On a small plastic chair in a street coffeeshop in Downtown Cairo, French-Moroccan artist Fatima Mazmouz leans in and laughs at the absurd irony of our situation. She has just finished explaining, with cautious revolution in her words, how men are taught to obsess over and control the female body and its expression, and how women need to resist. I, in turn, have just pointed out that she had lowered her voice so far I wasn’t sure if my recording was picking up anything anymore. Well, she admits, she doesn’t exactly want every man in the busy street hearing her. She laughs louder.
Mazmouz is a visual artist who was born in Casablanca in 1974 and, after her family moved to France within three months of her birth, was raised between her hometown and Paris. The resulting tension in her identity pushed her into art, first as an art historian and now a self-taught artist. She has been active for two decades, and in her tenure has shown her work everywhere from Casablanca and Marrakech to Paris, Madrid, and Liverpool, Australia. She was most recently in Cairo, exhibiting her work in the Goethe Institut, when I met up with her to discuss her work and where it comes from.
Your body, your gut, it has no space for nonsense. It’s direct, right to what matters. There’s no bullshit. That’s why my work is the way it is.
Her work itself is startling, eclectic, and unrelentingly blunt. Primarily self-portrait photography, Mazmouz’s work uses a heavy blend of humour and absurdity to hone the already razor-sharp-honesty of her camera lens pointed in. Influenced by the Dada art movement of 20th century Europe – which grew famous for its crude, gratuitously ugly work that was meant to unravel the cultural and political malaise of the time – Mazmouz’s art is full of heavily pregnant bellies, kitschy costumes, and everyday artefacts in surreal mise en scenes. At every turn, it forces the viewer to either snatch their eyes away, or stop and think.
Mazmouz’s art is full of heavily pregnant bellies, kitschy costumes... At every turn, it forces the viewer to either snatch their eyes away, or stop and think.
Her art, though compelling in its own right, is – as the Dada manifesto prescribes – not simply art for art’s sake. In the little pocket of resistance she had created for us in the male space of a coffeeshop in the middle of a Cairo street, Mazmouz explains that all of her work stems from a profoundly personal, political space. Every piece comes from her and is necessarily about her, and every piece is an attempt to resist the power relations that define her world: a system of misogyny, structures of postcolonialism, oppressive histories she has inherited, or the ailing memory of her society.
Super Oum En Verbe (Super Oum As Verb)
Mazmouz grew up spending half her life in Morocco, half in Paris, and perpetually an outsider in both. Always too Arab for her French society, never Arab or Moroccan enough for her family. Forced to make her own identity in these liminal spaces, Mazmouz describes it as a civil war inside her, made worse by the fact that these weren’t just different identities, but ones that were based in colonialism. There was no running from the power and violence that defined the relationship. Though she first tried to unweave this complex through academia as an art historian, she realised that the issue was visceral, too close for her to handle the distance that being an academic needed. And so, she ‘slipped’ into art, as she puts it. At some point, after years of taking photographs, she decided she had to turn the camera and point it in, at herself.
When I was pregnant, I felt like an animal.
And in so doing, she has taken every bit of her conflicting identities and the violence between them, and expressed it in the most powerful medium available to her: her own body. She created a central character that has become so ubiquitous in her work she has come to use it as a symbol: Super Oum. In knee-high, high-heeled leather boots, an ominous black ski mask, a strapless bikini that flaunts the body – specifically the heavily pregnant belly – Super Oum is a shocking figure. She seems to be a pastiche of a thousand and one stereotypes of ‘woman’ stringed together with their opposites; she is at once expectant mother, fighter, dominatrix, niqabi, and superhero.
Nature Morte (Still Life)
And again and again, in almost every configuration of her work, Mazmouz has returned to the image of pregnancy. Twice she herself has been pregnant, and in both cases has used her body as an artistic process and place of performance. However, in unpacking her first volume of work, trying herself to understand why the pregnant body held such significance, she realised that, after doing a whole book on pregnancy, there was a missing element. “There was no sense of motherhood in my photos,” she says. “No maternity. What I was seeing instead was a woman in conflict.”
Super Oum is a shocking figure. She seems to be a pastiche of a thousand and one stereotypes of ‘woman’ stringed together with their opposites; she is at once expectant mother, fighter, dominatrix, niqabi, and superhero.
By now, our corner of the busy street has gotten even busier. Chairs and makeshift plastic tables are crammed into tight, overlapping constellations. Right next to us, a man gets up suddenly, shaking my chair. Jostled, I choke on the tea I’ve been trying – up until that point – to sip gracefully. Embarrassed, trying to save face, I ask her to elaborate. Smiling, she points me to another of her work, Made in Mode Grossesse (Made in Pregnancy Mode), which features Mazmouz’s own pregnant body in a fashion show of outfits—from traditional Moroccan dress to Western lingerie—all of which do not fit over her pregnant belly.
