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Mohamed El Mahdaoui: Fayd

His project at the gates of Tétouan’s medina: Performance, painting, and socially engaged practice.
By Bérénice Saliou | Oct 2009

"Fayd" means "overflow". This protean project is based on a series of performances that took place at the gates of Tétouan’s medina (traditional fortified city). When wandering through the Moroccan city between the 8th and the 14th of October, one might have encountered the young artist Mohamed El Mahdaoui sitting at one of the seven entrances to the medina, behind a quite unexpected device. A spherical jar, half-filled with water and alluding at the same time to fishbowls and crystal balls, is set up on a thin steel tripod. A transparent tube coming from underneath the jar leads to the hands of the artist, who activates a drip-drip system. The released water dribbles into a tiny argil pot already filled with ink. Soon, brown-coloured water overflows onto a circular cardboard surface about eighty centimetres wide and placed on the ground.

Each gate carries its own history that tells of the past of this unique medina, an architectural jewel on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Bab Okla, Bab Essaïda, Bab Sefli, Bab Mkaber, Bab Nouader, Bab Ettoute and Bab Erremouz have always had different functions that are poetically evoked in the work of Mohamed El Mahdaoui. The artist, who decided to perform at the seven gates of the medina over a period of seven days, that is, one gate per day, allotted to each gate a pot, whose size symbolises the importance of the gate in the 18th century, the golden age of Tétouan. He says, "The pots allude to the gates of the medina. Their sizes depend on an estimate of the number of people who used to cross these thresholds on an average day in the 18th century. They also hint at the various functions of the doors, because some of them used to be much busier than others. I wanted to symbolise the passage of people through the gates and the idea of unrelenting flows and increasing population by the releasing of drops. That is why each person crossing a door is represented by a drop of water."

If the performance’s principle remains the same in each place, the result is quite diverse, for the amount of water dropping in the pot depends on the number of people crossing the gate. Thus, at the end of the performance, the circle of cardboard shows a brown inked trace, due to water overflowing from the –receptacle, whose shape, contrast and wideness correspond to the very moment of the performance. When one asks the artist what the nature and the significance of his action is, he simply replies, "I am making a painting." Mahdaoui’s intervention sheds light on the temporality of the creation process and its connections with the everyday and the random. Meanwhile, it associates simple and traditional mediums such as cardboard, ink, argil and wood with contemporaneous connoted elements such as the drip-drip system and the glass bowl. An unexpected combination that sets up a parallel with the reality of Morocco, a country constantly negotiating between tradition and innovation.

With the Fayd project, El Mahdaoui poetically interweaves past considerations and current realities of Tétouan. The omnipresence of water directly refers to the city, whose name comes from Amazigh culture. Tétouan derives from "Tittawen" which means at the same time "eyes" and "springs" because the medina was built around the numerous springs that used to exist in the area. When one spring got totally surrounded by constructions, people moved on to other springs. Thus, it can be said that water has been the main architect of the city. The existence of the "sgundo", an antique underground system of water supply that used to provide water to the whole city, deepens the historic connections between the city and the vital element. However, today a significant part of the fortifications have disappeared, destroyed by the Spanish in the 20th century in order to link the old medina to the new Spanish area (Ensanche). The city dramatically expanded outside its walls and the medina is now considered a traditional quarter, drowned within the sprawling city. Replaced by a modern system of water supply, the "sgundo" no longer functions as a primary water source. With the Fayd project, Mahdaoui conceptually reintroduces the history of the city and its connections with water in the midst of urban evolution.

