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Don’t Breathe Normal: Read Souffles!

On Decolonizing Culture

Cover of Souffles, No. 7/8, 1967, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 1, 1966, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 2, 1966, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 3, 1966, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 4, 1966, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 5, 1967, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 6, 1967, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 9, 1968, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 10/11, 1968, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 12, 1968, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 13/14, 1969, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 15, 1969, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 16/17, 1969, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 18, 1970, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 19, 1970, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 20/21, 1971, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles, No. 22, 1971, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

The need for a synthesis of the arts and, with this, a change of pedagogical principles, was not only present at the beginning of the twentieth century (forces that prompted the Bauhaus’s foundation), but after WWII as well, during the “Short Century” of decolonization, as Okwui Enwezor has coined it. This second modern movement and its relation to modernism and the vernacular, the hand made, and the everyday was vividly expressed through texts and art works published in the Moroccan quarterly magazine Souffles, published beginning in the mid-1960s by a group of writers and artists in Rabat, Casablanca and Paris.

1.

Souffles provides crucial insights into the struggles of post-independence intellectuals to create a post-colonial aesthetic beyond existing European art education models and colonial knowledge production. However, Souffles has long been difficult to locate, having been banned in Morocco in 1972, with its editor, the poet Abdellatif Laâbi, imprisoned for eight years until his release due to international pressure in 1980: he was exiled to Paris five years later. The magazine is now accessible online thanks to his efforts and an international network of supporters. 1

Cover of Souffles No. 1, 1966, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 2, 1966, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 3, 1966, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Souffles functioned as a node, medium and interface in the intellectual, political and artistic production of a nascent Moroccan postcolonial subjectivity. The editors of the magazine—a group of outstanding young writers, including Laâbi, Mostafa Nissaboury and Mohamed Khair-Eddine, decided to self-publish a literary magazine in 1966, ten years after Moroccan independence. As Laâbi stated in a conversation held in Paris in 2015, it was the colonial condition itself that shaped the counter narrative and radical outline of the magazine and its post-colonial aesthetics:

"First there was an understanding that we could not move forward without having resolved our problems with the colonial experience. The generation that preceded us, Moroccan men and women, was preoccupied with the political fight against the colonial system. That generation succeeded, as Morocco was able to regain its independence in 1956. But that generation never asked itself the question of whether colonization was a loss of autonomy and national dignity, or if it was a loss of something else. What happens in a colonial situation? Is it simply … political oppression, economic? Or is it something else? It was my generation that concretely asked itself about these problems. What happened culturally? What was the colonial enterprise in the framework of culture? What was the impact of colonial politics on the being, on the psychology of Moroccans, on their identity, on the relationship they have with their past, present, and future?" 2

2.

The anti-colonial struggle was successful in achieving political independence for Morocco, but ten years later young intellectuals confronted a situation where the colonial attitudes, as well as the socio-political structures of colonial governance, remained in place. It is thus telling that in one of its first editions, the Souffles editors conducted a conversation with the Tunisian-Jewish author Albert Memmi, who in his book, The Colonizer and the Colonized, analyzed the mental and cultural impacts of European colonization.3 The hybrid and transnational character of Souffles also relates directly to one of the main subjects of debate in its pages: the deep and abiding concern of artists and intellectuals with the awkward position for aesthetic production occasioned by both the colonial past and the conservative politics of many postcolonial regimes, including feudal oligarchies and ruling political parties. The central proposition of the magazine’s founders was the decolonization of society and culture had yet to take place—they made this their project. One of the striking feature of this “auto-decolonization” project, as Abdellatif Laâbi stated, was the experimental, deconstructive treatment of the French language:

"How to decolonize minds? How to decolonize culture? How do we rediscover our autonomy, our freedom of creation, in relation to a culture that was imposed upon us? But with this paradox: all of that must happen in the language of the colonizer; a paradox, a contradiction. It was necessary to deal with this paradox and this contradiction. How to produce a literature that would carry this movement for the emancipation of the human being? We worked with the only language that we had at our disposal. We didn’t choose it. I didn’t choose to write in French—French was imposed upon me during a history that went beyond me personally. The important thing was to see what I did with this language. What did I succeed in creating within this language? How did I make this language my own?"4

The postcolonial, polyphonic use of French by Souffles authors marks one of its outstanding features as a literary magazine. Their writing embraces the multiplicity and mixture of the language, emphasizing the diversity of tones, pronunciations, meanings and dialects expressed in spoken French. The contextualization and decontextualization of language and speech acts associated with the former French colonial school system thus constituted one major task for the young writers. Khair-Eddine speaks even of the formation of the Souffles authors as a “linguistic guerrilla.”5 Written French is moulded, appropriated and deconstructed; disruptions are introduced and new narrative forms are developed. The multilingual condition and pluralistic, cosmopolitan position of the magazine’s founders, including their interest in diverse narrative formats, gave rise to a number of language experiments, creolizations, and new literary forms.6 The experimental and imaginative handling of language is expressed in so-called poèmes kilométriques and other new forms of prose. The radicalization of narratives by means of montage and collage, techniques of fragmentation, non-linear narrative forms and an emphasis on language’s event-based character in the magazine can be read as a conceptual response to the rule of violence and the cultural paternalism of French colonial power. As Laâbi states, there was no model to build on:

"How to create a new literature? A literature that carries the mark of our memory, of our personality, our subjectivity. I believe that what was created with the journal Souffles was a sort of rupture, a sort of forward flight. We rejected the models that existed at the time, whether that be the Western literary model or the Arab literary model, the Near East. We had to invent our own model. And therefore, inevitably, there was a very violent split at that time. It was necessary to go forth into the unknown. We took a leap into the unknown, maybe not exactly entirely consciously. It was an urge that led us to make this jump into the unknown."7

A separate series published in parallel to Souffles called Éditions Atlantes, brought out important novels written by members of the editorial board, as well as befriended Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian authors, creating a new platform of experimentation between writers of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds.