Made in Mode Grossesse (Made in Pregnancy Mode)
“When I was pregnant,” she explains. “I felt like an animal. But I was still a woman, I thought, so I made this work and put every stereotype of the label ‘woman,’ the fashion that makes the identity of a woman. And the work became about the opposition between nature and culture.” As a pregnant woman, she had become only a natural body. “But we are only culture. Culture told you to sit like this, walk like this, drink like this, be this, act embarrassed when you choke. Your body is not natural.”
She has been censored in France. Twice.
The body she had always known – defined by culture – had disappeared, and instead she found herself living in another. Everything she wanted – from getting up in the morning to spending time with friends to lacing up her shoes – she needed to negotiate. Everything that had once been automatic was called into question, and her relationship to the world became one of distance and marginality. Listening to the authority of another, pushed away from the centre of things, feeling her body transform and lose control, Mazmouz described it as being “the body of a monster.”
Portrait d'Une Femme En Enceinte (Portrait of A Pregnant Woman)
As she worked through her pregnancy, she found that everything she was feeling at that moment was familiar to her. With her mind revolving, seemingly inexplicably, around the word ‘resistance’, she had an epiphany that the pregnant body, for her, was a mirror for the body of the immigrant. “That sense of marginality. The feeling of living somewhere alien. Because no one sees you as you are. You’re always under an othering gaze. Always living in another body. Always in the body of the monster.”
And so Super Oum – the boxer, born out of conflict – became the symbol of resistance in Mazmouz’s work. Her resistance is against, on the one hand, the power of misogyny that takes away the nature of her body, pregnant or not, and makes of her a culturally repressed being and, on the other, against the violence of governments such as France’s against different bodies. They try, Mazmouz explains, to place them in single identities, but doing so is mutilation, like you’re telling them to chop off their own limbs.
Listening to the authority of another, pushed away from the center of things, feeling her body transform and lose control, Mazmouz described [pregnancy] as being “the body of a monster.
An accompanying piece to the Super Oum collection is a 27-second video that features a heavily pregnant Mazmouz, dressed in her Super Oum garb, alone in a playground filled with children’s toys, with which she interacts in humorous and absurd ways.
“It’s the absurdity of the immigrant’s situation. As he is, we give him a place to play, to live, but there’s no exit. He can do things, eat, sleep, work, but at the end of the day it’s all absurd because it’s in a single confined space, like we’re giving him children’s toys. He’s not actually in society. We’re just sending him to a playground for a while. That’s the political territory of the immigrant. And that’s why the video is in such quick succession—there’s a life there, but it’s empty.”
Mères Culturelles (Cultural Mothers)
Over the 20 years that she has been active, Mazmouz has not let go of her place in either Arab or European culture. Understanding the humiliation, colonialism, discrimination, and exploitation that underlies the relationship, Mazmouz also does not deny it. And so she has been intentional about exhibiting her work both in Casablanca and Paris. Though the nature of her work – physical and blunt and centered on the female body as it is – has been undoubtedly received differently in both societies, in an odd twist of fate, it is not what I expected.
It’s the absurdity of the immigrant’s situation. As he is, we give him a place to play, to live, but there’s no exit.
Not once has Mazmouz been censored in Morocco. Even her exhibitions including images of her own full frontal nude, heavily pregnant figure—an image starkly against Arab notions of conservative motherhood, expectations of youthful and pure sexuality, and a million other oppressive beliefs and restrictive cultural images—she has always shown in Casablanca without issue. She has, however, been censored in France. Twice. At the last minute, galleries would pull out, citing her work as impossible to show. Though they would never say it out right, Mazmouz believes that she is doubly censored as an Arab woman. Her work flies in the face of phantasmagorical, exotic views of the Arab.
Mazmouz is all too aware of the startling quality to her work, as well as the alienating effect it can have on audiences. Not everyone wants to see the image of a fully nude woman, pregnant belly bulging ahead of her, in a power stance. But to every suggestion of subtlety, Mazmouz responds the same way, citing the physical origin of her work. “Your body, your gut, it has no space for nonsense. It’s direct, right to what matters. There’s no bullshit. That’s why my work is the way it is.” And the reason, she says, that not everyone can bear to even see her work, regardless of whether they actually like it, is that not everyone has healed from the traumas and complexes that society ingrains within us. What is proper, what is not, what is beautiful, what is not, what is an acceptable portrayal of a woman’s body, and what is absolutely not.
A Corps Rompu (A Broken Body)
And in every work, whether she is pregnant in a bikini, protruding out of a djellaba, superimposing uteruses on colonial-era postcards, or surrounding her pregnant belly with a tablecloth and everyday items to create a surreal mise en scène, Mazmouz is reclaiming the power of her own body. She has built a language around the female body, most recently with her work around the status of the witch in society. It is resistance, it is history, it is freedom.
A witch is a woman who has her own power and knows it.
“The single important thread in my work is personal freedom. I come from a Berber society, a matriarchal community. And I’ve learned that the most dangerous thing is actually, simply, a strong woman. Because that strength knows no limits; a truly free woman can move mountains. And the question is, simply, whether you’re in control of your body or not. And it’s dangerous if you are. That’s why the word ‘witch’ still comes up. A witch is a woman who has her own power and knows it.”
You can check out her work here.