Mohssin Harraki, Rahatu’L-Aql/Peace of Mind, 2017, lightbulbs, stones, cables, silk screen on glass, concrete, paint. Installation view.

Mohssin Harraki, Rahatu’L-Aql/Peace of Mind, 2017, lightbulbs, stones, cables, silk screen on glass, concrete, paint. Installation view.

Mohssin Harraki

Mohssin Harraki, Rahatu’L-Aql/Peace of Mind, 2017, lightbulbs, stones, cables, silk screen on glass, concrete, paint. Installation view.

In his exhibition “Matière grise” (Gray Matter), Mohssin Harraki’s Débat imaginaire (Imaginary Debate), 2017, covered an entire wall with an enlarged fourteenth-century illustration of the twelfth-century Andalusian thinker Averroes in conversation with Porphyry, the third-century Neoplatonic philosopher. Manfredus de Monte Imperiali, working in what is today Italy, originally fixed this imaginary dialogue between the two Mediterranean intellects on parchment, seating the wide-eyed men, clothed in colored robes, in stiffly foreshortened chairs. The phrases in ornate Latin calligraphy that extend from each figure’s profile were indecipherable to me, as they would be to most viewers, and so function today as visual forms, thrust from the mouth of each speaker toward the other. Manfredus’s manuscript, now held in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, clearly recognizes the importance of Arabic philosophers in the preservation and development of ancient Greek thought and reveals a historic concern for cross-cultural conversations. In neon, like scholia on the centuries-old text, Harraki has added in Arabic: “There are two forms of abstinence, one general and one partial. Those that practice general abstinence only eat when they have an immense appetite for something.” In other words, one may devour language and ideas or to some degree refuse to, tempering the possibility of dialogue, real or imagined, with desire.

Before earning his MFA at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Art, Dijon, Harraki studied at the Institut National des Beaux-Arts in Tétouan, Morocco, considered by many to be the most important art school in the country. Curator Morad Montazami, who has worked with Harraki, has explained that “while Tangier is cosmopolitan, Tétouan represents more of a meditation on tradition, identity, and the long term.” Harraki effectively reveals this sensibility in his choice of subject matter. But while reflecting on historical and social issues, he often makes a turn toward formalism, allowing color, volume, and material to assume the foreground in the experience of his work.

For example, in his installation, Rahatu’L-Aql/Peace of Mind, 2017, Harraki directly cites an eleventh-century text by Persian philosopher Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, who lays out a path toward meditative peace and stands as a means of resistance against extremism. Using terms and phrases that outline the logical structure in Kirmani’s Rahatu’L-Aql, Harraki has labeled, in painted Arabic script, eight treelike sculptures made of rocks, black electric cables, and filament lightbulbs. Marking each of their rough stone bases with a single word or topic, including WORLD OF THE BODY, WORLD OF CREATIVITY, WORLD OF RELIGION, ONE, TEN, and ONE HUNDRED, he repeats Kirmani’s text at the center of eight small wall-based works. These geometric, text-based “drawings,” as the artist calls them, are realized on a rectangular slab of concrete painted with varying blocks of color and layered with a sheet of clear glass neatly etched with words and phrases from Kirmani’s oeuvre. The black script on the glass casts shadows on the painted concrete, particularly with the help of the branches of glowing lightbulbs and the neon of Débat imaginaire, shining from across the gallery. Harraki, seemingly as concerned with the formalities of light and darkness and the beauty of line, script, and raw materials as with the lasting importance of Kirmani’s text, enables an encounter with both philosophical language and the language of forms.

Developing the idea of cultural transfers, historian Michel Espagne asserts that we should no longer speak of influence but instead take a critical approach to “historically noted contacts and the adaptations and reinterpretations that these contacts enabled.” As a student in the South of France, Harraki realized a performance in which he set up two chairs and a table in a city square and talked with whoever sat across from him. Like the imagined encounter of Averroes and Porphyry, the staged scene was not about the influence of one thinker over the other, but about the formal and philosophical adaptations and reinterpretations it allowed.

Lillian Davies