The work of Hamza Halloubi (Tangier, 1982; lives in Brussels) brings together both personal and historical narration, both the factual and the poetic, using video as a fluid medium. In his works, very complex topics, such as the friction between official history and subjective narrative, exile and the relationship between art and politics, are addressed from a personal point of view. On the occasion of his solo show at the Museum Hermann Nitsch, videos made at different times create a new picture that flows into one narration, revolving around formal and more thoughtful questions.
Alessandra Troncone: We currently find ourselves in Naples, where you spent a period of residency. I would like to ask you about your first impression of the city, and how it turned into an exhibition project for the Museum Hermann Nitsch.
Hamza Halloubi: I have been fascinated by the structure of the city of Naples, its “up and down”, its vertical landscape. When I have an idea for a project, there is always a formal question that comes first; here in Naples, I had this idea to make a vertical image. Walking through the city, I saw some people selling different kinds of stuff in the street. I am always interested in characters who are hidden in society. We do not know where they come from; we do not know where they are going. An image came to my mind: a man climbing stairs with his goods. It is a scene that emphasizes the singularity of the landscape, while it brings in questions about commodity, economy and immigration, as well as the idea of copies and fake things produced here. In my practice, I always start from a formal idea, and then it turns into a complex subject. The whole show at the Museum Hermann Nitsch will deal with issues related to static elements and movement, horizontality and verticality.
AT: You already addressed this idea of stairs and verticality in one of your most recent works, Naïma descendant un escalier (2017). How did this video come about?
HH: It also came from a formal idea: linking a vertical frame to the human body. All the references to art history came later: Nu descendant un escalier by Marcel Duchamp, Eadweard Muybridge and the famous painting by Gerhard Richter, where the artist’s wife is going down the stairs. It belongs to the tradition of European painting, a male vision of a naked woman. With Naïma descendant un escalier, I am dealing with this artistic tradition and confronting it with gender and identity issues. When the girl in my video appears in a public space, she is not a sensual body delivered to the gaze but rather an affirmation, a political and social presence in the public realm.
AT: Since we had our first studio visit in Amsterdam, I have been fascinated by the way you address very tough issues without putting them in the foreground. I think the formal idea you were talking about is crucial, but also the fact that you are bringing your personal experience to this process. I would like to ask you about the use of your voice in most of your works. Is it an attempt to make these stories more personal?
HH: There are many reasons why I use my voice in my work. The practical one is that I want to keep the video production very basic and simple. However, it is also related to language. There is my voice, but there is also a text that I wrote myself in a language that is not mine. It is French, but it is not proper French. Sometimes the poetry in my texts comes from the absence of total control of the language. I am using my voice, but it is not really personal, it is the voice of others that I bring to the foreground. In my view, “personal” has to do with subjectivity, not in terms of what I feel, but more in a sense of opposition to “truth” and “objectivity”. In my work, I always deal with this friction between the hidden, the peripheral and the official narrative.
AT: Migration is a topic that recurs in Letter to Aura (2012) and in To Leave (2011). In Letter to Aura there is the “strong, beautiful and violent” image of a wall, which becomes the starting point for a reflection on boundaries and the freedom to circulate, while leaving is always leaving something or someone, but there is also a kind of hope in it. Were these works inspired directly by your personal experience?
HH: All these videos were born from a kind of urgency. It was a personal thing, and there was the urgency to deal with that through art. It is not really related to the political situation. In both videos, I wanted to capture a feeling. In Letter to Aura, there is also this formal thing coming first. The idea was to shoot this wall at the end of the day, when the light changes, in Tangier. The border is right in front of your face, beyond the political and geographical situation. It somehow becomes a universal image, just as the movement of the camera in To Leave shows the tension between someone who is leaving and someone who is staying. I do not like to talk about these works in terms of migration, because they are more about human feelings and art history. They also question the position of the viewer in relation to the subject.
AT: What does it mean to you that the protagonist is your own brother?
HH: It means many things. However, for the viewer, he is just a character. When I shot the video, I was a student in Belgium and I was travelling back and forth from Brussels to Morocco. It was at the same time when the Arab Spring started. The young boy was sixteen and now he is twenty-three. I look at him and I think about how the political situation has changed during this time. I ask myself, how did he deal with that? How did he grow up? These all remain open questions.