Megumi Matsubara © Matteo Lonardi
Megumi Matsubara © Matteo Lonardi
Installation by Megumi Matsubara in the ifa Gallery © Megumi Matsubara
Installation by Megumi Matsubara in the ifa Gallery © Megumi Matsubara
Exhibition opening in Berlin: curator Alya Sebti presents her concept. © Victoria Tomaschko
Exhibition opening in Berlin: curator Alya Sebti presents her concept. © Victoria Tomaschko

"We are who we meet"

Does art have to be political? What is the relation between politics and art? A conversation with Alya Sebti, curator of the ifa exhibition "Carrefour/Meeting Point", and Megumi Matsubara, artist and architect from Japan.

Interview by Juliane Pfordte

ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): Economic crisis, refugee crisis – crises wherever we look. To what extent can art be a catalyser for political change?

Alya Sebti: For me it is a political success when visitors see the exhibition "Carrefour/Meeting Point", for instance the work of Leila Alaoui. Her work "Crossings" doesn't reflect all the preconceived ideas of migrants capsized in boats that we see in the media. In the exhibition we get to know them as human beings who are sharing their individual stories.

ifa: What role does politics play in your work?

AS: In the current exhibition politics is present in the meaning of low politics because every interaction is related to politics. I'm against the idea of using politics as a starting topic or label for art. At least I try to respect the distance between politics and art. Certainly some works are more political like Leila Alaoui’s, but "Carrefour" is not defined by the political approach towards migrants today. The exhibition’s purpose is to discover new languages and to enable the spectator to listen to the stories of these people and not to label them as "only" migrants. "Carrefour" is about the form of migration itself because it's the place where different trajectories meet. The challenge is to find a balance between politics and art and to use art as a channel to speak about realities and create awareness towards it, not to use realities like ongoing conflicts for art purposes. For me it would feel like a lack of respect.

Megumi Matsubara: Political agendas have nothing to do with what I do. Politics has never been my point of departure. I accept that whatever I do has a political influence. But my intention never comes from any political agenda. Art is not useful. Only because of that, art can talk beyond politics.

ifa: How did you get the idea for "Carrefour"?

AS: I love the French supermarket of the same name (laughs). Actually I didn't think about the supermarket at all. It was Megumi who first made me aware of it, so adding "Meeting Point" to the title was even more important to avoid any confusion. On the one hand, the idea to create the exhibition like a meeting point came from the last edition of the Marrakech Biennale "Where are we now?" where I was involved as artistic director. Another idea came from the Global Art Forum 2014 in Dubai where we talked intensively about the idea of the Global South and this "centre versus periphery"-thing. For me this was very disturbing because I feel that there isn't just one centre and the peripheries. People who consider the West the centre and the rest, including Africa, as the periphery are outdated. There are as many centres as there are individuals: the centre depends on everybody’s perspective.

ifa: Are we moving towards a polycentric global art?

AS: Polycentric yes, but not global. There is no global art, only subjective perspectives on arts. My wish is to get rid of the idea of one centre versus periphery, that we would listen more to the different centres that exist in the world.

ifa: Based on what criteria did you choose the artists of "Carrefour"?

AS: I chose people whose work inspired me to question my perspectives. I wanted to spend time with them to develop new ideas. The artists and the writers who participated in the catalogue invited me to get out of my comfort zone, and I wanted to create a platform so that they can develop their ideas further and meet.

Alya Sebti © M.D.
Alya Sebti © M.D.

ifa: Alya, you were born in Morocco, you curate about Morocco. Do you often feel labeled as "the Moroccan curator who curates about Morocco"?

AS: Yes, actually I fight a lot against this label, especially after the Marrakech Biennale 2014. Even "Carrefour/Meeting Point" is not an exhibition about Marrakech, it is a "carrefour", a meeting point. Sometimes it would be easier to curate only about Morocco because I know the artistic scene where I have been actively involved as a curator for more than five years, but it would be boring and dangerous to reduce art to a region. When you territorialise, you create borders. My whole approach is about getting rid of these borders, of territoriality.

ifa: This might be difficult as the media constantly informs us about the so-called boom of contemporary African art.

AS: Absolutely, but I think the idea of a geographical identity and art is wrong. When I speak about Marrakech, I refer to it as a melting pot of plural, porous and different identities. There is no African identity just like there is no European identity. I understand that for the media, it is easier to frame, but by framing something you cut off the individualities. It is like putting a circle into a square – it doesn't work.

ifa: Would it be more correct to denominate it as "Art from Morrocco" or "Art from African Perspectives" like the magazine Contemporary And (C&) does?

AS: I think so, I know the magazine very well and I really appreciate their approach. This is also what my last exhibition in Mons in April was about. Mons, one of the European Capitals of Culture 2015, invited eight cities like Sydney, London, Tokyo and also Casablanca, which I was asked to curate. The first thing I did was to make clear that I would not make an exhibition with artists born and raised in Casablanca. I took Casablanca as a starting point and chose artists who got inspired by the city or who have changed some elements in its cultural scene.

Megumi Matsubara © ifa
Megumi Matsubara © ifa

ifa: Megumi, you studied in Tokyo and London and you’re living in Fes at the moment. How does your Japanese origin affect your work as an artist based in Morocco?

MM: I was asked the same question at the last Marrakech Biennale where I participated with a solo show. I made an installation with reflections of light in a historic 17th century Moroccan house with an interior courtyard. One of the journalists pointed out the Japanese elements in my work and said paying so much attention to the rhythm of day, time and nature was very Japanese. I didn't think that the idea came from my Japaneseness. When I came to Morocco, I didn't speak French or Arabic, I didn't know anything about Islamic countries. I felt a strong desire to connect not using a verbal language, but my body, my presence and my perception.

ifa: What challenges you most when you visit different countries and cultures?

