Sara Ouhaddou is a French-Moroccan artist and designer of Amazigh descent who works with traditional craftsmen in the Ourika Valley of Morocco to reinvent Islamic, Morroccan, and Amazigh motifs through ceramic, textile embroidery, and glass. While committed to the preservation and transmission of traditional cultural practices, Ouhaddou also reinterprets them and relies on them as a point of departure for her contemporary art practice. She spoke with Muftah about her artistic practice, the communities with whom she works, and her current projects.
Eman Elshaikh: How is your art practice connected to problems of cultural preservation and knowledge transmission?
Sara Ouhaddou (SO): I try in many different ways, because some ways I thought would work but they didn’t, and some did. So I try in different ways to just make [local craftsmen] think as they used to think. So first, I made all the craftsmen I met, even the students, the young girls, think again as their ancestors did, the traditional craftsmen. They used to solve technical riddles that everyone thought impossible to solve, but they had these philosophical ideas of the infinite, all these ideas in Islam about how the infinite is God and that to reach the infinite, we have to solve all the problems to make the most beautiful piece. The most interesting part of this for me is the way they solve all the technical points that they had to face to reach the pieces they wanted to reach, all the patience they had, because they were researchers. And now all this philosophical thinking is lost, because people want to go faster.
So first, I make them reach this way of thinking. All my pieces are a matter of research. I explore all the limits of the material, I force the craftsmen to solve the limit of the material, and they solved it! For each of my pieces, they did it very well. It took time, but they did it. So then they reached this point, and they feel that kind of patience again, and understand what I want to talk about. And then the second layer, for the younger generation—I’m not saying you have to work like the previous craftsmen, because I don’t think so—I think we have to fit with the new work too. So then when I see them having the patience again, I can introduce new machines, new technology and teach them something new. And that’s how it works I think. And then they are able to learn from the beginning a new technology and not just consume a technology.
Of course, and it is not just practicing old ways of doing things—they are going back to a way of thinking that was conducive to a very deliberate and very intentional art, where you were really encountering and thinking about aesthetic problems and the material and objectives. People do not really have time for this process anymore. Why do you think people do not have the time now to explore things so thoughtfully?
SO: It is related to [tourism, global economic systems, the demand for consumption and production.] It is related to “en cours.” They are running after that, the notion that you have to process more and more and you don’t even know why. And this notion exists even in the smallest village you can find in Morocco, and you don’t even know how it comes here. Consuming is related to your appurtenance; you belong to a group of very trendy people, because you are able to consume a lot. It’s all related to which generation they belong to, and the generation of young craftsmen were very interested in trendy and technological stuff yet they don’t have enough money to eat! It’s a question of the value you put in something. The young generation thinks there is more value in Europe and the Western countries than their own countries.
Many of the traditional artists with whom you work are women working in very women-focused communities. Do you think these spaces are filled with very feminine practices, languages, knowledge production, and vision?
SO: With ceramics, I work with men and women. With rubber and embroidery, it is only women. And it is definitely completely different. The women have developed something very particular. It is like the women are already aware of their own patience, but they sadly had to stop with fine arts because of economic issues; it is better to clean a house than to make a carpet because it makes more money faster. But yet they were aware of what they had and their culture. The women were more sensitive. The men were technically very good, but men had to provide food for their families, so for me dealing with men was more difficult, just because they had other issues to face, and so working with women went faster and was much easier. It’s still not easy, but it was much easier, because they are already sensitive to what they have, and what fine art is, and it is definitely different because they are women. It’s because their minds are more free somehow, and they spend so much time at home.
All the people I knew from France and New York told me it would be very difficult to find people in the north of Morocco, which is a very conservative part of the country, who would be willing to work with me. But, this was not true. Once I was there, I realized I had to go to women’s homes. This is where they spend so much time, where they have the ability to be more sensitive. Because they are concerned with the domestic and the inside, the women have more intellectual space to be creative. They have a lot to give; you just have to work with them, on their own terms. This is part of my work: to find the best atmosphere for the people I work with, rather than focusing on the best system for me or for the market.
Does your Moroccan or Amazigh identity give you specific access to these communities?
