Madiha Sebbani is an Arabic performance artist working in public space. She reacts on the restrictions of her culture in a peaceful way. This leads to intimate and yet powerful interactions.
What is your experience being a female artist in Morocco?
At the start it was very difficult, because the society gets confused. In Morocco we are not very conservative but also not very open. So, people are confused about why I am doing this as a female artist, but I use this confusion in my work. I try to capture the energy of the society and public spaces.
Do you experience any restrictions? How do you deal with them?
We have a lot of restrictions like administrations. I should ask permission every time I am using a camera and every time I am doing something in the public space. I should ask the police, the prefecture and sometimes even ministries. Last time I had to deal with the ministry of religious affairs because they own the space of the Medina of Fez. Fez is the oldest Medina of Morocco and is protected by UNESCO. The ministry told me that I could not film anything there or do a performance without permission. As usual I asked the prefecture to give me a paper that they agree with my actions, but the ministry still did not allow me to film it. So, there is this lack of knowledge that when you are performing you document it. Also, the problem is how to get dressed. I cannot be naked or half naked. So, I should be covered.
How does your family react to you being an artist and doing performance?
My family now accepts that I am doing performance. It’s not a problem anymore. But they were very afraid when I started to do performance in 2014. They told me to keep doing painting and sculpture, something that I cannot hurt myself with. I explained that painting and sculpture are just exercises of observation for me, now I choose my body as a medium to express myself with. I told them not to worry because I just transmit a message of serenity and peace. I’m not doing anything bad to the others. So, nobody will hurt me. I never got hurt during performance in public spaces. From time to time I get comments, but words are not hurting my body.
How do you relate to the traditional ideal of femininity in Moroccan culture?
I think somehow the traditions are part of the authority in Moroccan society. You can find very modern families but very traditional at the same time. It’s really weird. You don’t know the limits of a person, how far they are traditional and how far they are modern. They can dress very modern and go to bars etcetera but still have very traditional views. I use this in my work. For example, one time I was painting a traditional dress and I covered it with an army uniform because I presume that the authority, the regime, manifests through traditions. Also, I feel that traditions make the difference in my performances, because it pushes me to do research about all these elements, so that I can use them without creating problems.
Why do you perform in public space?
I choose public spaces to take art out of museums and galleries that are private. I do not need to invite people to come to my performance. They don’t know about it in advance so there is the element of surprise. They just go about their daily life and see art at the same time. So, there is an educational element to performing in public space.
How does the public react?
I get a lot of questions and comments. The public is now more involved in technology, so they take a lot of pictures to keep me as an image in their memory. Then they publish the pictures. So, the performance gets transmitted from the public space into social media, which is another public space. Now we are very far from each other in public spaces, but technology brings us closer. The way people react to performance in public spaces reminds me of the Agora. The Greeks used to discuss everything in the Agora.
Are you trying to provoke the public?
I am not into provocation or attracting attention. I research performance to stimulate thinking. When I use my body, I like it to be fluent with the space but at the same time create a small contrast that confuses others. I do this because when I am confused in front of an image or an icon, it makes me think. I might not accept a high contrast and go away with judgement. Using the body just to shock is not always good. It can reduce the thinking.
Why do you use meditation in your performances?
I think meditation is always present. When I am eating or walking, I can meditate as well. But when you are not in traditional meditation pose, nobody can see that you are meditating. So, I used the Zen position without the Buddhist hand gestures. I used meditation to bring the private space and public space together.
In the series Alterity you explore your identity through adding objects. Why do you use a veil to cover your face?
Normally women who practice religion hide their hair, but they show their faces. So, I did the opposite, I hidden my face and showed my hair. That makes the image all covered. Normally when you cover your hair it does not mean that you are covered. You hide something that isn’t important to hide but show other features. Hiding the face is a way to criticise this hypocrisy. I am also questioning the way that we are connected to each other and how we identify each other. I do not identify you by your hair, but by your face.
In Sensitive Without Target you are wearing a monumental garment that shows a bit of skin. Your shoulders and arms are uncovered and suggest a naked body underneath. Why did you choose to suggest nudity?
I was influenced by the Roman sculptures that showed women covered up. It was not a provocation because you cannot see my naked body, at the same time you know exactly how I look like underneath the drapery. This image was made in a phase where I did research on using the body in performance and photo.
What is the attitude toward female nudity in Morocco?
The only way to see female nudity is at the public Hammam. It is a public bath and everybody inside is naked, but there are only women aloud. It is a special moment because you can see them naked there but not anywhere else. Women are always hiding their body, but the energy of this space can change their mentality and acceptance. They can be naked in a Hammam but not in other public spaces. When I go to the beach I can be undressed but I cannot leave the beach like that. I must be dressed when I am on the street. The spaces limit us, but we are the same people.
Are there Moroccan female artists who use their body to challenge cultural norms?
Yes. For example, Sarah Trouche is a French artist of Moroccan descent. She is using her body most of the time, but she does this outside Morocco. Then there is Rim Battal who also uses her body. She is a journalist living in Paris. Somehow, they are secured to use their body in a way they would not do in Morocco.
How do you relate to other female artists?
I respect what other female artists are doing. We need more female artists in our society. For collaborations I look for artists that relate to my concepts. So, we have something to discuss.
I heard about your idea to let a woman sing the Islamic call to prayer. What would you like to achieve with this?
Since I was born I hear the call to prayer five times a day and it is always done by a man. Sometimes the men who do the call to prayer don’t have a nice voice, so you just want to cover your ears. It’s very disturbing. It is pollution of sounds in the public space. The voice must be nice because it calls people to do spiritual work. It should give people a nice feeling. I am very curious how a woman can impact the audience if she would do the call to prayer. I tried it with a recorder in my house and it felt marvellous because it adds another dimension. So, I started talking to Kees Wieringa, who is now in Qatar, about this project. We are thinking about including the piano and composing other melodies for the same lyrics.
What kind of reaction do you expect if a woman would sing the call to prayer?
I expect it to be 50/50. Half of the people would be against it, half of the people would have enough intellect to understand it. But I will do it in an intelligent way. Provocation would create a lot of publicity, but it does not mean that it is a good concept. So, I am looking for the right form, but the idea is there.
Would you call yourself a feminist based on what you are trying to achieve?
I am not a feminist. I’m just a female artist. If I was a man with the same mind, I would do the same performances. I do not create feminist work. I am sometimes against feminism and feminist activism because I think if we need more freedom we should just express more freedom without pushing others to accept it.
What is a reason for you to not identify as a feminist?
I don’t want to follow the trend. Everybody now wants to be a feminist because it allows them to be rude. I think that reflection and wisdom allow you to touch a lot of people regardless of them being male or female.