Poster for Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 film, Ashes and Diamonds, repainted by Said Mesfioui Ben Salam, 2011–12. From “Yto Barrada.”

Poster for Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 film, Ashes and Diamonds, repainted by Said Mesfioui Ben Salam, 2011–12. From “Yto Barrada.”

Yto Barrada

Poster for Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 film, Ashes and Diamonds, repainted by Said Mesfioui Ben Salam, 2011–12. From “Yto Barrada.”

Over the past decade, the work of the French-born, Morocco-based artist Yto Barrada has gradually revealed itself as recursive, with new projects incorporating the documentary images of the Maghreb and the Mediterranean that brought the artist international attention. At once chromatic and undersaturated, those ambiguously allusive pictures stand on their own, but Barrada has taken to redeploying them—along with her sculptural works, films, and videos—in broader thematic installations. Her most recent project, “Album: Cinematheque Tangier” (on view through May 18), is perhaps the culmination of this turn in her evolving practice, comprising not only new and old work as well as archival materials but a satellite of Cinema Rif, the Tangier movie house that Barrada was instrumental in founding.

Pale-yellow, blue, and deep-orange walls provide a backdrop for works that call to mind a bygone era of grand downtown marquees: handpainted reproductions of vintage film posters; Barrada’s sculpture Palm Sign, 2010, lit by exposed incandescent bulbs; maquettes of golden-age movie palaces. Other elements, however, feel out of place: a suite of unframed works on paper referring to Hubert Lyautey, the first colonial administrator of French Morocco (A Modest Proposal, 2010); an entry wall that lists Tangier street names in French and Arabic. But there are anchor points. Vitrines full of midcentury programs in Arabic and English attest to a vibrant if little-known Moroccan film industry, juxtaposed with posters for American adventure staples of the 1950s, portraying proto–Indiana Joneses on exotic Oriental excursions. Nearby, a 2008 film by Barrada explains that the Maghreb once had a thriving culture centered on cinema, but by 2000, no art houses remained. In 2006, she and a team constructed a new theater and café at the Rif, which has since hosted more than ten thousand visitors and serves as a film archive with a growing public education program.

In this light, “Cinematheque Tangier” assumes a formal clarity‚ as a cultural repository that works on the raw logistical level of conservation and circulation (like a library) and also on a larger sociopolitical project that is “the Orient” in general and Tangier in particular. As Edward Said famously argued in 1978, northern Africa has long been a site of projected fantasy and repressed desire for Western audiences. Barrada’s psychic remapping mirrors on-the-ground changes to administration and the built environment but unfolds in the seemingly anodyne terrain of art and literature. In deploying this symbolic archive alongside the physical documentation of her own seven-year-old site, Barrada brings her practice into focus as a continual resituating of objects to create new meanings. Of course, even in an atomized, streaming world one needs nodes through which the past can be preserved and the present staged. A notable reason that so many prominent African artists live or work on other continents is that such physical infrastructure—from supply stores to libraries of critical theory to art-house theaters—is lacking.

At the heart of “Cinematheque Tangier” is a utopian pragmatism suited to modernist projects of yore. Indeed, in her now-classic essay “One Place After Another: Notes on Site-Specificity” from 1997, Miwon Kwon cautioned against “globalized” or nomadic work that would feed the market’s insatiable “consumption of difference (for difference’s sake),” presciently remarking that “the siting of art in ‘real’ places can also be a means to extract the social and historical dimensions out of places.” “Cinematheque Tangier” is important, then, because it works in precisely the opposite direction. Viewers here do not so much enjoy visual documentation of Tangier as support the operation of an avant-garde infrastructure that extends to the Walker itself: Built into the show is a cinema in miniature, which screens eight films totaling two hours in length. Rather than trade on a veneer of documentary criticality or cash in on the voyeurism of difference, “Cinematheque Tangier” creates a platform for reinvestment in a place and the redefinition of its contours.

Ian Bourland