By performing at different times and in different places within the framework of a single project, Mahdaoui also underlines the discrepancies between Tétouan’s different areas. By so doing, he subtly roots his work in political considerations. For instance, because of the significance of Bab Okla (Okla Gate) during the 18th century, the artist used there one of his largest receptacles. Bab Okla is the oldest gate of the medina. It used to be the gate for foreign lands, since it is directly connected to the Mediterranean Sea less than a hundred kilometres away from the Strait of Gibraltar. Today, it remains one of the main gates of the medina: the city’s source of pride. It was entirely renovated a few years ago. Package tour buses park there and streams of tourists are welcomed by itinerant traders selling pastries, vegetables and live chickens. In such a popular place, El Mahdaoui’s calm performance dramatically contrasted with the surroundings. It caught the attention of numerous people who quickly gathered in a crowd and asked what the nature of this sophisticated installation was, as it recalled some scientific experimental instrument. But at Bab Mkaber, the performance turned out very differently. Bab Mkaber means "Cemetery Gate". When we follow the wall outside the medina, the concrete road abruptly stops and we have to cross the cemetery to reach this quite forgotten area, sadly famous for its social issues. There, if the presence of Mahdaoui among countryside women selling myrtle – traditionally used for flowering graves – obviously awakened people’s curiosity, they barely approached the artist, nor did they ask questions. In fact, the purpose of their visit in the cemetery surroundings was clearly devoted to reverence and meditation and their minds were hardly free for quite a challenging artistic installation. Able at the same time to catch the attention of people in extremely busy surroundings while respecting the intimacy of a rough and complex neighbourhood, Mahdaouis’ performance proves its accuracy. This project demonstrates a matured reflection on the context into which it is inscribed.

As a way to pursue his encounter with Tétouan’s population, Mahdaoui chose to show the traces of the series of performances in a traditional guesthouse of the medina (Riad Gasela). This decision reflects the artist’s interest in avoiding venues specifically devoted to art. It also refers to an idea of democratisation that consists in bringing art to the people instead of "bringing people to the art". This conception is particularly remarkable in the Moroccan context, where art, commonly associated with painting and sculpture, is often reserved to a cultivated elite. However, while these political considerations derive from Mahdaoui’s global position, showing the Fayd project in a traditional house of the medina is for him, first and foremost, an artistic necessity that can also refer to Kaprow’s famous formula: "Art as life".

Artworks are displayed from the internal courtyard (patio) to the rooms and the very exhibition can be seen as a multiplicity of overflows: art and everyday life are deeply intertwined, and the activity of the hotel continues without interruptions, people and artworks living together. The courtyard is vertically occupied by an installation made of a 1.40-meter-wide black receptacle into which water drops from the ceiling, about 8 meters above. On the first floor, four rooms located on two sides of the courtyard are occupied by artworks. This setup respects the principle of symmetry, fundamental in Muslim culture.

In one of the rooms are displayed the 7 circles of cardboard that show the ink traces engendered by the passage of the people underneath the gates. On small glass shelves situated below each circle are installed the corresponding argil receptacles. We can appreciate the variation of results that symbolises the different contexts in which the action took place: the size and the colour of the traces depending on both the size of the receptacle and the number of people crossing the gate while the artist was present, their shape generated by the inclination of the floor. The second room shows a short video realized by Mohamed Arejdal, a promising young artist who just graduated from Tétouan’s National Fine Art School. On the screen, the image focuses on an argil receptacle gradually filled with brown-coloured water. In the background we can distinguish the movements of passers-by, and the sound of the city’s life fills the room. On the opposite side of the house is a photographic documentary realised by the young photographer Khalid El Bastrioui and relating the series of performances. Finally, when we enter the last room, a pale light shines in the blackness, through a white and tiny octagonal shape incrusted in the floor and about 10 centimetres wide. We can hear the sound of a drop, recurrent in the entire project.

The Fayd exhibition is the logical consequence of the series of performances. It crystallizes many investigations into such things as the nature of elements created during a live artistic action and oscillates between artworks and documentations. It also sheds light on numerous issues at the core of context-responsive projects and the way they weave links with the population. The Fayd project by Mohamed El Mahdaoui can hardly be classified. It fluctuates between performance, painting, installation, video, documentary and socially engaged practice. This fluidity perfectly reflects the complexity of Tétouan, a city whose blurry borders and culture are the object of unrelenting negotiations every day.


Bérénice Saliou

French independent curator, lives in Marseille. As co-founder and Director of the Trankat Art Residency in Tétouan, she is heavily involved in Morocco.

Mohamed El Mahdaoui:

18 - 25 October 2009
Riad Gasela
26 Kait Ahmed Street

The Fayd project was conceived within the framework of the event Tétouan of the Seven Gates, organized by the nonprofit Moroccan organization Tétouan Asmir, in partnership with the French Institute Tangier-Tétouan and Tétouan’s National Fine Art School.


It is the first part of Trankat Street, an international artistic residency and context-responsive project planned for Tétouan in 2010.


Artistic director:

Bérénice Saliou



Younès Rahmoun

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