Leo Skala sits down to talk with a few creatives living in Tangier to ask them about what moves them about the city, why they’re there, & what inspires them or drives them crazy about it.
Tangier is a potent, charming bastard child of a port town and you will know this as soon as you arrive. Crouched on the most northern coast of Africa, a mere twelve kilometers from Spain, across the Strait of Gibralter, it is a doorway between two worlds. One of those portals, where East and West mix, clash, dance and tumble together in a strange and ever transient stew. You will either fall in love immediately, or be so disgusted and frightened that you catch a train further south as soon as possible or make a mad, frantic dash directly back onto a boat waiting in the harbor. If you love it, you will buy a house here in that first week, and keep coming back for years but not be able to explain to yourself why.
It is lavish, exotic, indolent, electric, beautiful, relaxing. In turns casually violent (usually nothing more than a harmless street brawl, generally broken up quickly) but habitually peaceful. If you’re able to push through the intitial barrier of the street hustlers screaming at you promising you everything under the sun, you’ll find a welcoming, gregarious and curious populace who are always willing to invite you in for a cup of tea or share their meal.
Time moves in a slow and distorted fashion that cannot be described but only felt and absorbed. There’s always some bit of daily life here that will strike the imagination, give it something to chew on and then spit out in one form or another. It is a city with a personality and a bizarre, decandent history that has served as a base or a meeting point for various well known artist circles and writers in the past. Paul Bowles, Mohammed Choukri, William Burroughs, The Rolling Stones, Delacroix Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Patti Smith, Francis Bacon all walked these streets, posted up in the cafes, or called this place home.
It had a long held status as a pirate port in the past, then as an international zone for a period of thirty years and throughout the Second World War, making it a lawless hub for spies, the wealthy, and eccentrics from every corner of the globe. After that, it was essentially a neglected slum for half a century under the reign of Hassan II with the latest King Mohammed VI having made an invested interest in cleaning it up.
It’s fast becoming the new city of opportunity for Moroccans, and in a world rife with Islamaphobia, with Morocco being by far one of the safest Muslim countries to visit, odds are that this bordertown may well be your introduction. It’s a city going through alarmingly rapid changes that you can see taking place right before your eyes. With a new port under construction, shopping centers, palaces, and football stadiums cropping up almost overnight, Tangier is poised to enter a new era, to shake off some of it’s dusty history and become something else entirely. Just what, still remains a bit uncertain. It could be called a canvas waiting to be filled by those who have a vision and want to bring it to life.
And life is still extraordinarily cheaper here than anywhere in Western Europe. You can eat well for two euros, check into a pension for five euros a night or rent an apartment for a couple hundred a month. And the atmosphere, gritty, (gritty. it’s still a pretty dirty people, as beautiful of a city as she is) convivial, multi-cultural and filled with light on a Mediterranean and an Atlantic coast, full of endless cafes lends itself to what you would think could also be a thriving, modern artistic scene. But it’s not; not yet, not really.
I’ve lived here for a couple of years off and on, and was always flummoxed as to why there wasn’t more of a grassroots community sprouting up here along with the rest of the changes I saw going on. So I decided to sit down and talk with a few creatives living here to ask them about what moves them about this city, why they’re here, what inspires them or drives them crazy about it. To see what the pulse is in the Tangier of now, and what it could potentially, or inevitably become.
Ruby is an American choreographer who began taking contemporary classes in Minneapolis, MN when she was about 12 up through high school, continuing on to study dance and choreography at Oberlin College. After studying and taking classes in London, Berlin and other international cities, she finally landed in Tangier, where there was virtually no contemporary dance scene to be found. For the past three years she has been living there, introducing modern dance, working with young Moroccan dancers and creating original performances in collaboration with various organizations including the US Embassy of Morocco’s Cultural Department, the American Language Center, The American Legation of Tangier, L’Institut Français and the Cinémateque de Tanger. Although she teaches regular classes at the Conservatoire D’Art et Musique and Eden Club Femme, she also frequently travels around Morocco and other countries for workshops, teaching and performance opportunities.
-So, just what are you doing here in Tangier?
-I’m a contemporary choreographer, so I work with dance and the human body. I like to explore the possibilities of the body and what it can do. Whoa, I haven’t talked about any of this in a while, I’ve mostly been writing about it.