3.

Cultural conditions at the time of the first edition of Souffles were far from satisfactory in Morocco, necessitating self-organization and group-making. According to the art historian, poet and supporter of the Souffles enterprise, Toni Maraini, the postcolonial artists were responding to a post-independence condition in which a petty provincialism and Eurocentric culture based on academic fine art education still predominated:

"The salons organized for Western artists admitted only Moroccan “naïve” painters as a touch of "indigenous color." Local European poets used to gather in clubs littéraires around the foreign cultural missions “where they wrote verses on the ambassadors' gardens.” They ignored the best of Western production and the daring experiments of modernism, as well as the high tradition of classical Arabic poetry, not to mention Afro-Berber popular arts and literature. They were not interested in the productions of a Moroccan cultural avant-garde."8

At this time, Laâbi had begun publishing in several French literary magazines, but had become aware of a group of young Casablancan poets centered around Nissaboury and Khair-Eddine, who published small reviews in Poésie toute and Eaux vives. Here he also encountered the Casablanca Group of painters—Mohamed Melehi, Mohamed Chabaâ, and Farid Belkahia—who had studied in Czechoslovakia, the United States, Italy and Spain, and who came back to Morocco “with a diverse set of perspectives and skill sets, and … were on that same quest for modernity that we poets were on.”9 Constituted within this interdisciplinary set of relationships, the Souffles project commenced. Along with writers associated with the magazine, the artists also worked following the imperative to formulate a new aesthetic that would transcend colonial cultural production and the European episteme. Such a project also demanded a rethinking of established forms of cultural production in order to create a cognitive map of radical counter-proposals:

"When we revolted against the Western models, the Orientalizing models, we aimed to create our own concepts, something of the future. Of course, at the time, we found some intellectuals, some creators, who helped us in this process: Frantz Fanon, who went very far, in a clinical way, to analyze the colonial phenomenon as it happened and its repercussions on the identity of peoples and their cultures. Aimé Césaire, of course, an important poet, who was at the time one of our older brothers. And other poets who were kicking at the stalls as they say. Vladimir Mayakovsky was one of these, for me anyway. Russian poetry from the 1920s and 30s, not just Mayakovsky and futurists such as Velimir Khlebnikov, among others, but also the Turkish poet—whose engagement was not only in writing, but also in politics—Nâzım Hikmet. A poet who paved the way by demonstrating that poetry could be very dangerous, but that it was necessary to accept this danger…"10

The need to establish a new artistic language necessitated that this group of visual artists acknowledge and analyze how under colonialism everyday culture in Morocco had—through the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, architecture and art history—been made the object of categorization and folklorization. From the beginning of the twentieth century, the French protectorate had intervened in the economies of local handicraft producers, changing the organizational structure of the established system of guilds, and introducing a historical conservation policy for the medinas which elevated them to living museum status, while in the outskirts of the cities, new medinas were built where the local economy was kept officially under French protectorate regulation.11 Meanwhile, the Moroccan economy had slowly been transforming the colonial city centers into picturesque, touristic sites for local handicraft, radically isolated from industrial-capitalist modes of production, although many workers migrating to Morocco’s cities from the countryside arrived highly equipped with handicraft skills. With regard to the large-scale urban renewal projects taking place in the same period, the Moroccan workforce that built the new colonial city quarters and working class neighborhoods had already been radically transformed by extant colonial-capitalist conditions after World War I. In fact, the transformation of the local economy and creation by French and Spanish administrators of a society based on class stratification between the 1920s and 1950s proceeded far more rapidly than similar processes in Europe during the nineteenth century.12 Meanwhile, the domestic and export markets for such goods as artisanal Moroccan leather—a strong export before colonial occupation—began to suffer under the French protectorate’s policy of flooding Morocco’s domestic market with mass-produced commodities from its other overseas colonies: for example, factory-made shoes from French Indochina severely weakened the domestic shoe trade, and with it, the Moroccan leather industry.13

4.

In Europe, the Industrial Revolution created a new perspective on handicrafts after the mass production of consumer goods had completely disrupted ways of life that had persisted with little change for centuries and the attendant social ills the factory labor system produced as a by-product had become incontrovertible social fact. Historically, the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, French Art Deco and German Jugendstil all created new vocabularies through which the critique of industrialization and design practice might be leveled. Such thinking culminated in a new pedagogy, realized at the Bauhaus during the Weimar Republic, which aspired to create a synthetic approach to the arts, incorporating both industrial technology and craft/handiwork traditions.

