512 West 19th Street
September 13 - October 21
Meriem Bennani’s marvelous new video installation Siham & Hafida, 2017, sets up a dramatic, mischievously contrived showdown between two women at odds over the place and future of the chikha, a female singer or dancer in the lineage of aita, a form of vernacular sung poetry that winds its way throughout the modern history of Morocco.
Hafida, brusque and to the point, represents an older generation of women who used their performances to entertain, bring audiences to the brink of ecstasy, and honor the subtle art of aita, but also to carry messages of revolt against French colonial rule. Colonial administrators, in turn, cast the chikhat as women of loose morals or prostitutes. The associations stuck, as did the Orientalist fantasies of academics struggling to understand the erotic ambiguities of aita. In a bid to turn aita into a tourist attraction, the Moroccan government, independent since 1956, recently reclaimed the genre as national heritage, ushering in a new generation of social-media-savvy chikhat, epitomized by simpering Siham.
Instead of an earnest or ethnographic film, Bennani runs her subject through what has become an unmistakable, totally disarming style of digital distortion and surreal irruption. (She also fractures what is essentially a single video into a six-channel projection with three monitors and an anteroom of kitsch Plexiglas prints.) Siham and Hafida meet in a café, and, of course, they despise each other. What sticks in the mind, however, are the moments when Bennani’s image breaks apart, when a flurry of insects or crustaceans suddenly takes over the screen and becomes a field of vibrating abstract patterns. In those instances, Siham & Hafida does the work of aita itself, transporting viewers to another realm of imagination and promise.