-Yeah, you know, I’ve been hearing similiar stories from people in the last few months. That there just aren’t dialogues happening between people about their art forms, here in this city, for whatever reason. Why do you think that is? What needs to be expressed, by this city, and why isn’t it yet?
-Well, I believe there needs to be more integrity, and authenticity in the work here. There is a fair amount of art being created, but a lot of it lacks self-reflection, introspection and real feeling. I even see some artists copying work they may think is “avant-guard” or make something that they should be making, which is sometimes okay- copying is a way of learning- but you also have to be able to defend and discuss it from an authentic place within yourself. I don’t see a lot of these real dialogues happening quite yet on a broader scale.
-Fine, next obvious question- why no feeling?
-In general, in Morocco, you hear many people saying that they don’t trust each other, which is just a shame. And I think this comes across in the art world as well. I think there’s a lack of vulnerability, because nobody trusts each other with it. That’s what I’ve been noticing. There are a lot of strong ideas here, you know…it’s a border city, people are always passing through, and that comes up in some of the art work here, but a lot of it…just doesn’t get manifested as it could be. The artists here need to form a community that allows for more true self-expression and emotional openness in order to grow and communicate better.
-Well…this city has such a rich ambience, an absurd history and such a textural atmosphere-
-Yes, but I think a lot of people get stuck in the history and don’t realize what it can do in the modern world. People are hesitant to use that here, there aren’t that many businesses or artists using online rescources or social media to explore what is going on…
-Hah, yeah Morocco is very much still in the old world.
-Yeah, sure, I think it should still keep that old world charm, but the new generation has the power and ability to help it grow with these modern tools. Artistically or otherwise.
-Mhm, well, how’d you come to Tangier? Why’d you pick this city, what inspires you about it?
-You know, I originally came here because I needed to get out of the Shengan Zone while traveling solo around Europe. I had a connection with the Cinemateque de Tanger, so I worked there as an intern. I organized and put on a dance performance in their theater that was fairly well received and got me connected with other artists and artistic-minded people working here. After two months I left, going back to the States and then traveling a bit. At some point I contacted another woman I knew here who had been interested in my work and we put together a proposal for a dance performance, eventually finding sponsorship with the US Embassy. It was supposed to only be for 6 months. Now I’ve settled here for the last three and a half years.
-Yeah, Tangier has a reputation for doing that.
-It does! It seems to happen to all sorts of people- I’ve seen it. People come here for a vacation, or whatever, and then just stay.
-Alright, well lets get away from the city for a second with it’s mysterious pull, and back to you, and your choreography. You know, what themes do you find yourself coming back to in your dance pieces?
-There are two main themes that almost all of my work has centered around, spirituality and gender. I guess those are both broad topics.
-Yes, especially here they are very present and very potent.
-Yeah! I mean, being a woman exploring religion seems to be a different pursuit than being a man exploring religion or spirituality. You know, where do women fit into all of it? I’ve done two performances here that were directly about women and gender- spirituality is more of a new interest in my work. I did a huge project called Women watching Women, Femmes Regardent les Femmes, with the French Institute. It was a two piece project, with 12 women from all over world that I brought together. Moroccans, Americans, French, some Spanish. It was mostly improvised inside of structures, about how women view each other, and how much this of an impact this has on each other. So I set up these improvisational structures, that were purposefully created to make them feel a bit uncomfortable, and then in the end get comfortable with each other. And what happened in the final performance is that you were able to watch that really unfold on stage- it was authentic. They felt it, and it showed. And those kinds of situations are what I want to create in my work, where boundaries crumble. Like, some of my favourite performances I’ve done have always been the ones where I’m not thinking about what the audience is going to see, I’m thinking about what the dancer is going to feel during the performance. For example…well, one of my favourite solos I’ve done was where I basically drove myself crazy….I mean, that sounds kind of extreme. But I went through a process where I pushed myself to exhaustion at the end of it, every time. And I’m curious about exploring what experiences like this bring out in the physical body, not always about stress, but what that creates emotionally, and in a sense spiritually.
-Hmmm…alright, well I’m curious, did Tangier or Morocco bring about a heightened awareness of spirituality for you?
-Absolutely. Oh my god. Yeah, I was basically an atheist before I got here. And now I will openly say that I believe in God. There was a definate a spiritual transformation for me that happened here…one that I’m continually trying to pursue and explore and present in dance.