This aspect of the modernist debate over the cultural value of premodern and local hand-produced goods reemerged after World War II, when renewed attention to vernacular forms of production and craft knowledge created a so called “anthropological turn” in design and architectural discourses in the Euro-American context.14 This broad interest in vernacular cultural forms and locally produced goods coincided with the search of the painters involved in the foundation of Souffles to create a new post-colonial aesthetic . Returning to Morocco from their art education abroad, they also sought out examples of regional artisanal production and local, non-figurative sign systems. What make their approach unique lies in their evaluation of the vernacular, developed through their critique of the French classifications systems of high and low, fine and decorative arts. As expressed by Toni Maraini in a 2016 conversation with the author in Rabat:

"It was important to connect with the popular arts and the traditional culture for two reasons: one reason is that looking at the modernist painters, what Kandinsky or Paul Klee wrote on the synthesis of the arts. And that you realize that the language of abstraction was also triggered through their travels in North-Africa. We have something in common in the birth of the modernism: to acknowledge the symbols and archetypes, to see folk art as an esthetical richness. Melehi, Belkahia, Chabaa, Flint and I went by cars, buses and even sometimes walking by foot to the Atlas Mountains, (looking) at the carpets, the ancient doors and wall paintings in the Casbah, the jewelry. And from these studies trips and interests we created a Magazine called Maghreb Art. Three numbers were issued in the Casablanca school, focusing on the analysis of the integrative art forms already existing in Morocco. It is important to note that the Casablanca school was the first institution to use the words “popular arts” (art populaire). Before that, the French used the expression “folklore,” “artisanat” or “native arts,” or (the) colonial expression “les arts indigenes.” We wanted to change those words and meanings, as they were politically charged. In the studies I made, I realized that the real popular arts were disappearing. Industrial production killed the local arts, and we forgot (the knowledge for) how to do carpets and what they are for. It was important to record what was done in Morocco before it would all disappear. And in fact, that is what happened. The traditional skills and crafts have disappeared and have become a tourist industry."15

The Casablanca group’s approach was to consider handicrafts as a popular mode of cultural expression, including local non-figurative forms of expression, such as calligraphy or Berber decorative patterning practices. But these were not only considered as examples of an abstract system of signs and symbols, as was often bruited in the western reading of non-European interior design. The group emphasized the social function of an object: the way it was used by people was coequal in importance to its formal characteristics. This focus on usability also required a new understanding of the arts in society. Their work with architects and in the public sphere—a practice reflected in Maud Houssais’s article—should thus be considered as a search for a new aesthetic bent on synthesizing the arts, making them a living form.

Cover of Souffles No. 4, 1966, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 5, 1967, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 6, 1967, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 7/8, 1967, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 9, 1968, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 10/11, 1968, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

5.

In constituting the magazine, collaborations with visual artists thus took on a role of central importance—not only for their aesthetic contribution to Souffles but for the conceptual frame they contributed, the in-depth discussions they participated in over the conditions and means to decolonize culture following Moroccan independence. Mohamed Melehi designed Souffles’ elegant covers, which, with the exception of color scheme and textual elements, remained unchanged until the fourteenth issue, released in 1968. Melehi produced the magazine by hand during its first years, having it printed in Tangier. Covers from 1966–1969 are impressively plain: font choices refer to 1920s modernist typography, and feature a black circle that Toni Maraini has described as the “Black Sun of Renewal.”16 Mohamed Chabaâ also contributed to Souffles’ design from 1969 to 1971, characterized by aesthetics reminiscent of the political posters and photography of the early 1970s, reflecting the era’s radical politics. As previously mentioned, beyond their role as designers and producers, the artists were involved in decisively changing the local climate vis-à-vis the entrenched artistic hierarchy of high versus popular art. For example, in his work and teaching Farid Belkahia worked against the folkloric reading of local culture production as naïve or pre-modern. Following Hamid Ibrouh, he articulated a position privileging so-called Moroccan nativism and a revised estimation of local craft knowledge.17 When Belkahia became director of the Ecole des Beaux Art in Casablanca in 1966, he implemented his critique of the folklorization of local culture production through a new curriculum inspired by Bauhaus pedagogy, where, as Toni Maraini explains in her article written for bauhaus imaginista, he promoted the synthesis of art and craft education.

Connecting fine art to visual culture was also essential to the foundation of Souffles in terms of content. The first issue featured graphics by the Casablanca Group, alongside poems, excerpted texts and the first Souffles manifesto. Special issue no. 7/8 on Art Plastique from 1967 was inspired by the Casablanca Group and Toni Maraini. It included works by several predominantly abstract Moroccan artists who also responded to a special “questionnaire” composed by the editors.18 In his editorial, Laâbi addresses the central problem studying the history of arts and culture as rendered by Western scholars caused after independence: as most texts on local culture were by European archaeologist, anthropologist, sociologists, geographers, art historians and so on, these studies perpetuated presumptions about underdevelopment, as well as racist hierarchical categorizations where Eurocentric ideas about local cultural forms were disseminated.19 This form of knowledge production may not have started with the French protectorate, but it is constitutive of the colonial project as such. Thus, one of the most harmful categorizations for post-independence intellectuals was, as we can read in Souffles, the continuation of pre-existing hierarchies between the high arts and decorative/handmade object: working against this divide was an explicit challenge for the new generation of post-colonial artists of the 1960s.

Aside from illustrations by the invited artists, issue 7/8 also featured photographic documentation of vernacular Moroccan and Berber culture, typography and ornamentation practices. The relationship between fine art, everyday cultural practice and craft production is also echoed in the output of Casablanca Group members. The paintings of Melehi, for instance, deal with the relationship between sign and space in the North African context, as well as the ambiguities inherent in modern forms of visual communication. Mohamed Chabaâ’s early works are characterized by collage techniques of fragmentation and decontextualization, mirroring those employed in postcolonial poetry; concurrent with his art practice, he operated a firm for applied graphics in Casablanca, evidenced by advertisements in Souffles. These artists, then, quite deliberately chose to inhabit a role between painter, designer and graphic artist—or as Chabaâ has named it, the three A’s: to be simultaneously an Artist, an Artisan and an Architect. Such a position points to the conceptual alignment of the Casablanca Group with the holistic principles developed at the Bauhaus during the interwar period.

