Yto Barrada's show reveals the city flowering that emerged from a devastating earthquake
On 29 February 1960, an earthquake and tidal wave devastated the Moroccan city of Agadir. As many as one third of the population were thought to have been killed, with another one third injured. The whole city had to be rebuilt, leading to a flowering of modernist and brutalist architecture.
This tragedy is the springboard for Agadir, an installation by Moroccan artist Yto Barrada in the Barbican’s Curve gallery. Her show deals with the aftermath of the earthquake and the city’s transition as it rebuilds. But rather than present a conventional narrative, Barrada has created an ambitious mix of mural, collage, object, film and spoken word, the latter of which is probably best experienced at the weekly live performances in the gallery by students from the local Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Don’t be surprised if the person next to you in the gallery suddenly launches into a speech or climbs inside a large basket – it’s all part of the show.
At the heart of the installation is the novel/play Agadir by Moroccan writer Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, who was commissioned to write a report assessing the devastation and post-earthquake reinvention of the city at a time when the country was still finding its feet after its recent independence from France. His experiences inspired him to write Agadir, which reflects on the earthquake and broader issues of reform and identity in a dialogue between characters from past and present. Barrada was amazed to discover that this important work was not available in English and has included translated excerpts in a sound installation and live performance within her show.
Visually, the installation is dominated by a series of large white-on-black scratch drawings of modernist and Brutalist buildings that process around the long curving wall of the gallery. This mural depicts buildings from both before and after the earthquake, with a resonance, notes Barrada, to both the architecture of British New Towns and the design of the Barbican itself. Although Le Corbusier declined an invitation to get involved in the Agadir reconstruction, his work was still influential in the renewal. This was led by Jean-François Zevaco, whose 1963 exposed concrete Central Post Office is among the buildings depicted in the scratch-drawings along with Elie Azagury’s Law Courts of 1967-8.
‘I wanted the drawings to be recognisable as these buildings but also to be abstract…There is always tension between art and information,’ says Barrada.
The scratch drawings conclude in a deconstruction of the common elements of brutalism such as pilotis, la poutre (beam), la paravent (screen), la claustra (perforated wall).
‘I wanted to know what the brutalist vocabulary was so I made a grammar,’ she says. ‘Now I want to make sculptures with all these parts.’
More than half a century since the rebuilding, Barrada says there is an increasing appreciation of this architectural heritage in Morocco, with the establishment of organisations such as the MAMMA group – the Memoire Des Architectes Modernes Marocains.
On the facing wall is a series of collages created by Barrada using snippets of post-earthquake press images of the ruined city. These are juxtaposed with fragments of brightly patterned 1930s French wallpaper in a sharp reminder of the domestic life that was destroyed along with the buildings. In between are various items of Moroccan wicker furniture designed to encourage conversation, which play the sound installation of translated Agadir extracts when the live performances aren’t taking place.
It’s not until the end of the installation that we watch first-person accounts of the tragedy in filmed press footage. Barrada has edited this by adding or cutting sounds here and there and taking out all references to the word earthquake in order to evoke what she describes as a strange ‘end-of-the world’ feeling.
This disparate show can be hard to get to grips with. But it opened my eyes to the North African branch of modernism and left me wanting to find out more.