Damien is a French multi-faceted artist, primarily a painter and photographer who has been living and working in Tangier for the last four years. His work has been exhibited at the Conil Gallery in Tanger and he’s been featured in several articles in local magazines and publications there. He’s also known for his vivacious decoration of a 240D Mercedes Benz that served as an art installation at the 2014 Tanger Tanger exposition in Paris at La Gaite Lyrique.
-So you know I had a friend from Casablanca who came here to visit me recently. And she hadn’t been to Tangier before, but when she arrived, she told me she was almost in shock when she encountered this city. She could feel it in her body, immediately. And maybe this is what we like about this city, is that there’s something here that will strike you at every moment. The same physically you know, the weather here, it changes rapidly. It’s always changing. It rains violentally one day for twenty minutes, then there’s sunshine, the winds are always shifting, in one day you can experience four seasons. I can feel this, it’s always present in life here. There’s a nature here thats very present, I don’t know how to say it. And it’s not gentle all the time, all the kids running around snuffing the glue…it’s violent, disorganized.
-Yes but aside from all this it’s a beautiful city, and as you’re a painter and photographer here, why aren’t there more of you guys running around? Sure, there are the National Geographic guys who come through, and the tourists, but this city is vibrant, architecturally and otherwise and-
-Because there are keys. that might be what we like about it. It’s not easy to live here all the time, you know, there are keys that you have to find in order to live here. And some of those keys aren’t so evident. They’re not easy to find.
-Sure, there aren’t many people who stay here, it’s always transient.
-And the people who stay are a special breed. It’s not like a village, an artistic residence….no, no, it’s a bit brutal. Maybe this is what preserves it. Sure maybe you find a way to have your thing in art here, but behind that there’s another type of life happening that you see and are a part. Sure, there’s the vitality of the tourists, and that scene always passing through, but if you stay, you start to see another side to the city.
-So how has that informed and changed your paintings, and your photography, this spirit of the city? How’s it changed in the four years since you’ve been here?
-Well, I came here to get away from school theories. To able to give myself authorization to paint how I was before I was in school. And in fact, yeah, shit, with everything we were talking about, this place being a place of change and violence it’s been able to allow me to paint and practice in a way that I wasn’t able to perceive before…how to break attention. I guess I wanted to figure out how to paint without having the intention. Life here is very immediate in Tangiers, it’s a living city. You can’t have projects here, that run on a normal timeline, you just can’t. Everyday there’s some colourful event that will happen that you can’t predict, that will distract you from whatever you’re doing. Life here doesn’t really run along the lines of, okay today I will do this, and it will go like this, you just can’t do it!
-Shouldn’t that serve as an inspiration?
-Voila, this is why I love it. In the West you know, things are very organized, you’re negotiating and scheduling, things fit in the lines. But here, whooo, you can’t perceive beforehand at all what will happen! At all, man! It’s chaos. It might be something symbolized by the ‘Oriental’ life, this life here that is more present, this spirit of ‘Inshallah’, what. “Godwilling”, what ever will happen will happen, you don’t know or plan what the future holds because you are in the moment. And Tangier also, is this place of passage, people are just passing through, it’s a doorway. Between Africa and Europe, and Asia and America in fact, is Tangier.
-So what’s coming for the future of Tangier, if you can predict it? Artistically, or otherwise. Because this a city on the rise, you know this, we’ve both seen it since we’ve been here, how rapidly it’s changing, it’s almost shocking.
-Sure the city is on the rise…but the mentality here…that won’t change so quickly. Artistically, I find that the scene here is very discreet. Everybody is very discreet about what they are doing. And you have the luxury to be poor here, this is what I like about it.You are not ostracized for it, which is a form of liberty, for me. There is no destiny here, it’s anti-destiny…the word destiny, comes from the word dessin, in French, to draw.
-Sure, but we’re all drawing our destinies, in a fashion. We create them.
-But not here, it unfolds. This is part of the Eastern mentality as well, your destiny is already written, it’s already decided. You just live it. And this is what’s good about it! We don’t have the power to…the future doesn’t exist here, the future is a projection, it’s not a reality. You’re living in the moment. When you’re thinking, are you thinking in the future, or the present? Are you imaging the future, or what?
-Ohhh for me this depends on what my aim is, personally.
-No no no, I don’t believe so. The future doesn’t exist if you are actually living, because you are in the moment in fact. And you can do that here, more easily than in the West.
