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Moroccan Artist Meriem Bennani Offers An Absurd Antidote To Fake News

Her work is a mix of America’s Funniest Home Videos and David Lynch.

21/09/2017 21:50 SAST | Updated 26/09/2017 21:18 SAST
Meriem Bennani via The Kitchen
Siham and Hafida 

On Aug. 21, President Donald Trump, like many Americans, watched in awe as the moon passed between the sun and Earth. Multimedia artist Meriem Bennani posted an Instagram video of the viral moment, showing the commander-in-chief as he squinted up toward the heavens to get a glimpse of the natural phenomena.

Bennani’s video, however, is fake news. In her edited adaptation of real events, Trump is equipped with special “eclipse glasses” in the shape of KKK hoods ― a reference to his continued unwillingness to condemn white supremacist protesters following the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. And as the sky grows dark and the eclipse nears totality, Bennani zooms in on a triangular hood surfing through the sky like it’s Pac-Man’s bigoted BFF to overtake the sun as dramatic music booms in the background. Reminiscent of the video clips that dominated the now defunct social media platform Vine, Bennani’s film floats between viral video and capital “A” artwork. 

As an artist, Bennani creates videos that constantly test the medium’s edges, teetering between documentary and fantasy, serious and slapstick, America’s Funniest Home Videos and David Lynch. Her aesthetic recalls the way a livestream looks when it’s immediately flooded with bouncing emojis, crystallized hearts and angry faces layered atop world events. Most often, Bennani’s films dramatize the absurdity of everyday life with the help of zippy special effects, ones that sparkle and poof!. Sometimes, however, the real world is bizarre enough as is. Take for example the below footage of a woman walking a balloon dog in Dubai, affixed with a caption that reads: “Is this real life 😵?”

The 29-year-old artist was born in Rabat, Morocco, and is currently based in New York. As a Muslim woman in Trump’s America, she experiences, understandably, a pressure to use art to “speak up” for others like her ― immigrants, Muslims and women. Bennani accepts the responsibility but rejects its usual cadence, substituting gravity with playfulness. Her sense of humor isn’t quite satirical, but more blooper-style cockamamie, shaking a visceral reaction from viewers regardless of their political beliefs. 

Bennani’s exhibition “Siham & Hafida,” currently on view at The Kitchen in New York, is a video installation cast across multiform surfaces, transforming the entire space into a circle of motley screens in conversation but not quite in sync. The viewer switches back and forth between streams of moving images, patching together her own unique narrative in the process, turning the gallery space into an all-encompassing feed of competing details and interpretations. 

Working in her signature style of documentary-gone-haywire, Bennani specifically explores the contemporary state of chikha performers ― Moroccan female singers participating in a musical tradition called Aita that stems back to the 20th century. As Bennani explained to HuffPost, chikha singers use an Arabic dialect that’s all but vanished outside this particular ritual. There is no written form, so the language is passed down orally through song. “They really are an archive of this language,” Bennani told HuffPost. “They’re a living history of popular culture. Each new generation renews the tradition, this oral history. The history of the whole country is kept intact through the bodies of these women.”

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Chikha performers straddle entertainment, folklore and resistance; they are both pop stars and cultural guardians. The musical genre served as a powerful mode of rebellion during France’s colonization of Morocco in the early 20th century, a way for Moroccans to hold their grip on culture as Western influence encroached ever more aggressively. 

Bennani spent time in Morocco with two influential chikha icons from two different generations. Hafida is an established veteran of Aita, while Siham is an up-and-coming star. Hafida is from an older generation; she is illiterate, wears a headscarf and has devoted her life to the customs of Aita. Siham, on the other hand, is addicted to her iPhone, accents designer clothes with flawless makeup and is introducing her art form to a younger generation of Moroccans.

Although Hafida and Siham know of each other, they’ve never spoken. The grudge stems from an awkward encounter in the past, during which Hafida entered a room where Siham was hanging out. Apparently, Siham immediately exited instead of saying hello. “What can I say? People are just so ...” Hafida recounted to her husband before trailing off in Bennani’s installation. “I came in and she left immediately. I don’t know why she left immediately.” 

Hafida’s bruised ego and staunch commitment to her grudge are relatable. Viewers might not think they have all that much in common with an old school chikha, but petty resentment, it seems, is a great equalizer.

