Latifa Echakhch

So much is in a name—particularly when that name happens to sound like Latifa Echakhch’s in a country like France, still reeling from postcolonial reckoning. “Pendant que les champs brûlent Part 2” (While the Fields Burn Part 2) was Echakhch’s second solo exhibition at Kamel Mennour and part of an attempt to define her name against the clichés associated with it, especially the aesthetic cliché that non-Western artists produce only sumptuous, ornamental art. The constant of both shows, the appreciable déjà vu that united two otherwise distinct propositions, was the installation A chaque stencil une revolution (A Revolution for Each Stencil), 2007, a wall covered with sheets of carbon paper (the same installation was exhibited at Tate Modern last fall). A solvent sloshed across the sheets has brightened a band of the midnight blue paper to a hue somewhat closer to International Klein Blue, leaving the runoff to pool on the floor.

Carbon paper—intended to evoke what the artist describes as “poor man’s propaganda,” flyers produced on the cheap in third-world countries in the 1960s—is here left blank, or “speechless.” The containment of sound was the unifying premise for the other works in the exhibition as well. In Chambre (extrait) (Room [Extract]), 2009, in the main space of the gallery, a collection of fifty identical meter-high foam dihedron mingled with fourteen concrete copies of the same form. The forms are enlarged segments of the material used to texture the walls of acoustic chambers, dampening echoes—a function excessively accomplished by the foam versions, but undermined by their sound-reflecting concrete doubles. The benign appearance of this landscape of ostensibly similar objects, producing and muffling sound in equal measure, belies a war of sonic wills.

It would be tempting to project such a conflict onto Echakhch herself. Born in Morocco, raised and educated in France, and currently living in Switzerland, she possesses a biography that lends itself almost too easily to interpretation via postcolonial identity politics. Her installation Erratum, 2004/2009, stages this through the coincidence of angst and extravagant beauty. An empty white room in the basement of the gallery was carpeted with fragments of Moroccan tea glasses that Echakhch had dashed against the floor, in a striking echo of Richard Serra’s Throwing Lead, 1969. Limned with gold, the dazzle of the broken tumblers seems to subsume the din of their shattering, taking the contradiction of a violent action’s bright music and eclipsing it with visual splendor. The same eclipse occurs conceptually: Ironically, the artist’s alienation from the tumblers and the culture they represent (she has said that the glasses “are as strange to me as any Westerner”), expressed through their destruction, is overshadowed by their lavish ornamental impact. Like Chaque Stencil, this work only confirms Echakhch’s connection to the very same culturally stigmatized materials she attempts to deconstruct.

A final irony is that Echakhch’s efforts to destigmatize these materials, or their “arabesque” forms, by affiliating them with a history of Minimalism and post-Minimalism, from Serra to Color Field painting, perpetuate the unflattering cliché of the non-Western artist who ingratiates him- or herself in the guise of the good student. Non-Western artists, however, were not the first group to encounter such a double bind: Feminists did so before them, and found a solution in the rallying cry “the personal is political,” an insight which is finally what is missing from Echakhch’s striking installations, and whose absence makes a bold image ring false.

Joanna Fiduccia