JE SUIS ÇA
Yamou, "Deep inside". Hangar, Marrakech. From February 21st. 2019
I met Yamou last April, and he invited me to visit his garden and studio in Tahannaout.
Being a country girl at heart, I found the garden delightful. It’s a simple, refined place, harmonious and varied, maintained with care and dedication—a veritable aromatic paradise at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. Admiring exclamations fell from my lips as I wandered through it happily.
After this wonderfully pleasant experience, I headed for his studio with some trepidation. What if I didn’t like his paintings? I could never feign the same enthusiasm I’d shown in the garden; the artist would notice the difference, and it would be embarrassing.
For some time now, I’ve been immersed in a crisis of pictorial scepticism. I tend to feel uncomfortable when faced with much of my contemporaries’ paintings, which often strike me as hollow or contrived. As constant criticism is always disagreeable, lately I’ve preferred to focus on other artistic media.
It was therefore with a sense of fearful caution that I stepped into Yamou’s studio. But as soon as I did, his enormous glossy red and green diptych engulfed me, and the rest soon followed. It was love at first sight. I fell head over heels for his work—so strange, so lovely, so honest and yet so deceptive.
Abderrahim Yamou is the first painter to truly pique my interest in the last five years. His art allowed me to overcome my disillusionment, and for that I am sincerely grateful.
Let me describe his paintings a bit, as if the readers of this illustrated text were blind. It’s something I like to do.
The artist uses his own methods, which are very free, meticulous and relatively simple. The paint still runs across the surface, sliding and staining the edges of the frame. It seems to flow into the garden’s irrigation channels and mingle with the water.
By travelling new paths, Yamou finds depth, chiaroscuro and forgotten glazes. The paintings present casually geometric shapes, pregnant with personal and collective memories. Their colours are hypnotic. There are many hard, intense shades of grey, but also uneven browns in wet layers and that black, “the dark limit that shines in the night”. Yamou splashes the white about in a generous and seemingly careless way. His palette of greens, reds, pinks, mauves and blues is botanical and organic and yet absolutely unreal, with occasionally fluorescent hues that might easily be the product of an acid trip.
In early November, I spent four days with Yamou at Tahannaout. He had asked me to curate this exhibition, so we began working together: selecting works that leaned in one direction rather than another, establishing display criteria, thinking and getting to know each other.
One fine, clear morning, we took a stroll in the vicinity of his house. The valley floor was purple, with greenish tints that faded into blueish greys. The horizon was bounded by mountains and snow.
M’barek Bouchichi explained to me that in the Amazigh language, the colours green and blue share the same name. A single word (which we’ll call blue for the sake of simplicity) encompasses both, but they can use specific references to express an infinite variety of shades: the blue of the summer sky or the blue of the grassy slopes, pine blue or acacia blue, indigo blue or the blue of the grasses that grow in the desert... As I walked through the valley of Tahannaout, I began to understand the need for all these references, for the colours are as complex and profound as the landscapes in Yamou’s paintings that depict the inside of life.
Yves Klein said, “Every nuance of a colour is, in a sense, an individual, a living creature of the same species as the primary colour, but with a character and personal soul of its own. There are many nuances—gentle, angry, violent, sublime, vulgar, peaceful.”
How can I, who am neither Amazigh nor Klein, define the colour of these lands bounded by snow and sand? How can I define the colour that pulls me into the centre of Yamou’s paintings?
And how can I explain what Yamou’s work says to me?
An untamed vitality vibrates unsettlingly in his pictures. There are interior forests and nocturnal landscapes bathed in moonlight, boiling sap that spews from half-open stalks. There is pollen, spores, dense, milky, semi-transparent liquids. And there are clouds, branches, molecules, fibres, cells and unknown flowers.
In his works there is no up or down, no force of gravity; it is a new, floating world.
Although the botanical references are obvious, those stalks are also our arteries. There is blood in Yamou’s works: nerves, cells, lipids, eggs, neurons, nerve tissue and DNA codes.
These paintings suggest the reality that exists and roils deep inside. They evoke what swarms inside living creatures and deep within the round womb of the universe, because I also see in them stars and meteorites, the primeval wetness, the great darkness and the Milky Way.
Deep inside, the microcosm has the size and shape of infinity. While the exterior divides, the interior unifies.
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” the classic koan asks.
“No,” the Zen master replies. “If there is no ear to hear it, a sound does not exist.”
Yamou’s work opens a window onto these imperceptible and therefore non-existent processes. What colour is the blood that flows deep inside sealed veins or the sap in unbroken stems? What shape do comets have in the lonely night, or cells when they reproduce in some dark, hermetic space? The moment we shine a light into the forest, cut a stalk or sever a nerve, what we see becomes something else.
Yamou’s paintings are essential oxymorons in which the artist gives form to elusive realities, and from them he shapes a new reality that is the work of art, imbued with subjective, aesthetic and symbolic significance.
Attempting to draw parallels between Yamou’s work and that of other artists, I am reminded of the symbolic landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch and the detailed blue backgrounds of Patinir. Curiously, I also think of Odilon Redon’s late period and especially of Paul Klee’s vision of nature, but above all my mind keeps coming back to the scientific watercolours of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. I think it was thanks to them that I learned a different way of plunging into Yamou’s Deep Inside.