As Toni Maraini explains in the Art Plastique issue, the work of the contemporary Moroccan artists associated with the magazine also included a critique of the treatment of North African ornamental and decorative art within Western oriental studies, which largely overlooked the spiritual, philosophical and social meaning and function of such practices.20 As Laâbi impressively formulates it in his editorial for the Art Plastique issue, ten years after Moroccan independence, it is waste and trash which confronts intellectuals and artists:

"The history of Moroccan art has been, for more than a half century, a European specialty, a monopoly of Western science. ... Now is the time for us to shake off the torpor of colonial trauma and face our history. But when we try to begin this confrontation, we are faced with a most problematical legacy: the colonial social sciences. The colonial phenomenon was, indeed, a serious disturbance in our history. ... To return to this confrontation with our own history, we find that whenever we look at an area of ​​our culture, we encounter the West and its scholars. ... We cannot escape the history that the West has shaped for us. It is a vast raw material, a nursery of data. But it is also a construction of provocation, a mousetrap for objectivity. Colonial, even postcolonial, science throws up a constant challenge for us. It is an intervention riddled with ambiguity. We can neither go around colonial science nor reject it. Nor, can we accept it. We are condemned to digest it and, from there, to sort through it. ... It is in this obligation where lies the disturbance mentioned above. The self-examination we have begun, and which will continue for a long time, is a sacrificial phase, so much wasted energy. It is an exciting phase, it is necessary, authentic, anything you like, but it is still a waste. It is a long disturbance, a heavy ransom to be paid. But we must do it. Not to wash ourselves clean nor to slander the eternal imperialist West source-of-all-our-troubles, but for our own health, lucidity and for the truth of all humanity. Franz Fanon wanted to “release man” (the wretched of the earth, the oppressed). Our task now is to release the History of oppressed mankind."21

6.

The debate held on decolonizing culture and the role of the artists in society within the Art Plastique double issue altered the image politics of the Souffles enterprise. Following this issue, works of art and photographs were specifically contextualized, with illustrations attaining a different status in relation to written content. The design and image politics articulated over the course of the 22 issues from 1966 to 1971 also reflect the conceptual reorientations of the magazine, from a preoccupation with a regional cultural narrative privileging craft traditions to that of an internationalist aesthetic inspired by the 1966 Tricontinental Congress in Havana. Mario Andrade's report on the Congress in issue number nine, already lent the magazine an internationalist orientation—with discourses on Negritude and the Tricontinental movement establishing a new frame of reference for local cultural production. With double issue number 10/11, published in 1968, a second paradigm shift became evident. Focused on Maghreb literature, the magazine was now published in French and Arabic. From 1969 to 1971, a separate Arabic issue entitled Anfas was published parallel to the French Souffles editions. This decision was made not only to accommodate local readers, but—as revealed in several essays and prefaces published after 1967—had to do with a rising Pan-Arabism that gained momentum in the entire region after the Six Day War.22

The most obvious change in cover design began in 1969 with issue 15, a special issue on Palestine in which Mohamed Chabaâ was placed in charge of graphic design, a position he held until 1971. Political priorities confirmed by the experiences and exchanges that occurred among intellectuals and cultural producers at the seminal 1969 Pan-African Festival in Algiers produced another reorientation of the magazine. At the same time, the notion of a Maghreb literature written in Arabic helped intellectuals and artists to affirm a project opposed to French hegemony over art and culture—with its attendant occidental biases—that remained active in the Maghreb despite decolonization. This counter-project corresponded with the main concerns of Souffles’ authors and artists to liberate their own cultural production from its prior colonial heritage. Besides using the revaluation of crafts and the privileging of orality in literature as tools for decolonizing culture, in subsequent issues, connections made through OSPAAL (The Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America) helped to address and solidify connections with other local cultures of resistance, as well as the social role of intellectuals and artists across the three continents.

Other changes within the magazine were more structural. Beginning in 1969, works by North African painters and graphic artists were no longer placed alongside poems and texts. Instead, each issue ended with a photographic documentation of an artistic or filmic project, presented next to stills and reviews of the Moroccan film production Six et Doux. Such back-page photo-essays included coverage of an exhibition organized in the public space of Marrakech, an Art-in-Architecture project at a hotel in Agadir, a student exhibition project at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Casablanca and Mohamed Melehi’s participation in the Sculpture Biennale in Mexico the previous year (where he met Bauhaus associate and polymath Herbert Bayer). Debates on cultural production, research and action, on films and socio-political themes became increasingly prevalent. With the aforementioned special issue 15 on Palestine—which presented posters and graphic design projects dedicated exclusively to Palestine’s struggle for liberation—a fundamental change began in the relationship between image and text, as well as to the general editorial policy on fine art. The graphics by Melehi and Chabaâ reveal a new self-understanding regarding how art and liberation struggles had converged; Chabaâ’s new layout only intensified the effect produced by appropriating artistic production in the service of the struggle for liberation and agitation against colonial rule. Then in 1970, Chabaâ again fundamentally altered the magazine’s format, including the relationship between image and text. Each cover now had its own graphic or photographic illustration, with art projects and film stills replaced by documentary photography corresponding to the magazine’s content. Cover illustrations included photographs of the Pan-African Festival in Algiers, portraits of exiled Black Panther members attending the festival, portraits of African filmmakers and writers and a reproduction of a poster on the anti-colonial liberation struggle in Angola, originally published in the OSPAAL magazine Tricontinetal.23 All photographs were now related editorially to articles, with a concomitant loss of any autonomy that might once have existed in the relation between the two. Features on local art production also disappeared, the magazine having become the mouthpiece of Tricontinental activist intellectuals and cultural producers.

