Challenging art history’s categories through the work of mounir fatmi

Lilian Davies, Art Historian

Following the lectures, readings and discussions studied at the ARVIMM doctoral workshops of February 2018, and reflecting on the recent publication of a monograph on mounir fatmi, a contemporary Moroccan artist, the author seeks an appropriate methodology to address the artist’s work and to identify other artists and works to be included in a corpus of research. Transnational circuitry, as presented by scholar Beatrice Joyeux-Prunel, and a clearer definition of the contemporary as forwarded by Alexander Alberro, along with Wendy Shaw’s call for Art History to engage with Islam, and not to erase a complex term, tradition and discourse are key to the development of this research. Likewise, attention to the complexities of translation, both linguistic and art historical, particularly pertaining to orthography, is urgent for both critics and researchers, as the transnational circuitry, as opposed to a universalizing globality, is constructed and articulated.

Contrary to the artist’s practice, but consistent with standard English orthography, in my original essay for a recent monograph (Davies, Lillian, 2013. Suspect Language: Mounir Fatmi, Milan, Skira) on the work of mounir fatmi, I used a capital letter at the start of the artist’s first and last names. The artist’s studio, upon seeing the final proofs, changed the letter case of his name directly with the publishing house. At the time, I did not know the artist’s intention behind this alternative orthography and was not aware that the Arabic language does not make use of capital letters in the same way that most modern European languages do. I requested that the capital letters be reintroduced to the artist’s name, and the book went to print. The publication presented the artist’s work, primarily in video, sculpture and installation, beginning with his first works, realized in the late 1990s, addressing the position of the foreigner, icons of Western art history, and religious symbolism.

These (un)capitalized letters contain important questions about the research and writing of artist’s histories, inherent in Art History, particularly in regions outside of the field’s historic locus in European languages, cultures, and religions. To what degree should a critic or researcher act as a translator of language or concept in order to place a body of work in dialogue with existing art historical models? How can conventions of an artist’s mother-tongue, not to mention culture, religion and even faith, when reflected in an artist’s production, be situated? In fatmi’s case, it is, I realize now, important to emphasize the lower case letters that he has chosen to place at the start of his names when written with the Latin alphabet. This is the artist signaling, in a body of work that is political and provocative, the difference between the language of the artist’s childhood, an unending source of material for the artist’s work in sculpture, installation, and video, and today’s lingua franca of Art History — English — which perpetuates a certain hierarchy, not only between upper and lower case letters.

Shortly after publication, a review by Catherine Francblin that appeared in Artpress, noted that « the work of Fatmi demands, in order to be understood, to be presented in its globality and depth. Lillian Davies decided rather to comment on a series of propositions each with their own history and logic. » (Francblin, 2013: 101) Here, Francblin identifies a clear choice. One project, potentially met within the research and writing of a thesis, would be to present fatmi’s work in its « globality and depth. » But is the universalist scope of World History or Global Art History fully appropriate for an oeuvre like fatmi’s, one that is conceptually informed and plastically formed by the specificities of language, place and religion? Fatmi does not have a diploma from any art school – neither in his native Morocco or in Europe where he began working intermittently since the late 90s. The first time Fatmi saw the image of the Mona Lisa it was as a reproduction in carpet at the flea market of Tangiers. Rather than art history, in his work, Fatmi most often appropriates the objects and imagery popular visual culture, such as the plastic cases and spools of black ribbon of the VHS tapes that the local imams circulated during his adolescence. (See: Leave and Wait for Me, 2007 or Keeping Faith, 2007, for example.)

For this monograph, I had chosen to analyze a selection of works through the history and logic unique to each — a local approach, perhaps, as opposed to a global. But could a hybrid approach be developed, one that treats an artist’s production as autonomous, precise and complete, but nonetheless informed by the circuitry that links the work to other creative producers working with similar concerns in a shared geographical context? In other words, to borrow from Beatrice Joyeux-Prunel, Assistant Professor at Ecole Normale Supérieure, and her lecture « « Moderns » and « avant-gardes » versus « Classics » : a history of space more than time, » (« « Modernes » et « avant-gardes » versus « Classiques »: une histoire d’espace plus que de temps »),  the first at ARVIMM’s February 2018 doctoral workshops, the goal would be to articulate and map a « transnational » network. An approach to a sort of creative circuitry could also privilege a serious consideration of the dynamics of the contemporary. Connected in a transnational matrix, the intention and content of an artist’s work could resonate more strongly in a shared temporality and geography, than over the passage of time. Rather than seeking the « depth » of fatmi’s work in an historical, generational context, perhaps the aim should be to uncover the depth and complexity of the contemporary circuitry relevant to his work.