MM: A lot of things, but in a very positive way. Once you're in a totally different environment everything gets questioned. You look deeper at yourself and your surroundings. During the first months in Morocco I encountered blind students. I have been interested in sight since I was very small. My mother is an ophthalmologist. I still remember as a child having tea and cookies behind her while she was watching eye surgery videos. But working with the blind students in Morocco really made me aware of our capacity to communicate with all our senses, it maximized my sensitivity.

ifa: Your installation exhibited in the ifa Gallery is called "Undress". What does the title mean?

MM: The idea is based on nudity, but not on physical nudity. There are so many other daring forms of being naked than removing your clothes in front of other people. It's about reaching real closeness.

ifa: And why did you choose to work with fragrances?

MM: I was really obsessed with perfumes when I was a teenager. My father was travelling a lot and I always asked him to bring me perfume as a souvenir. So I had a huge collection of perfume and I was able to associate every smell to every perfume and bottle. But when I turned 22 I completely stopped using perfume because my nose didn't want to smell all those synthetics anymore. Now I came back to the field of perfume and I researched Arabic perfumeries as well as European or Japanese. But the true motive that had propelled me was a memory. Once, my grandmother showed me one of the mementos of her late daughter, my mother’s sister, who died at the age of 27. I've never met her as she left a year before I was born. In a gift box, there was a bottle of perfume, unopened. It was the last gift from her then fiancé. I was struck by this image and I never allowed myself to smell it. But I finally took the courage to know its smell two years ago. After that, the idea for "Undress" started growing.

ifa: Could you explain your installation?

MM: There are eight scents separately floating in the space to compose the ninth scent "La Japonaise" which is completely absent in form. The space is designed to experience this ever-changing ninth scent. To create the eight scents, I worked with a Moroccan aroma-therapist. He made the eight scents based on my texts taken from the 8-chapter series of books I am doing.

ifa: Why eight?

MM: Eight is the number of infinity and eight were just enough to create what I wanted. I could write just eight stories, not more, not less.

ifa: What role does space play for your artistic production?

MM: I studied architecture and I’ve always been interested in and inspired by space, how people perceive space. I don't focus on physical, but on psychological space. For me space has no limits, even if many people think that space is too abstract to even talk about it, it has always been my medium, my inspiration. Everything I want to say can be submitted into space, which also includes texts. Writing for me is creating space on a blank sheet of paper.

ifa: You've mentioned the translation of texts into fragrances and that your poems transmit mental images. Would you describe yourself as a synesthete, as someone whose sensory pathways are closely linked together?

MM: I don't call myself a synesthete. I believe in a special language – a language that goes beyond linguistic communication. Such language includes smell and light. Smell and odour are ways to open ourselves. By activating your senses and making them available you can communicate much simpler, deeper, faster and clearer. And this is what I 'm interested in.

AS: Megumi’s poems relate from one image to a colour or a smell, which is why all of our senses are present and therefore our memories. Reading and interpreting Megumi's poetry tells you a lot about your own memory. I think this is what makes the project so unique. The question is what happens when the spoken and written language disappear. Stacy Hardy, one of the authors in the catalogue, just describes it perfectly in the last paragraph of her text "When day crosses into night". She describes the situation when we were talking about the project "Carrefour" in Addis Abeba:

"After a while we fall silent. I try to think of something to say then give up and look out the window. Teetering rooftops. Clouds. The lights of the city below us […] I think, maybe sometimes, articulation is overrated. Words are overrated. Language exists because language fails. But not all communication is built on language. Alya smiles at me and I smile back and suddenly I know we will meet again, that we’ll collaborate in the future."

ifa: Alya, why and how did you become a curator?

AS: It was an accident, I didn’t think it through. I got to know different people, it was a coincidence. Right now I’m a curator but maybe in ten years I will do something completely different. At the moment it feels right and good because as a curator I have the possibility to work with all these people, it’s about sharing sensitivities, that’s all. More than ten years ago, I was working in an advertising agency in Paris while following night classes of art history, then I did a postdoc in contemporary art where I met a great teacher, Pierre Sterckx, who taught me this amazing thing: "We are who we meet". It is because of the different people we meet, because of all their different stories and trajectories that we become who we are.

ifa: Thank you both for the interview.

© ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen/Juliane Pfordte) 2015

Exhibition catalogue

Carrefour. Die Marrakech Biennale und darüber hinaus. – Stuttgart: ifa, 2015. – 79 pp.

Carrefour

The Marrakech Biennale and beyond

Stuttgart: Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa), 2015. – 79 pp.
Souvenir: La leçon de géométrie, Performance, Marrakech, 2014 © Photo: Max Glauner, Galerie Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin, Xavier Hufkens, Brüssel und RaebervonStenglin, Zürich
Leila Alaoui: Crossings, videostill, installation, 2013; © Leila AlaouiCrossings, videostill, installation, 2013 © Leila Alaoui
Big wheel, photography, performance 2014 © Yassine Balbzioui
Serment d'Hippocrate, wire, copper, basket willow, 2014 © Max Boufata
The first colour that disappears in the dark, print, glass, 2014; © Megumi Matsubara
Singing Maps and Underlying Melodies; Project and Performance with musicians of Marocco, curated by Clara Meister with S.T.I:F.F. and Kamar Studios Morocco, 2014 © Clara Meister