7.

The treatment of images in Souffles bears witness to an ongoing debate on the postcolonial conception of art and culture and the shifting role of artists and intellectuals in society. Decisions made by the magazine’s alternating action committees can be read as indications of increasing political radicalization and internationalization, reinforced by reprints of manifestos and visual productions from the context of Tricontinetal magazine.24 The radical graphic solution of placing emphasis on the transcultural entanglement of signs, images and writing characterizing the first issues of Souffles (together with the postcolonial strategies of Moroccan painting and graphic art, with its synthesis of high and low, and applied and autonomous art practices) became a marginal position in the magazine’s second phase (1969 to 1972), in favor of documentary photography and a focus on political films, including republishing the manifesto Toward a Third Cinema by Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino.25

If Souffles is any example, clearly the reading of non-western arts and crafts by European modernists was countered by post-independence artists in Morocco, who acknowledged Islamic art and calligraphy—as well as Berber arts, crafts, architecture and interior decoration—as a legitimate, contemporary cultural articulation possessing innate spiritual and social meaning. They conceived of these arts as transhistorical rather than situated within a Modernist time frame of belated and/or naïve forms of cultural production. Their intellectual and pedagogical engagements with the Casablanca School as well as a series of other magazines—such as Maghreb Art or Integral—provide ample evidence demonstrating their serious engagement.

Souffles lent a generation a voice of its own, allowing it to develop a new language and establish and imagine transnational connections beyond the local. To publish a hand-made magazine was a gesture of urgency, signifying the need felt by most postcolonial cultural producers to claim a space for self-articulation, resistance and imagination alongside the established venues of “official” culture. The magazine constituted an unofficial cultural space in Morocco—disseminated via mail order and a network of small kiosks in Morocco, through word-of-mouth, by the members of its different action committees and at the 1969 Pan-African festival in Algiers, where it achieved a belated international recognition.

Cover of Souffles No. 12, 1968, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 13/14, 1969, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 15, 1969, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 16/17, 1969, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 18, 1970, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 19, 1970, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

8.

Gwen Allen grasps self-published artists’ magazines as a specific, alternative space of action that gained international relevance in the 1960s and 70s, when alternative and small-scale publishers became an important medium for writers and authors to disseminate counter-narratives to hegemonic culture at low cost, using rudimentary technological means.26 In the medium of self-published magazines, new aesthetic formats were conceived, notions of art and literature renegotiated. Especially in North American and European Conceptual art, the self-published art magazine played a crucial role in expanding the artistic domain. The relative autonomy of the artists and writers publishing in these little magazines, their independence from the art market and the press, eroded the ability of official institutions to function as the sole arbiters defining and valuating art and culture. The self-published magazine, as a site of production, distribution and discourse for the alternative art movement, was thus able to bypass the selection criteria, contractual terms and commercial interests of official publishers. Literary self-publishers and author-run publishing houses created a platform for lesser-known authors and critical readers, and in doing so, established a new aesthetic community of writers and readers. The means of production and channels of distribution were taken in hand in the Brechtian sense, distributed via mail order or on-site at bookstores or galleries—methods resembling those used by other subcultural fanzines. It is not by chance that Souffles appears in Gwen Allen’s work as a superlative example of non-European self-organization. What Allen fails to grasp, however, is that the magazine quite consciously had created a third space not aimed at redirecting thoughts on resistance and anti-colonialism with and through Europe. The interesting pathways Souffles created emerged out of relations that had ceased to be controlled by European intellectual circles.

From the outset, debates on Negritude, Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism intersected in the magazine; discourses reflecting the necessity of being able to once more imagine other commitments and alliances than with the West or exclusively local affinity groups. The magazine contributed to the project of constructing a world of new affinities. This transnational and cosmopolitan dimension of Souffles gave rise to the possibility of constituting a “we” in novel ways, enabling future communities and practices directed towards constituting themselves within the self-publishing process. It was crucial that this be neither exclusively a nationally-bounded community nor a reconstructed imaginary of existing concepts. It was a journey into the unknown, initiated by critically reflecting upon existing concepts—for instance, Negritude as an antiracist universalism, an overly unambiguous construction of identity that needed to be countered with radical polyphony. As Laâbi says:

"We claimed a cultural plurality. To be Moroccan is to be Arab-Muslim, Amazigh, Jewish, African, Mediterranean, Saharan. We claimed our identity as one of pluralism, because Moroccan identity can only be understood if we see all the components that constitute it."27

9.

