With this exhibition, titled “The Sample Book,” Yto Barrada, born in Paris in 1971 and of Moroccan descent, presented a new body of work centered on Morocco’s textile industry—in particular, its tradition of using natural dyes. Barrada often investigates tourist-fueled economies of the region. Some works in the show were from her project “Faux Guide” (2015–), which is about the often-counterfeit fossil trade between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara.
In display cases were Barrada’s numerous handmade sample books, overflowing with hundreds of swatches of dyed fabric, arranged by brightness, shape, and other characteristics. Some books were open and some closed, their thickness highlighting the scope of the artist’s endeavor. More dye samples hung on the walls, along with other items Barrada has collected, including pieces of Moroccan embroidery from the early twentieth century showing different stitches. The combination of old and new emphasized how the country has long been defined by its tourist industry, with people producing crafts for visitors to procure as trophies of an idealized cultural tradition.
That Barrada’s mission in Vienna was to unseat this romanticized ideal and insist on a living reality became clear when entering a gallery in the basement of the Secession. Here, her samples of different natural dyes (some made from insects like the cochineal or the lac) were presented alongside a blackboard hung with several color swatches that visitors could move around. Physically arranging the swatches affirmed the sense that many classifying systems largely boil down to matters of aesthetics. This sense was further emphasized by a sampler of gridded lines demonstrating the colors produced when dyes overlap. However much sense this system might make at first glance, the arrangement remains a visual choice rather than revealing any lasting truth.
Another piece focuses on colored nougat, an often-seen item at Moroccan markets and the frequent subject of snapshots. Displayed in a museum vitrine, sculpted versions of nougat appear in six little towers, suggesting the ossification of the stereotype. The show ended in the Secession’s attic, where foam blocks wrapped in Moroccan-style fabric accompanied six photograms in different colors. The photograms relate to another element of the show. Hung as wallpaper in several places in the galleries were large sheets of paper used in drying printed textiles in Morocco. The imprints of the dyed fabric patterns on the paper echo those Barrada made by placing blocks and bricks on her photographic paper. This exhibition suggested that the artist’s goal in general is to learn about techniques from various cultures in order to create new artistic expressions from them, rather than to proffer an essentialist notion of cultural identity.