Not only did Joyeux-Prunel’s choice of vocabulary, « plumbing » and « connect the circuits », speak to the conceptual framework that fatmi explores in his work which addresses the dynamics of international trade and diplomacy, but also the very materials and formal strategies he engages with to realize his sculptures and installations. Formally, much of fatmi’s work is made of circuits. Since the late 1990s, he has produced sculptures, photographs and installations incorporating white coaxial antenna cables, connector cables, tangled circuits of unspooled VHS tapes, and links of hookah pipes. For example, his sculpture, Mondes Parallèles, 1999-2008, bundles lengths of white coaxial antenna cables with bands of colored tape. His more recent photographs from the series Evolution or Death, 2004-2014, as well as his sculptures, The Language, 2003-2009, Connections, 2006; The Three Books, 2006; and French Theory, 2010, feature yellow, green, red, black and white connection cables that link the pages of a wide range of philosophical and religious texts. For The Three Books, for instance, fatmi joins pages of the Koran and its translation in French with those of the New Testament in an electrifying proposal for research and dialogue. For the Xth Lyon Biennial, fatmi’s installation Ghosting, 2009 connected walls covered with the black plastic shells of VHS tapes and outdated Xerox machines with unspooled ribbons of film. Here, fatmi intentionally sabotaged the proposed circuit. Only the ghost of an image is possible. Later, fatmi played with the etymology[i] of the words for hashish smoker and assassin in the sculpture Assassins, 2011. First presented at Paris’s galerie Hussenot, the work forms a bright bouquet of colorful lengths of flexible hookah pipes. Fatmi also explains that the term “assassins” comes from the Arabic “Hashashin,” which means those who smoke hashish.

In my own research, I have been stuck trying to pinpoint just who composes the generation before fatmi’s, with the idea that fatmi’s work should be situated in regards to the modern. Should this « father » generation be composed only of male artists? Only of artists from Morocco? Only of Moroccan artists who have studied or exhibited in France? Only of artists who appropriate religion in their work? Having not received a formal education in Art history or fine arts, Fatmi’s oeuvre is perhaps more appropriately situated in regards to popular visual culture or media studies. The idea of a transnational circuitry opens the possibility of contextualizing fatmi’s work not just in terms of the fragile ideas of modernity and its influence on the contemporary, but rather in an active, transnational space. In his work, fatmi clearly occupies and addresses a transnational space. Works such as I Like America (Tribute to Jacques Derrida), 2007 (J’aime l’Amérique, hommage à Jacques Derrida), appropriates the red, white and blue stars and stripes of the American flag, and translates the country’s foreign policy into the form of disheveled heap of horse jumping poles. The work was exhibited in the heart of Paris, on the lawn of the Tuileries during Fiac art fair, in the autumn of 2010. In fatmi’s case, how might a critic or a researcher trace a creative, conceptual network within this transnational space? For an international art fair might rightly be considered a transnational space, operating through the expectations, desires and financial dictates of independent actors from around the world. Likewise, the transnational space is also summoned here by the artist’s interrogation of foreign policy, diplomatic maneouvers put in place by one government intended to impact the behavior of other governments. , altHow might this transnational space make a much more useful structure for the positioning of fatmi’s work than the debatable (hegemonic) chronology of modernism?

mounir fatmi, I Like America (Tribute to Jacques Derrida), 2007, painted jumping poles, ladders in metal, size may vary. Exhibition view from Tuileries, FIAC hors Les murs, 2010, Paris. Courtesy of the artist and Goodmand Gallery, Johannesburg.

Joyeux-Prunel observes, through a « distant historical analysis » (« analyse historique distante ») that for the French avant-gardists that she presented in her lecture, « the rupture was social and spatial or geopolitical before it was temporal » (« la rupture a été sociale et spatiale ou géopolitique avant d’être temporelle »). In this case, Joyeux-Prunel proposes that the researcher “discard temporal evaluations and move towards a spatial analysis (social, transnational and pictorial space)” (sortir des évaluations temporelles et passer à une analyse spatiale (espace social, espace transnational, espace pictural) (Joyeux-Prunel, 2018) In regards to research around fatmi, this methodology would mean letting go of the idea of constructing a generational chronology, identifying the modern to fatmi’s contemporary, for example, and instead positioning his work and writings in the transnational space of current (contemporary) sociological and geopolitical issues. And of course, attention to the pictorial space will require a clear definition of the actions of the art historian in regards to each of the artist’s works.