SO: My family is Amazigh, so I am really specifically concerned with those communities, and it helps me a lot because I speak Amazigh. I understand their story.
But I’m not just concerned about the Amazigh in Morocco. I decided to start in Morocco because I have a connection with the country. I know the people and the various Arabic and Amazigh dialects there were easier for me, but Amazigh people exist in Algeria and Tunisia, and even in Egypt. When I was in the United States I learned that in the Middle East, in the very far [areas], the nomads in the Sahara are also related to the Amazigh. So now I want to open my project to these other parts of the region.
I think being Amazigh makes my vision about Arabic countries different, even the very idea of a country and this crazy idea of frontiers. The Amazigh culture is really pluralistic. It’s something we lose when we are in Western countries.
How has this recognition, this openness affected your artistic vision?
SO: I think I don’t see the frontiers between Morocco and Algeria and every country, I just see the similarities and differences. When I was in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, it was obvious to me that the Amazigh people there had something related to people the Uyghur people in China. They have some skills and some patterns that are so similar. In fact, I read that some of the Amazighs of Morocco are a mix between Asian and African, and it just made me more and more open to other cultures. It is the same in South America. When I was in Brazil, I saw similarities as well between their art and Amazigh art.
You talk about global DNA. What does this mean to you?
SO: It is related to my Islamic work. I am working on a kind of dictionary and doing research about the very famous artistic patterns in Islam and the DNA of the traditional Islamic pattern. I am studying this DNA in my own way. And then I want to build a new one, a kind of a shape dictionary. Based on Islamic patterns and the mathematical philosophy of Islamic patterns, I am working on new Islamic patterns.
You recently did a residency in New York City. How has that affected your practice?
SO: Once I arrived in New York, I was so far away from everything I knew. It made me take a few steps back and ask myself why am I always deconstructing patterns in the same way: I am always using abstraction. And I always have the same system. I never questioned it. I just did it as I wanted to, as I was guided to, but once I was in New York I questioned that. I questioned my system of working. I understood I was building a new way, and it could be more precise, as precise as the mathematics in the first Islamic pattern. I understood also that if I wanted to be very serious about what I was doing, I had to write a lot about what I am thinking about, being a Muslim, and what art means in Islam, and what I am facing. Because a lot of people in the United States asked me why I was working on Islamic patterns and said they were boring. In Middle Eastern countries, in the architecture, the patterns are everywhere—they use them infinitely. So for me it is not boring.
In Islam, the limit is infinite. In Islamic art, there is no limit. I want to know what happened to this notion. Conservative governments in Muslim countries have been building the mosques the same for a century or two. Why is that? Why did the embrace of the infinite stop? We are living with these conservative politics, but our real religion is infinite. The situation has to improve, and we have to make it improve. I want things to improve for the people I am working with.
That’s what I understood when I was in the United States. There was this conservative way of thinking I was facing, and the other side is globalization and the open markets.
You explore these frameworks in incredibly diverse ways and with different mediums, like clay, ceramic, textile, rubber, and glass. Do you respond particularly strongly to a certain approach?
SO: They are just all different ways. I like delicate materials the most, like ceramic and glass, anything that can break. But I can’t explain why. I really appreciate the techniques used with those materials, but I am also very open to other mediums. I feel people who meet me understand that for my work process matters most; I can use any kind of material. In future projects, I will use other materials and see what I can do with them in different contexts with different people.
You mentioned a tendency to abstract to minimalism. Do you think it is important to retain specific cultural and historical features?
SO: You can keep them or lose them – timing and audience matter most. The first time you work with new people, these codes usually have to be strong for them; if you go too far too early, you will lose them. So it is just a matter of time. Society has to be ready for the new codes. If I feel they are not ready, I am going to keep the traditional aspects strong. But once I feel they understand, we can go really far. And that’s what my time in New York taught me. If you see shapes in the dictionary for example and I don’t tell you where they have come from, you cannot just imagine it. So, at the beginning of my work, the piece has to be obvious to help people understand where I am going. Then, I can go deeper and move farther away from all the traditional codes.
It is a story, a demonstration; everything is linked.