The violence that accompanied the French and Spanish colonization of North Africa beginning in the nineteenth century consisted of ruling, exploiting and partitioning not only groups from North African society in various ways but disregarding the prior history of African-Arabic-European entanglements as well. As Valentine Mudimbe has shown, this history was disambiguated within colonial knowledge production, branded as pre-modern and primitive. As an example, however, of the recursive nature of ideology, both national liberation movements and postcolonial oligarchies each reproduced many of the colonial-era’s cultural and identity constructions. The conceptual multilingualism and the plural, cosmopolitan standpoint of the founders of Souffles, along with their interest in diverse narrative formats, gave rise to a number of language experiments, creolizations and new literary forms in keeping with Eduard Glissant’s notion of the French language’s polyphony, the result of mixing and transcultural translation across the Black Atlantic and Mediterranean. As a Romance language, French also allowed its speakers to establish connections to anti-colonial intellectuals within Latin America, to radical movements in other French post-colonies and to the intellectual network centered around the Parisian publisher Francois Maspero.

Souffles was an interdisciplinary organ, a virtual meeting place for critical intellectuals from North Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe. It is precisely the diversity of voices, disciplines and transnational contexts that found their place in Souffles which allows us today to glean valuable insights into the short century of decolonization from its pages. The diversity of articles, manifestos and interviews help contemporary readers understand the epistemic violence of European colonialism, and the attempts of North African artists and poets to overcome this violence by redefining and radicalizing their aesthetic project, expanding the scope for political action through cultural production and interdisciplinary projects. Souffles is still regarded as one of the most influential Moroccan literary magazines of the twentieth century. While I endorse this assessment, it does omit sufficient appreciation of the magazine’s transnational and interdisciplinary character. The magazine was one of the major proving grounds for defining new concepts of radical aesthetics in the era of decolonization, constantly negotiating the limit between imposed and reinvented traditions. Whether its national setting (Morocco) and orientation toward literature suffices to cover and describe the entirety of Souffles’ scope of activities was one of the main concerns of this article. Rereading Souffles today, one can equally call the publication an internationalist, Pan-Arabian, Pan-African and Tricontinental magazine of critical culture, shaped by Maghreb, European and Creole writers, as well as visual artists, designers and activists. What unfolded in its 24 issues trace global debates on postcolonial culture, politics and resistance struggles throughout the world.28 A purely national focus, or a focus on some writers to the exclusion of others, would limit appreciation of the magazine’s polyphony, as well as its transnational and transcultural approach. It would also disregard the magazine’s socio-political relevance, the factor that eventually led to it being banned.

10.

The visual artist’s critique of binary conceptions of culture as consisting of a choice between applied and non-applied arts is reflected in a second binary abundantly evident in Western academia—that is, the division between theory and praxis that has structured the sciences and, in particular, in ethnology. Structured distinctions between occidental and oriental, between high and low, between modern and primitive are binary constructions that were also expressed in and reinforced by the experience of colonial governance in the nineteenth and twentieth century. A critique of these divisions, separations and hierarchies, if at times still rudimentary, is evident within the various practices formulated by early twentieth century radical art movements. The nineteenth-century division between the art academy and the applied art school had been in question since the early avant-gardes and even more so in the years of revolution spanning 1917 to 1919. In Russia this political ferment was expressed in Constructivism and Proletkult; in Germany, the Arbeiterrat der Künste (Workers Council for the Arts), the November Group and the Bauhaus curriculum. This is, as the Souffles magazine’s contributions make clear, a history not only of transcultural exchange but of radical leftist cultural producers from different parts of the world searching for a new aesthetic, and opposing with their artistic energies the predations of capitalism and colonialism.

After World War Two, the disciplines of art, design, and architecture were not questioned on an institutional level in Europe and the United States. But in Morocco, the group of Souffles artists and writers were reworking these radical concepts out of necessity, creating an alternate genealogy of critical art production.29 The covers of Souffles and Melehi’s poster graphics clearly reflect this process. Likewise, collage techniques employed by the contributing poets echo the proposals put forward previously by early twentieth century revolutionary writers. The relationship between the arts and art’s social function as such had been debated in the magazine, with artists, writers and critics each calling into question the exceptional role of the twentieth century artist in capitalist societies as a producer of works for contemplation. It was during the early modernist movement that, through the reform of arts education, architectural discourses such as those of the Neues Bauen (New Building) movement became a focal point for the integration of the arts throughout the building process. From cutlery to interior design to furniture-making to the built structure itself, the artist had become an architect and designer, charged with creating new living environments where art would be integrated into the everyday.30 It is the modernist idea of the artist as bound to a building or production process that the writers and collaborators of Souffles embraced but also left behind. Theirs was not yet another turn toward integration and synthesis into one art form (the search for a Gesamtkunstwerk) but rather an investigation of radical plurality and polyphony beyond the Western episteme of art. The variety of practices emphasized by the Souffles generation and those that followed aimed to liberate culture from the burden of colonial epistemology as well as the threat that the use-value of arts might become part of a state program or tool of governance. Instead, they staked out an inter-arts practice that could become part of a project of radical independence in the most expansive meaning of the word.

Conclusion

The positions gathered in Souffles magazine thus allow for an understanding of postcolonial modernity as an antagonistic, multi-sited ground on which the invention of the future was negotiated through decontextualization and detournement; through processes of transnational translation, radical refusal of colonial heritage, creative adaptations of pre-existing concepts and many other forms of strategic and tactical border-crossing. The search for a radical aesthetic that might serve as the ground for developing a new society can be described, inter alia, as the problem of creating a post-subaltern subjectivity. Their work not only allows for a conceptual renewal of postcolonial aesthetics, but also provides several practical models for considering the globalized world as a web of multi-centered alliances and oppositions in which national borders are far from the only determinate aspect.