fatmi’s work is both part of the contemporary that is the shared moment that is now, as well as the conceptual contemporary as defined by Alexander Alberro. In his text « Periodising contemporary art », the contemporary hinges on the year 1989. Alberro identifies the years following as the period when a new historical period emerged. At this time, he notes the « collapse of Soviet Union », the arrival of the era of globalization, « full integration of electronic or digital culture » and the dawn of a « neoliberal hegemony ». Alberro’s proposal to « think contemporary » is primarily founded on « modes of focusing perception » established by modernist artworks. (Alberro, 2004 : 67). Fatmi’s very artistic project can be read as a mode of focusing perception, although not necessarily optical perception, as Alberro discusses, but an acute degree of political, sociological and religious perception.

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, paper collage, oil paint, glitter, polyester resin, map pins & elephant dung on linen, 243.8 x 182.9 cm © Chris Ofili

In a chronology specific to fatmi, 1989 corresponds to the time the artist arrived in Rome to study Fine Arts, although he was never formally enrolled and not earn a degree from an institution there. Alberro’s temporal definition of the contemporary is appropriate to fatmi’s personal development, and is also relevant to one of fatmi’s most important works, one that has largely remained invisible. In 1989, following the publication of the novel The Satanic Verses, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The author, or rather his digital double, features in fatmi’s Sleep-Al Naim, 2005-2012, a short, entirely virtual video that pictures the author asleep, gently snoring. The work has been censored, left unshown or pulled from exhibitions, by French institutions including the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Villa Tamaris, outside Toulon. This reduced visibility on the contemporary, transnational circuitry — a visual short circuit, perhaps — is another important element to address when considering the work of fatmi and others operating outside of the sanctioned lexicon of Art History, what is taught by leading academics and what is shown in major institutions. (We can all remember the uproar of former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani when Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996 was first displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999. The work is only now entering the permanent collection of the MOMA.) So in fact, Art History cannot only be about description, but about the complex social and political mechanisms that allow works to be visible or not.

During the last session of ARVIMM’s doctoral workshops, Alexandre Kazerouni, post-doctoral researcher in Political Science at ENS, forwarded the position that in Art History, we « start with the work of art, we start with description ». It was a strange moment to voice this idea, as the three days of ARVIMM workshops had highlighted the complex social, political and cultural systems that either enable or inhibit the very possibility of looking. In fatmi’s case the visibility of his work has been shaped as much by politics as by ignorance, as demonstrated in the IMA’s censorship of the digital video Sleep Al-Naim. Questions that must be asked in considering his work and others’ in his transnational network, are : What is exhibited and where? What is censored, why, and by whom? And, further, what are his audiences conditioned to see? What are his audiences conditioned to look away from? Art History does not start with the act of description, but, in fact, with the opposing actions of exhibition and erasure. The definitions of Art History, as well as its modern and its contemporary, are shaped by choices made by actors in the field that can take the form of translations, edits, and censorship.

Younès Rahmoun, Markib-Manzil-Mawja (Boat-House-Wave), 2015, glass, wood, audio and video projection, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Imane Fares.

Following Joyeux-Prunel’s methodology of circulations helps to address the problem of selecting works from fatmi’s oeuvre and identifying artists that could be linked and compared with his work in a productive way. Joyeux-Prunel’s method also moves past the idea of a temporal contextualization, and rather towards a contemporary circuitry, bookended by Alberro’s (and fatmi’s and Rushdie’s) 1989. This makes the process of selecting artists that could plug into fatmi’s circuitry much more straightforward. With this approach it is not only possible, but necessary, to include in the corpus of research the work of Younès Rahmoun, who, embracing religious symbolism, like fatmi, reconfigures meaning and space. While fatmi positions himself as a skeptic, Rahmoun positions himself as a believer, an artist acting on faith. This is an important, and significant difference between the two artists, as faith reflects an inner devotion, that one grappling with the at times contradictory tenets of communal (hierarchical) organized religion does not necessarily share. However, both artists work between France and Morocco and like fatmi, Rahmoun appropriates the dynamics of the diaspora as the very subject of some of his works. For example, his sculptural installation Markib-Manzil-Mawja (Boat-House-Wave), 2015, is composed of an audio track, a video of ocean waves projected onto a low platform, and sculptural elements oriented toward Mecca, among them a low wooden platform and a small boat filled with broken glass. In his practice, Rahmoun often uses the image of a boat to represent a spiritual journey — a type of hijra, one might say.

