Galerie Regine Deschenes

These are very silent paintings, silent in a way that has nothing to do with calm. Actually, they’re not paintings at all, but painting shapes compactly worked in sand and dirt and scrap metal. As such, they don’t describe, they don’t narrate, they don’t orchestrate their earthy colors and textures; they just appear there, before us, as markers of time and of a certain seething rage. Time is in the cracks and the rust that has come to pattern the surfaces; the rage goes deeper, like the occasional scratches and scrawls that have been added by hand, or the nails driven into the edges of the metal with such regularity and violence.

These quietly angry paintings that aren’t paintings are the work of Yamou, a Moroccan who has been living in France for ten years. He came to study sociology and completed an extensive study of contemporary Moroccan painters before deciding he was more properly one of them. This geo-cultural itinerary is no doubt more significant, if less familiar, than the easy visual comparisons that could be made with Jean Dubuffet, Lucio Fontana, or Antoni Tàpies. Take, for example, the fact that Yamou grew up in Casablanca, one of those modern mutants (its artificial port was built under the French protectorate) that has little to do with prevailing notions of the exotic East.

In Yamou’s paintings, this urban experience, the industrial sadness of rusted strips of metal and graffitilike signs, literally leaves its mark among the bands of earth and sand that evoke the Moroccan south, the desert where in fact his family comes from. The coexistence between the two sets of traces is as uneasy as it is complete, with the sensuous harmony of the colors and textures constantly countered by the subtle instability of shapes and boundaries and the uncertain spaces that loom between them.

This tension, raw, intuitive, and deliberate, is what most sets Yamou’s work apart from that of other Moroccan artists. For there is a “look” to modern Moroccan art, a look that has less to do with modernity than with Moroccanness: the repertoire of sun-drenched colors, organic shapes, repeated motifs (including calligraphy) that abound in the traditional arts. Moving outside this universe, as Yamou has done, implies a rethinking not only of artistic expression but of cultural identity as well. His Morocco is not the land of luxe, calme, and volupté that inspired Matisse, but a country in turmoil, where people are poor and dissenters are silenced; his paintings, in their austerity and anger, remind us of that poverty and that silence. Ironically, this was to have been the “Year of Morocco” in France, with a major exhibit of modern painting at the Grand Palais. All of that was canceled by the Moroccan government following a diplomatic imbroglio over Morocco’s human-rights policies. Instead, in a tiny Bastille gallery, there is Yamou, his expatriate paintings, and the other Morocco.

Miriam Rosen