-Ahh c’mon, we can maybe predict a piece of our futures based on what we do today, in a way. What we do today, we will do tomorrow, and it keeps unfolding. It keeps…opening up if you follow a trend long enough. If you paint today, you will paint tomorrow, if you can. Hopefully you get better, more articulate, or derive more satisfaction from it at least.
-Yes, yes. But this is a relative future, this won’t change your life. When you think, there is still the concept of the future. You’re still striving for some abstract future. If you think you will paint tomorrow, you’re not painting right now.
-Sure, but this could potentially change your life, you know? Don’t look at me like that, so, what, you wish to destroy all thought?
-No, not at all, just to put thought in it’s proper place in fact. Because in Europe this bothers people too much, they’re obsessed with it, this future and thought. Okay this will be like this, and that will be like that, and tomorrow I will do this, and in five years, or ten years I will have this or that, and on and on. It’s crazy, this mentality. You are liberated here, because you’re authorized to not live so far ahead in the future, it’s not a concern, you are alive. You know, I go to Europe, and people ask me, very worried- well what are you going to become twenty years from now? Twenty years, man, I swear! What? Who thinks that far ahead, it’s hallucinating, this mentality. And when people come here, to Tangier, they discover something else, they begin to actually live in the present and enjoy another type of life. I haven’t lived a single day here that was like any other, they’re all unique and full. You can live a kind of life here without so many worries, and you have more time. I can do things here I couldn’t do in France for example, you know, I can eat for three euros in a day! Three! So I’m not worried about money, which is what most people worry about. So I have time to paint.
-This is why I’m always surprised there aren’t more young, hungry artists here producing work…I know I keep saying it, but I just can’t figure it out.
-It’s because they don’t know! And there’s a filter here, it is a bit difficult to get past that initially. Sure, it’s heavy religiously, but there is still a liberty here that I don’t find anywhere in Europe, at least in France, and it feeds my creativity.
The ThinkTanger Collective
Amina Mourid- Project Head
Hicham Bouzid- Artistic Director
Nassim Azarzar- Director of Communication and Graphic Design
-Alright, hey Amina, it’s good to see you again. We’ve both been busy…and time moves strangely here anyway. So, can you tell me a bit about the project you and your crew are working on?
-Hah, yeah, I know. Our project is called ThinkTanger. It’s a platform for reflection, for group meetings, and for artistic creations. Also, as a place to speak about and question the ongoing urbanization of Tangier. So, the project we’ve started about a year ago, because Tangier is a city who will rise very fast, who is rising very, very quickly now and epecially so in the next fifteen years.
There’s a large economic force being pushed into this city, to transform it into a new and modern Moroccan city. But in all that’s now going on in this city there doesn’t really exist a space yet for cohesion, for communication, for creation, for liberty, for meet ups. There is much that is being built that is reflexive, and we would like to be a place that holds conversations for reflexion, to question the logistics of this urbanization that’s happening here, whether or not it is logical. It’s for this reason that we want to create, another type of profile we’ll say, for the artists who have a central role in society. In the sense when they create, it is a critique or a reflection of the society they live, and we want to place the artist again back in the center of this conversation of the change ongoing in the city, and for reflection.
The second axis we are trying to develop is this conference space, to hold meetings and invite those who we call ‘the actors of change’ in the city. Those people who are working in the economic centers, the political spheres, the cultural, and, of course, the architects and the city planners. We invited a large group of people to our space last year, in order to understand, and to explain to us, concretely, exactly what really is the plan for Tangier and its urbanization.
– Yes, it’s a city that’s changing very, very quickly, right before our eyes.
-Yes, enormously, enormously. But us, the citizens, we don’t have a panel of information to explain, there are no public announcements about where something will be built or developed, and so we are unable to create or formulate a conversation or a critique in the community, because there is no place where this information is available to us. This is why we are trying to build a space for conferences where this information can be available. To see if it is logical politically, or economically, what is beneficial in the developement of the city and it’s citizens. We don’t have a place to express ourselves, and myself as a young woman here, at what moment and where will I be able to express myself or question these things happening?
The third axis we want to develop is as an educational space for the other young creatives here and the other artists who have voices and want them heard. Because many times they have the drive, they just don’t have the tools or methodology to understand how to create, realistically, a real cultural project. How to generate funds, how to budget, etcetera. So it’s more of a project about solidarity and structure. Voila, so, we started like this a year ago, and there still need to be conversations happening about the mutation of this city between the artists, the city planners, and the citizens. It’s a vast subject, it’s very dense, there’s a million people here and this is the entry point into Morocco.