Perhaps led astray by fatmi’s inclusion in Jean de Loisy’s Traces du Sacré exhibition at Centre Pompidou (2008), up until this point, I have been considering fatmi’s work in light of the sacred. In fact, it is not the sacred fatmi is working with, but religion: Islam. Here I am defining the sacred as the trigger for a popular belief system which operates on a personal and spiritual level, rather than on the level of a specific religious tradition, such as Islam. Conversations with other participants during the ARVIMM workshops helped me to realize this, and to understand the very real risk of essentialization and the need for a researcher of fatmi’s, as well as Rahmoun’s, work to call the subject by name and plunge into extensive research on Islam.

By the end of these workshops, the terms modern and contemporary came to seem more like containers. This status not only demands an answer to the question what might we put into these containers, but who built them, and how might they be adapted? Are works that deal with religion, for example, works directly referencing Islam, or in Rahmoun’s case, informed by his faith, right away thrown out of the available containers ? James Elkins, in his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (2004), seems to believe they are, and erroneously. As Wendy Shaw rightly points out, backing away from Islam in order to group artists in respect to a specific geography – a geography defined by the history of Islam, merely erases a complex term, tradition and discourse, while still clinging to the essentialist (Orientalist and Revivalist derived) stereotypes it implies most particularly for the Western viewer (Shaw, 2012). Perhaps Joyeux-Prunel’s circuitry could be expanded further then, to include not only transnational, social and pictorial space, but also religious space.

Especially now that I have started to learn Arabic, progressing though beginners’ courses at the Language Center at the Institut du Monde Arabe, able now to understand my mistake in capitalizing fatmi’s name, I regret insisting on the capital M and capital F in the artist’s first monograph. What would have been communicated differently if the artist’s name had been left in all lower case letters, the change that the artist’s studio assistant had introduced to the final proofs? What has been done by insisting on the bicameral form, aligning the orthography of the artist’s name with the letter case of English, one of the dominant languages of Art History?

In fact, just what is happening when an artist’s history is written? What happens when an artist’s practice is connected to the circuitry of Art History? Not only is there a risk of altering the style of an artist’s name, there is the larger risk of altering the intent of the work. But isn’t that what must happen to a certain degree when critics or art historians connect the « plumbing » or the « electrical circuits, » as Joyeux-Prunel puts it? A device must have a compatible AC (alternating current) voltage in order to plug into a circuit; the plumbing joints need to fit. The art historical network must be adjusted and, potentially, the vocabulary and style used to name and describe each artist, each work. Maybe there is not a right way to make Art History, but a better way, a more transparent way, one that accounts for translation, transnational circuitry, and letter case.


[i] The French word « assassins » comes from the Arabic « hashashin », which means those who smoke hashish.


Alberro, Alexander, « Periodising contemporary art », in Kocur, Z. and Leung, S. (eds), Theory in Contemporary Art since 1983, Malden, MA, Blackwell, 2005.

Davies, Lillian, Suspect Language: Mounir Fatmi, Milan, Skira, 2013.

Elkins, James, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, New York and London, Routledge, 2004.

Francblin, Catherine, « Mounir Fatmi. Suspect Language », artpress 399, Paris, 2013, p. 101.

Joyeux-Prunel, Béatrice. « ‘Moderneset ‘avant-gardes’ versus « Classiques » : une histoire d’espace plus que temps », communication at the occasion of the Ateliers Doctoraux of Arvimm, 12-14 février 2018, EHESS, Paris.

Shaw, Wendy, « The Islam in Islamic art history : secularism and public discourse », Journal of Art Historiography, n° 6, 2012, p. 1-34.


Lillian Davies is a writer and an art critic based in Paris.


Lillian Davies, « Challenging art history’s categories through the work of mounir fatmi », in : Perin Emel Yavuz, Alain Messaoudi, Silvia Naef, Fanny Gillet et Claudia Polledri (dir.), Dossier « Moderne et contemporain : usages historiographiques / Modern and contemporary: historiographical issues. Ateliers doctoraux 2018 », Carnet Hypothèses de l’ARVIMM [en ligne], Paris, ARVIMM, 2021. URL :


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Perin Yavuz (2021, 5 avril). Challenging art history’s categories through the work of mounir fatmi. ARVIMM. Consulté le 19 juin 2024, à l’adresse