Fuck the architect ©mounir fatmi
The Pretext
Fuck the architect ©mounir fatmi

Talking about my work is work of its own. Writing about my work is yet another kind of work. Hence the question I’ve been asking myself for quite a while – why write a text about my work? And even when critics or journalists write about my work, their text cannot represent anything more than their fantasies, their desire and visions, which don’t concern me as a person, nor my work. This is not to say that writing about art is useless. It’s an exercise that interests me immensely, and I have a great deal of respect for those who practice it. But art needs questioning.

It requires questions or perhaps “pretexts”, those same pretexts that compel us to wake up in the morning, look out the window and see whether anything has changed in the world. The same pretexts that make us ask someone in the street for the time, for a cigarette or a light, or where the next taxi stand might be. Only in order to talk to them, to see their eyes up close, their hands, smell their perfume, their breath, and tell them when you go: “thank you, thank you very much for everything”.

My work needs these kinds of pretexts, my work needs questions. Because I’m a living artist and I can provide my own answers. I do not, however, need clichés, flags and labels people can stick on my back, or rather on my forehead. “Afro-Arab-Moroccan-Mediterranean-Muslim- third world artist…” And so many more.Following a long discussion with Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden of Art and Language about art, oriental philosophy, religion, the rise of racism in France and the number of times my ID was checked at the Saint Lazare train station in Paris, Michael said: “It makes me happy that at the end of the day, you’re different and yet you are like me”. I was quite pleased to be at the same time like Michael and different from him. Me who gets called a “toubabe” or white man in Dakar, an immigrant in Europe and a quasi-terrorist in most airports of the world. To be different has pushed me to once again hold my press conference in Arabic without a translator. To thereby impose on the journalists the obstacle of language, a language they do not understand, and one that has unfortunately become the language of terrorism. The language one has to decipher in order to ensure it doesn’t contain a coded message destined to some an Al-Quaida sleeper cell or who knows what.

During my press conference, I offered the journalists no message, no information whatsoever. By pushing my “difference” to the extreme, I simply wanted to avoid giving them the chance to pretend to understand. And still they pretended, even applauded, and didn’t ask a single question. The day before, Michael Baldwin had offered to translate what he himself did not understand. Talking about my work is work of its own, and Michael understood that full well, for he knows that I am both like him and different from him.  

The Next Flag will be nothing if not transparent. If there’s a reason to continue this struggle, if there’s a reason to continue fighting, it’s in order to understand, to claim the right to understand, because there are so many unanswered questions, and because we traded our desire to understand the world for the idea of merely being informed. To be with it, to follow the latest trend, to move like the others, and, above all, to not ask any questions. It’s just too easy.  

I always thought there was the “world” and the “rest”, and that I, as an “Afro-Arab-Moroccan-Mediterranean-Muslim-third world artist”, was part of the rest. So it’s up to me to understand the world, since the world does not have time to understand the “rest”. And time is money, and money, according to the West, does not make you happy. Which is sad, but we carry on pretending, as if nothing really mattered.  

Yes, it’s up to me to understand why, whenever I take a plane, I carry on my shoulders the burden of my culture, of my religion and of all the Arab and African dictators. I carry with me all the conflicts and the wars in the Middle East and the Gulf, and recently all the terrorist attacks committed around the world. Yes, it’s up to my eyes, my gestures, my way of dressing and of shaving my beard and my “Thierry Mugler” perfume, it’s up to all of this to show the passengers on the plane that I am like them, and that I am also deeply afraid of having to inflate the famous “life vest” upon exiting the aircraft, as the security instructions indicate.  

I have yet to understand why (especially in Europe), there are two booths at customs, one for “Europeans” and another for “others”. And since I am one of the others, I have to stand in the longer queue, since the passports of others are meticulously scrutinized. And once I am faced with the customs officer who opens my passport to find things written in Arabic next to my personal information in French, he looks me in the eye and starts picturing me on a camel, with a turban on my head in the middle of the desert, then he also sees me in a tent with at least four women, and he sees me cutting the throat of a sheep in some big celebration, and he sees my hands drenched in blood, and, above all, he sees my clothes, and the fact that I do not sport a beard, and that I speak French well enough, as a disguise, which prompts him to be careful not to miss a detail, or a question.  

Like the customs officer in the train from Zurich to Paris. After asking me “what were you doing in Zurich?” and following my answer that I’d had an exhibition at a large museum and that I was an artist, he tells me that “artist” doesn’t mean anything to him and that I was to be frisked from top to bottom. I was the only one searched in the whole compartment.  

Yes, I’d forgotten that the moment I set foot outside the museum, I am but a vulgar immigrant who has to have all his papers on him to prove to absolutely anybody at any moment that he is in order, that he has nothing to hide. At times, there are moments I forget that I’m in the “free world”. It is Europe I’m speaking of. Like the Moroccan tourist who declared to his Senegalese friends, on the occasion of his first trip to Senegal, how to happy he was to visit Africa for the first time, completely forgetting that Morocco itself was also part of this old continent. Borders aren’t just geographic.

Yes, I’m part of the “rest”, and I have to use what I tools I have to analyze and try to understand “the world”, and above all to take special care not to provoke the keepers of the world order so as not to wind up in Guantanamo, because down there they don’t kid around. The whole “world” knows that there is no rule of law nor respect for human rights there, but the “world” has no time for that, for time is money, and it’s just too sad.  

To talk about my work I have to talk about my life, my perfume, customs officers, Guantanamo prisoners, the “world” as a whole and, above all, about the “rest”. To talk about my work forces me to do some serious work on myself. Something I’ve always avoided doing.

mounir fatmi

Paris, January 30th, 2004