-I know we spoke of this the other day, there’s a very rich artistic and literary history here in Tangier, but now I have the impression that there is almost next to nothing left of this.
-No it’s not true, we can’t say there is nothing. There are a lot of things going on here that we don’t see, it’s all underneath, a bit hidden. It’s just that there’s no place for diffusion or communication of these things. That is to say there are no concert halls, not many galleries, and no theaters really, they aren’t here anymore.
-Sure, it seems like people are creating things here, or there, but it’s all very solitary-
-Yes exactly, its that. There’s not really a public dynamic to it these days. Like as a citizen here, say I have the desire to go to the theater, there’s almost nothing. And this is a city of a million people, maybe more. And same for me personally, I don’t really have a lot of information about what is going on in Tangier, and I’m out looking for it. But it’s impossible to know what activities there are here, we can’t know what happens. We have that small book, the Tangier Pocket, you’ve seen that, but that’s not much. So I believe there’s a real problem about information and communication here, and we want to make the effort to have it much more clear about whats going on here in the center of Tangier. You see what I’m saying? It’s the mediation, how to touch, bring together, and get in contact with various parts of the community. What are the objectives for the city, and what is the best way to go about achieving those objectives. It’s a vast subject, as I said, and it cannot be handled superficially.
-So you’re creating the collective meeting point.
-Yes, and this year we want to be less of producers, and more the mediators, the facilitators for the production of artistic creations. Last year we were producing a lot, holding expositions, producing events cultural and otherwise. This year we want to be more of a casual place to meet for artists and allow them to create, holding residencies…
-What makes Tangier a great place for an artist, why come here?
-Wow, besides that it’s next to the ocean? I don’t know, I don’t want to get into a ruse about this imaginary Tangier that exists, this false Tangier, the myth and so forth. This city is a reality, but it gets swallowed by its past stories. You know I am Moroccan, I’ve lived in Paris, but I left because there weren’t the opportunities I was looking for there. This is the city in Morocco that is rising quickly, it’s a good place to develop in parallel with. Under Hassan II, this city was completely forgotten and ignored. But fifteen years ago it was opened up again, and there was an enormous amount of money and a wave of attention that’s started coming in. There’s plenty of space here to grow and create things. There’s a youth here that is incredible! In the city and in Morocco! And for me, today, really, Tangier is a huge open laboratory honestly. It’s the doorway between Africa and Europe, you see Spain everyday just right next to you, and you can feel it there’s a an enormous tension here all the time.
-Yeah, the tension is real. And it’s always transient, there’s a big mix of people-
-Yes but at the same time religiously, traditionally and culturally it’s still very conservative.
-Ohh I know, Tangier has the reputation for being a very liberated city and all of this but in my experience here it hasn’t been so.
-Sure, but in the families here and in the relationships, the types of intimacy between people are all still very conservative. In the street even you can see this and feel it. You know, sure there were cabarets, and there are people here coming every summer…in fact it’s a city full of contradictions. And impermanence. Impermanence. Full of paradoxes. In fact, myself, this hit me really, this pleases me, all of these contradictions and paradoxes because it’s not linear. There’s a movement, a force, you can’t just say okay it will be like this…there aren’t a lot of established institutions here. There’s a type of endless chaos here, and I believe that, really, it’s out of chaos there’s the chance for good things to emerge.
-I believe this as well. That’s why I’ve always been surprised there’s not more young creatives here making use of that.
-I think this is the good moment for it here. But there you have it, the idea for ThinkTangier is for it be a cultural project, and one that holds artist residencies as well. And it’s not a linear project yet, it’s still developing, it’s good to have a multifaceted project with many objectives. We’re still figuring it out, we’ll see what will happen. The idea is to really also have a place for reflection. You know, you can’t just have a concert because you want to hold a concert. There should be some reflection first. There’s a responsibility you have to the community and the culture. What will the impact be for the people in this neighborhood, or that neighborhood, to what public. What will it implicate? Why am I doing it? How will it affect the city? Not just doing something because you authorize yourself to do it. We want to be an active force, that facilitates these types of meetings, conversations, and gives artists a place to produce work and engage with the city.