But rather than promoting a simple belief in progressive improvement, the overcoming of domination and the use of art as a direct means for achieving this aim—all philosophical presuppositions of the various modernist programs inherited by social actors in the 1960s—today’s theoretical approaches provide us with a simultaneously renewed and fragmented understanding of the political dimension of the aesthetic, one residing in the permanent renewal of negotiable frontiers of human experience. Jacques Rancière’s understanding of aesthetics as the field in which the “partition of the sensible” is constantly renegotiated allows for a contemporary critique of modernist assumptions about where the political is inscribed within the aesthetic, without this conflation succumbing to the totalizing ambitions of the various discourses of modernism. On the other hand, Rancière and many other poststructuralist critics have not sufficiently developed a sensitivity to non-European currents in aesthetic renewal, remaining largely Eurocentric in their approaches. The transnational perspectives on modernism expressed and acted out in Souffles, and the tremendous impact that Tricontinental and Third-World alliances had in the 1960s and 1970s, are a central component within this contemporary correction of these outdated assumptions.

Cover of Souffles No. 20/21, 1971, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

Cover of Souffles No. 22, 1971, Courtesy of Abdellatif Laâbi.

●Footnotes
  • 1 Souffles was digitalized in 1998 by the City University of New York, USA and since 2010 is accessible at the National Library of the Kingdom of Morocco. A review of its history was recently provided by the French-Moroccan literary scholar and journalist Kenza Sefrioui in the framework of her doctoral thesis, as well as a new English language anthology of Souffles poetry and articles translated and edited by Olivia Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio. Articles by the Rome-based art historian Toni Maraini in the periodical Springerin as well as the online journal Red Threat have contributed to familiarizing newer institutions with Souffles. These include Bidoun magazine, the South African project Chimurenga, the library of SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin-Wedding and the l’appartmenet 22 art space in Rabat, as well as projects in Paris and Zurich such as Action! painting/publishing and Ästhetik der Dekolonisierung. See: http://www.leslaboratoires.org/en/projet/architectures-de-la-decolonisation/architectures-de-la-decolonisation (05/1/2016), https://www.zhdk.ch/index.php?id=73291 (05/1/2016).
  • 2 Conversation with Abdellatif and Jocelyne Laâbi in Paris in 2015, conducted by the author in collaboration with Oliver Hadouchi, in French, translated to English by Kate McHugh Stevenson. An edited version is published with a video excerpt by CPKC Berlin (Peter Spillmann) at: www.Tricontinentale.net
  • 3 See: Albert Memmi: The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957), Introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, afterword by Susan Gilson Miller (translated by Howard Greenfeld), Beacon Press, Boston 1991. The first issues of Souffles stresses these crucial intergenerational connections to writers such as Driss Chraibi, Albert Memmi and Franz Fanon, each of whom laid the groundwork for new local and postcolonial forms of writing.
  • 4 See footnote 2.
  • 5 In the article “La littérature marocaine de langue française” (French Moroccan Literature), the literary scholar Marc Gontard, citing Khair-Eddine, characterizes the writers associated with Souffles as “violently eloquent.” This “aesthetic of violence” directed against the colonial heritage is both a curse and a space of potentiality for the young Souffles poets. See: Marc Gontard: Violence du texte. Etudes sur la littérature marocaine de langue française (Violent Texts. Studies in French Moroccan Literature), L’Harmattan, Paris 1981, p. 36.
  • 6 Citing Édouard Glissant’s concept of creolization (créolité) in this context does not mean simply to compare Caribbean literature to the North African postcolonial condition. It also references Glissant´s idea that including different language trajectories and migratory dialects intervenes in and creates a new Francophonie beyond French literature. The créolité movement critiqued the dominance of Parisian French as the language of Caribbean culture and literature, favoring the use of West Indian Creole in cultural and academic contexts. Glissant stressed that a Caribbean identity came not only from the heritage of ex-slaves, but was equally influenced by indigenous Caribbean peoples, European colonialists as well as their East Indian and Chinese servants. See: Paul Gilroy: The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 1993, p. 67.
  • 7 See footnote 2.
  • 8 Toni Maraini: “Black Sun of Renewal,” in: Red Thread, No. 2, 2010, http://www.red-thread.org/en/article.asp?a=41 (22 June 2018).
  • 9 Excerpt from an Interview held with Christopher Schäfer and Abdellatif Laâbi: “The Abdellatif Laâbi Interview,” Quarterly Conversation, No. 32, Summer 2013, http://quarterlyconversation.com/the-abdellatif-laabi-interview (22 June 2018).
  • 10 See footnote 2.
  • 11 Katarzyna Pieprzak: Imagined Museums: Art and Modernity in Postcolonial Morocco, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2010; Marion von Osten: “In Colonial Modern Worlds,” in: Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past Rebellions for the Future, ed. by Tom Avermaete, Serhat Karakayali and Marion von Osten, Black Dog, London 2010, p. 18; and Janet Abu-Lughod: Rabat: Urban Apartheid in Morocco, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1980, p. 56.
  • 12 See: Marion von Osten: “Architecture without Architects—Another Anarchist Approach,” in: e-flux journal 6, May 2009, www.e-flux.com/journal/06/61401/architecture-without-architects-another-anarchist-approach/ (22 June 2018).