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Bennani spent two days as Hafida’s guest, filming her every move. The artist infuses her documentary footage with hints of magical realism ― forehead sweat glitters like diamonds, a violin takes on the texture of flubber-like gel. At one point, when Hafida is preparing a salad, the camera zooms in on her vegetables, which then dissolve into an animated, light-soaked trip. A crab, whose stubbornness and isolation recall Hafida’s character, crawls through the fresh debris. In the age of fake news, when technology increasingly threatens to make fabricated footage resemble reality, Bennani offers fantastically doctored documentations that nonetheless speak the truth. 

After leaving Hafida’s quarters, Bennani stayed with Siham, the 23-year-old bringing the Aita tradition back to Moroccan youth. Despite participating in a custom built upon oral transmission between generations, Siham built her career independently from Hafida. The younger chikha never once sought her elder’s guidance. As a foil to Hafida’s crab, Bennani compares Siham to a blue butterfly whose digital form occasionally flutters in and out of view. 

Siham is well aware of Hafida and her legendary contributions to chikha history, though, and Hafida is equally cognizant of Siham’s influence on the present-day Aita scene. Perhaps if Siham had approached Hafida that fateful day they could have become friends, or even collaborators. But instead the two remain separated and suspicious; aligned by a powerful tradition, disconnected by bitterness and pride. The juxtaposition of a time-honored, empowering, female-driven tradition with the kind of trivial rivalry often encountered on reality TV is a joy to watch. Chikha stars, they’re just like us. 

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Eventually, Bennani orchestrated a meeting between Siham and Hafida, which was wonderfully awkward and full of veiled jabs. In Bennani’s video, Hafida brings up Siham’s slight against her ― that time she left the room ― and Siham assures her she meant no harm, someone just called her away. The two never come to any great understanding, but clumsy and charming attempts at connection occur. Eventually Siham suggests a group selfie and ― for the first time all day ― both women smile. 

The most hypnotic portion of the film is watching a woman named Khadija, Hafida’s backup singer and dancer, move amid a circle of Aita musicians, playing a violin, oud, bendir and taârija. Wearing a long gown, she rolls, bumps and jiggles her body as the beat takes hold, letting down her hair and tossing it back and forth with abandon. Bennani then layers cinematic special effects to the scene, adding an element of surrealism to Khadija’s already mesmerizing performance. It’s as if her body becomes possessed by static, rippling wildly like a flame. 

Technology and tradition are at the core of Siham and Hafida’s misunderstanding, along with, perhaps, a dash of ego and envy. Bennani enters the scene as part mediator, part prankster, ultimately persuading the women to make nice while having some fun with them in the process. When asked whether Siham and Hafida will see Bennani’s final product, the artist said no. Neither expressed much interest. 

Photo by Jason Mandella courtesy of The Kitchen
Meriem Bennani, installation view of "Siham & Hafida," 2017. 

Bennani’s multi-limbed film is projected throughout the entire Kitchen gallery space, immersing the viewer in enchanting footage of Moroccan culture and juicy drama. One screen is surrounded by the silver ladders that emerge from swimming pools, masked by colored plexiglass sheets Bennani described as “real life filters.” Another lives at the end of a kaleidoscope-style tube, projecting swirling, digital extractions of crabs and butterflies to dance on the cylindrical edges. 

“I’m trying to develop a language for my videos where space is a big part of it,” Bennani said. “I’m not really interested in my videos being shown on one screen. I’m trying to expand my understanding, to push the language. The video exists outside the screen; it’s more than editing and all the things inside.”

On our news feeds and television screens, various modes of fictitious entertainment continue to infiltrate the space once reserved for what’s real and true. Through her conspicuously goofy glimpses into lived experiences, Bennani offers an optimistic rebuttal to the onslaught of fake news. Instead of feigning authenticity to dispel false information, Bennani tells true stories with outrageous accoutrements, the whole time directing the viewer to the content’s necessary absurdity.

With “Siham & Hafida,” Bennani collapses the borders between screen and space, truth and fancy, venerable tradition and petty gossip, delivering fine art and “digestible content” all at once.

Meriem Bennani’s work is on view at The Kitchen in New York until Oct. 21, 2017.

Photo by Jason Mandella courtesy of The Kitchen
Meriem Bennani, installation view of "Siham & Hafida," 2017.