New York

View of “Meriem Bennani,” 2017.

View of “Meriem Bennani,” 2017.

Meriem Bennani

View of “Meriem Bennani,” 2017.

Hafida, presumably a baby boomer, wears a hijab and is leathery and principled. Siham, unquestionably a millennial, totes a Yves Saint Laurent bag and has perfected her selfie angle. Both are chikhas—female singers of the Moroccan aita musical tradition—and each sits on one side of a generational rift as wide as neoliberalism’s reach. For her thirty-minute video Siham & Hafida, 2017, Meriem Bennani arranged for the performers to meet at a café in Morocco. The resulting document weds a Bravo-bitchy feud with an empathetic account of the intergenerational complexities of a country processing its colonial past in a globalized world. For her recent exhibition at the Kitchen, Bennani projected the video in a cockeyed, Stan VanDerBeek–like exercise in expanded cinema.

Leading up to the meeting, Bennani spent two days with each performer. In her collected footage, Hafida complains about the younger singer’s lack of training, her disregard for history. Conversely, Siham seems blasé, happy for the photo op. Hafida is cable television static in the face of Siham’s digital cool. During French colonial rule in Morocco, chikhas would relay subversive messages of resistance to their audience; they also earned connotations of prostitution and impropriety, making aita ambiguously controversial and unambiguously tethered to women’s representation. In recent years, efforts to revitalize Moroccan heritage have resulted in a younger audience for aita. Of course, radical symbols have a way of dulling as they are reproduced—co-opted and exploited by fashion, or blithely taken up by younger generations. The keffiyeh as hippie bandeau, the anarcho-punk stud gone the way of Hot Topic. The familiarity of this trajectory doesn’t palliate the sting of misappropriation.

Bennani emphasizes the inherently wayward nature of signs by giving her installation the aesthetic treatment of post-internet, nondiegetic randomness: In the video, hentai animations sporadically embellish Bennani’s handheld footage, and digital effects warp and undo Hafida’s and Siham’s bodies. Algerian Raï and Japanese New Wave music commingle with slapstick sound effects that range from cartoon pops to tense soap-opera crescendos. These disruptions are comic in ways that are by turns puerile and dark. The singers are unknowingly joined on-screen by disaffected swarms of animated crabs and butterflies—the former representing Hafida and the latter Siham. During their awkward and ultimately uneventful café encounter, Siham unwittingly drowns an overturned crab with foam from her latte. Bennani’s postproduction gag is playful, but it does stoke fires. This isn’t all for the drama; we are reminded that Siham is not immune to whatever havoc some subsequent generation will wreak on her own legacy.

As Siham asks a grimacing Hafida to pose for a selfie, I think of Don Fabrizio, the aristocrat from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, readjusting his ego to the transformation of Sicily during Italy’s Risorgimento. “We live in a changing reality to which we try to adapt ourselves like seaweed bending under the pressure of water.” Language must also bend under pressure. It can be arrested by purists or made amnesiac by capitalism. Aita is slippery in this way; it is performed in an Arabic dialect that is passed down orally, transmitted through female bodies. Bennani’s work asserts the body as archive. Does it matter that Siham learned her craft not by apprenticing, but by watching YouTube? In the video’s opening moments, Hafida sings along to a clip of her younger self performing as it plays on an iPhone. Her face suddenly erupts into animated bead-like pixels that sync with the music’s ecstatic pulse, like water droplets on a searing skillet. Happy, she seems to atomize between body and media. Bennani’s cinema of attractions is as divergent and distracting as it is immersive, and it draws the viewer to these very features: Though Hafida’s aita wrestles with its own context of subjugation, Siham’s must take on another—the female body and its performativity are differently embattled in all this digital noise.

Annie Godfrey Larmon