  • 13 It is important to note that inter-colonial relations also had consequences for resistance against the colonial powers. In the anti-colonial wars, Moroccan soldiers sent to Viet Nam as part of the French occupation force started to support the independence movement lead by Hồ Chí Minh—as evident in the famous battle at Điện Biên Phủ in 1954.
  • 14 This movement towards the vernacular was also created through influential exhibitions like: Mostra Di Architettura Spontanea by Giancarlo de Carlo in Milan 1951, or This Is Tomorrow with the involvement of Alison and Peter Smithson at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, or the famous show Architecture Without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky at the MoMa in New York in 1964. See for example: Felicity D. Scott: Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs, in: Critical Spatial Practice 7, Sternberg Press, Berlin 2016, or the webproject: www.transculturalmodernism.org (22 June 2018).
  • 15 See footnote 2.
  • 16 On the back cover, the word "Souffles" was written in Arabic as “anfâs,” meaning breeze or breath.
  • 17 Please see: Hamid Irbouh: Art in the Service of Colonialism: French Art Education in Morocco, 1912–1956, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd., London 2005.
  • 18 Farid Belkahia: “Questionnaire," in: Souffles, No. 7/8, 1967, pp. 25–31, here p. 29, archived by National Library of the Kingdom of Morocco, bnm.bnrm.ma:86/pdf.aspx?IDc=459.
  • 19 This form of knowledge production did not start with the French protectorate, but is constitutive for the colonial project as such. See: Benjamin Roger: Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa. 1880–1930, University of California, Berkeley 2003).
  • 20 This critique can be found in Kader Attia’s work on Berber jewelry, but he brings it a step further as by going beyond the notion of craft as an essential form of culture, reading it instead in terms of objects articulating power relations and transcultural contacts; a critique shared by Abdellatif Laâbi, who voices similar ideas in his introduction to “Art Plastique,” special issue, Souffles, No. 7/8, 1967, p. 3.
  • 21 Abdelatif Laâbi: "The Waste: On releasing history," in: Souffles, No. 7/8, 1967, Translation by Kate McHugh-Stevenson in the frame of the research project Aesthetics of Decolonization (Karakayali, von Osten 2014–2016).
  • 22 As Gamal Abdel Nasser expressed before the conflict that was to become the Six-Day War: “It is about the rights of the Arabs from Palestine, as Israelis have tortured, expelled and taken their lands.”
  • 23 The OSPAAL (Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America) constituted from the 1957 Tricontinental Conference in Egypt. From its foundation until the mid-1980s, OSPAAL produced colored posters promoting its cause.
  • 24 See: David Kunzle: “Cuba’s Art of Solidarity,” in: Susan Martin (ed.): Decade of Protest: Political Posters from the United States, Viet Nam, Cuba, 1965–1975, Smart Art, Santa Monica, CA 1996, pp. 145–156.
  • 25 The term “Third Cinema” was created by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in their famous manifesto Hacia un tercer cine (Toward a Third Cinema), written in the late 1960s. Third Cinema was proposed as a militant cultural practice operating parallel to the anticolonial and revolutionary struggles of the 1960s. In 1969 Solanas and Getino published their manifesto in the Tricontinental magazine, which had an enormous impact throughout the developed and developing world.
  • 26 Gwen Allen: Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  • 27 The condition of simultaneously speaking two or three languages is not only the result of European colonialism, but also owes a debt to Morocco’s multilingualism and the entangled histories of the Mediterranean region as a whole. Since achieving independence from France in 1956, Morocco’s official spoken language has been Arabic, or more precisely, the Maghreb-Arabic dialect of Darija. The Berber dynasties and the Moorish-Andalusian culture shaped the history and language of the country, as did the arrival of Arabic nomad tribes in the Middle Ages. Since the new constitution was passed in 2011—the result of the reform movement of February 20 (in the context of the Arab Spring)—the Berber language Tamazight and other local Berber languages are now officially spoken. This multilingual condition is an expression of diverse historical power relations, and is also due to Morocco’s geographical role as the south-western gateway to the Mediterranean region and the north-western Atlantic border of Africa.
  • 28 This discussion refers as well to recent studies from the Anglophone context relating to the Tricontinental or Pan-African dimensions of Souffles. Please see: Clare Davies: “Decolonizing Culture: Third World, Moroccan, and Arab Art in Souffles/Anfas, 1966–1972,” in: Annett Busch and Anselm Franke (ed.): After Year Zero. Geographies of Collaboration, co-produced by the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin 2015, pp. 84–109. As well as: Olivia C Harrison: "Cross-Colonial Poetics: Souffles-Anfas and the Figure of Palestine," in: The Journal of the Modern Language Association of America. Vol. 128, No. 2, March 2013, pp. 353–369.
  • 29 As expressed in conversations with Toni Maraini and Abdellatif Laâbi between 2016–2017.
  • 30 Concern with the utility of the arts was also a major point of theoretical and artistic investigation in the Brazilian radical art scene of the 1950s and 1960s. In his article, “Notes on Industrial Design,” Rogerio Duarte expressed that the ideas of use present in Western ideas like those of the Bauhaus were in Brazil freed from the idea of object and commodity production by artists like Lygia Clarke or Helio Oticica. Rogerio Duarte also collaborated with Lina Bo Bardi and Glauber Rocha in their projects in Salvadore Bahia, in the North East of Brazil, and also embraced a larger socio-political understanding of Gestaltung. The text was published on the occasion of the Protikus exhibition in Frankfurt of Rogerio Duarte in 2017, in Marginalia 1, pp. 201–206.
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