizes the con­sumerist, unas­suaged desire fed by the big fash­ion­able brands that con­stant­ly cre­ate new edi­tions of the same prod­uct as the sea­sons turn. Diver­si­ty in the kinds of shoes and train­ers one buys reflects nei­ther an authen­tic state of being nor a valu­able truth about one’s indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. By incon­gru­ous­ly assem­bling unre­lat­ed pho­tographs, Baala aspires to endow the indi­vid­ual with a cer­tain kind of agency that will help desta­bi­lize choic­es offered by the fash­ion gurus.

Baala’s last col­lage in the series shows a beard­ed and part­ly bald Pla­to hold­ing a book under his arm while point­ing with his oth­er hand some­where up there, but iron­i­cal­ly Baala places a cage on the tip of the fore­fin­ger that points to the sky. In doing so, he argues against the Pla­ton­ic idea that the world of ideas would con­sist of an alter­na­tive per­fect world, where jus­tice will be served and peace will pre­vail, hence giv­ing some hope to the sub­al­tern and the wretched of the earth. The free birds, rep­re­sent­ed by the cir­cling black and blue shapes drawn on the col­lage, allude to those indi­vid­u­als who con­stant­ly break out of their shells, out of their minds’ jails.

Three draw­ings from a pre­vi­ous Mo Baala show at Galerie 127 includ­ing “Play­er in the Gar­den,” left (cour­tesy Galerie 127)

In a nut­shell, Baala’s col­lage work in dif­fer­ent medi­ums rep­re­sents his cri­tique of the real­i­ty that is avail­able to his sens­es. His fam­i­ly his­to­ry, his dif­fer­ent homes, his sub­con­scious and sub­se­quent expe­ri­ences in the com­pet­i­tive­ly dan­ger­ous exter­nal world out­side con­sti­tute the inex­haustible source of his cre­ative works. Like Debord, he employs détourne­ment to pen­e­trate and repair the tex­ture of the quo­tid­i­an, whether by dis­rupt­ing the received mean­ing of the icon­ic images and pub­li­cized slo­gans or by recon­struct­ing lit­er­a­ture inspired by the mas­ter­pieces of some of his favorite writ­ers and artists. He is there behind Plato’s por­trait gaz­ing at the cage on the tip of his fin­ger. He is sus­pi­cious of both the world of mate­r­i­al con­sump­tion, dom­i­nat­ed by mod­ern con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion, and the seem­ing­ly oppo­site world of ideas that con­stant­ly change. 


El Habib Louai is a Moroccan Amazigh poet, translator and musician, currently working as an assistant professor of English at Ibn Zohr University, Agadir, Morocco. He holds a doctorate in English studies with a focus on the cultural encounter between the Beats and Tangier's writers. He took creative writing courses at Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado where he performed with Anne Waldman and Thurston Moore. His articles, poems and Arabic translations of Beat Poets such as Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman, William S Burroughs, Bob Kaufman, Joanne Kyger, Amiri Baraka, Neeli Cherkovski, Michael Rothenberg and many others have appeared in international literary publications including Big Bridge Magazine, Berfrois, Charles River Journal, Militant Thistles, The Fifth Estate, Al Quds Al Arabi, Arrafid, Al Doha, Al Faisal, Lumina, The Poet’s Haven, The MUD Proposal, the Dreaming Machine, Sagarana and Istanbul Literary Review.



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