Ramón y Cajal was a Spanish doctor and painter who received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1906 for his discoveries related to neurons and their connections.
Cajal likened the microstructure of the nervous system to nature, noting “how the roots and branches of the trees in the grey matter terminate, so that in such a dense jungle, in which there are no gaps thanks to its refined complexity, the trunks, branches and leaves touch everywhere”.
Cajal illustrated his discoveries with unusual watercolours depicting what he called “the garden of neurology”. These images, the work of a true artist, get along well with Yamou’s creations. They address the same subject, albeit from different perspectives, have the same depth and reflect similar processes. The artist and scientist was not content to merely draw what he saw under the microscope; from those inadequate images, he guessed, imagined and hypothesised about neurons and their potential relationships. We owe many of the first breakthroughs in neuroscience to these imaginative, detailed, surprisingly romantic drawings. There is a great deal of Yamou in Cajal, and a great deal of Cajal in Yamou.
I also mentioned Paul Klee; his notebooks (The Thinking Eye and The Nature of Nature) and the lecture “on modern art” he gave at Jena in 1924 are important texts in which we can easily recognise some of the approaches Yamou uses. Striving to understand the mysteries of nature, Klee distinguished between two different ways of seeing: the lower or inner way, associated with the earth, and the higher way, associated with the cosmos. Neither depends on optical vision, and together they constitute the two possible means of looking into an object. “There is the non-optical way of intimate physical contact, earthbound, that reaches the eye of the artist from below, and there is the non-optical contact through the cosmic bond that descends from above.”
Klee reinvented the flowers in his garden by reducing them to their essence as opposed to appearance; he investigated their germination and growth, isolated them from the law of gravity and turned them into symbols.
This discourse is not out of sync with Yamou's work, but if we set aside Klee’s theoretical processes and simply examine his work alongside Yamou’s, the similarity fades and all but disappears.
After all, Paul Klee was a Swiss gentleman, a European Bauhaus professor who lived in a house designed by Gropius in the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm, and Yamou is a Moroccan, and consequently African, artist who divides his time between Paris and his aromatic garden at the foot of the Atlas.
Yamou’s family is originally from southern Morocco. When a terrible drought hit their home on the edge of the desert, his parents moved to Casablanca.
There is no comparison.
Klee mythologised the sun as the source of life, but in his work Yamou seeks the shadows and, like his parents did, flees from the drought he associates with death.
In his early paintings we saw fertile red soil, and green plants grow in his sculptures. And in the works presented now in Deep Inside, we can easily recognise the same obsession with moisture, shadow, hollows and fertility.
Yamou and I have talked a lot over the past few months, and during one of our long after-dinner conversations he gave me an unforgettable picture of his mother. One day, after a long dry spell, it began to rain in Casablanca. His mother—that small, middle-aged southern woman, dressed in traditional fashion, with a scarf covering her head—went out into the street before her house and stood there under the pouring rain, laughing out loud as she raised her open arms to the sky. Grateful, absolutely alive.
That beneficial, life-giving rain continues to fertilise Yamou’s art, far from the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm.
I find it difficult to write this text. It’s hard for me to talk about these works I think I understand in an immediate, intuitive way. When I asked Yamou to tell me about the paintings we selected for the exhibition, trying to get a perspective other than my own, he gazed at me in perplexed silence, shrugged, raised his eyebrows and, after a time, replied, “Je suis ça.”
What can I add to that?
Naum Gabo wrote, “More often than not, [people] expect a painting to speak to them in terms other than visual, preferably in words, whereas when a painting or a sculpture needs to be supplemented and explained by words it means either that it has not fulfilled its function or that the public is deprived of vision.”
“The garden of neurology holds out to the investigator captivating spectacles and incomparable artistic emotions. [...] my attention hunted, in the flower garden of the grey matter, cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul.”
Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934)
“A return to painting is a return to intuition, a return to sensations, to an existence full of life, to life itself, a return to the present moment, to that eternal present moment.”
“Close your bodily eye, so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react on others from the outside inwards.”
Caspar David Friedrich
We are grateful to the Italo-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi (Rome, 1914–São Paulo, 1992) for the unusual display model she invented for her Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 1968. Bo Bardi avoided walls and created a forest of art in the museum’s diaphanous hall.
The exhibition layout is not guided by chronological or hierarchical criteria; instead, it aims to make visitors curious and turn viewing into an active exercise. There is no designated itinerary; each person creates his or her own path. The display invites people to wander among and around the works, to explore them from different angles, discover connections between them, remove their mystical aura and experience them as close and approachable. The back side of each picture is clearly visible, providing technical details and other circumstantial information about the work.
Lina Bo Bardi’s display at the MASP was our inspiration and point of departure for the Deep Inside installation at the Hangar venue in Marrakesh. We felt it was ideally suited to this project for the reasons stated above, because it allows the works to be seen as a whole in which they dialogue with and complement each other, and because it encourages viewers to embrace the spirit of this project and dive deep inside Yamou's artwork.