Modern times: A history of the world

MODERN TIMES, A history of a machine. 2010.

Arabian nights

The words in the artwork’s title are carefully chosen, Mounir Fatmi speaks to our sweetest childhood memories, with the humour and innocent actions of Charlie Chaplin. Modern Times, a movie released in 1936 came to address the dangers of new human ambitions of efficiency, power and financial growth. In contrast, Modern Times- A History of The Machine by Mounir Fatmi intimates a thousand different tales and one, of a man born in northern Morocco, an immigrant living between Paris, Lille and Tangier.

Charlie Chaplin’s movie portrays the story of a worker in a very large factory; where capitalistic philosophies take over humane ideologies. Charlie Chaplin is clearly a misfit, who is not adapting well and fast enough to the new working environment. He gets into trouble constantly, goes to jail and even gets swallowed by the big machine in hope of keeping it running and keeping his job. In this work, Mounir Fatmi wonders if, like Charlie Chaplin, we are not just letters swallowed by the machine of modernity. The gears seem unstoppable with no emergency EXIT.

The video installation by Mounir Fatmi is a cluster of rolling-element bearings, gears, or maybe clockworks. An overly complicated machine, that produces some sort of “lace” made of incomprehensible script writing. The machine is fed letters that hook on the bearings, taking different forms and calligraphic styles, generating barely distinguishable, illegible text, constantly turning in mesmerizing circles. The viewer is kept on their toes, however, with non-melodic industrial sounds creating a tension between a visually elegant, delicate piece and the unsettling, sometimes threatening, sounds.

Modern Times, A History of The Machine, was exhibited as part of the told, untold and retold, collection of the Mathaf Arab museum of Modern Art in 2011 in Doha, Qatar. The original installation also included saw blades in steel, in addition to the projected video and sound.

Most articles published online about the installation interpret the work to be speaking to the modernization of the Gulf countries in the recent decades. Cities emerged from deadly deserts, and the economic and ideological power of these new countries enabled the creation of influential media channels like Al Jazeera and support institutions that shape the region’s identity.

For the Western viewer, who is either an expat, someone on a business trip or simply fascinated by the screaming success of this state, the video is a testament to Doha, the Arabs finally getting off their camel backs and some hope for sophistication in the region.

The Middle Eastern viewer, a local weirdo, most likely attended an American or British university, understands the references to Charlie Chaplin, will go as far as identifying the different calligraphic styles, but is likely to be appalled at the sound track.

A Moroccan, or North African for that matter, viewer can certainly recognize the reference to Charlie Chaplin, knows it’s Arabic, might be able to name one calligraphic style, but is probably awkwardly standing in front of a compatriot’s work in a far off Gulf country, thinking why was this never shown back home?

Who’s who?

In one of his interviews, Mounir Fatmi speaks of the three objects he grew up with in the Tangier of his childhood. Calligraphy, an old copy of the Quran and a picture of the King Mohamed the 5th in the living room, whom he thought was a relative until he turned about 5 or 6 years old. 

These post-independence Moroccan items would work to unify the whole nation for the decades to come. 

Like millions of Moroccans who fled the regime of King, Hassan the Second, Mounir settled in France in the 90s, a particularly difficult time in Morocco. These years, called Lead years (les annees de plomb), where drought, state control, the Gulf war, economic stagnation, the rise of Islamism and civil war in neighbouring Algeria led to massive waves of immigration to Europe, Canada, the US and Israel (for Moroccan Jews). As a results, the artist constantly revisits the role of memory and language in shaping his identity as a Moroccan and goes as far as claiming: I do not have a mother tongue, I learnt Arabic and French at the same time.

Mounir Fatmi’s work addresses the fragmented, artificially reconstructed Moroccan identity post-independence. 

When Morocco obtained its independence, the school system established by the colonizer was French in the centre of the country, and Spanish in the North and South. The immediate reaction of many artists and intellectuals was to “decolonize” but they had no means of doing this, or expressing themselves in a non-existent mother tongue. This identity crisis will finally culminate in the 70s, years that saw the birth of Mounir Fatmi, at the same time as other Middle Eastern and African countries were grappling with similar issues. 

Although the Moroccan King at the time firmly decided to turn the country towards a Western capitalist economy, unlike the rest of the Arab world which was more pro-Soviets and communist. The language and lineage question remained open. Moroccans were left with two decolonization options, be part of Africa, or join the Arab states and fake to be an Arab nation.The latter was chosen for all sorts of political reasons, as random as the King being a direct descendant of the prophet (born in Saudi Arabia) and therefore, Moroccans should all embrace their Arab lineage. The king rushed to join the Arab League only two years after its independence in 1956, while it took over 60 years to join the African Union in 2017.

As Morocco discovers and invests in its new identity, the school system is entirely revamped in the very early 80s, changing the medium of instruction from French to Arabic. A language none of the teachers spoke, since they were all educated under the French system. With that all school books were replaced, and a new history was being told, children and parents found themselves with two clashing stories of their identity. 

Mounir Fatmi pushes further his bold statement adding: There is no Arab world posing the question of the Muslim world too. What is it? Where does it start? In the suburbs of Chicago as Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian-American scholar of Islam asks, or in Indonesia, largest Muslim country in the world, with more than 300 Million Muslims? Which suggests that the video speaks not only of the intricate Moroccan identity struggle, but also the rest of North-African and Middle Eastern identity questions, and the fury to construct an Arab-Muslim family.


In the early 2000s, a new wave of artists and identity emerged in Morocco claiming a Berber heritage, the indigenous culture of North Africa, the Gnawa culture inherited from  African slaves of the Muslim Empire in Morocco, and the Jewish legacy from the Sephardic communities (chased out of Spain by catholic kings). Belief systems ranging from the use of black magic to devotional dances and rituals in mausoleums were claimed back, discussed openly, celebrated in music festivals, and creatively inter-mixed with Muslim practices like Ramadan and daily prayer.

Today 60% of the Moroccan population still speaks one of the three Berber dialects at home, and over 90% speaks Darija, the mother tongue of Arab-Moroccan people. In 2011, Berber languages became constitutionally official languages of Morocco. TV programs, books, the news and magazines bloomed everywhere, in Berber and Darija languages, along side the existing Classical Arabic, French and Spanish programs. At the same time, the constitution was revised to ensure more civil rights for the people of fear of a crisis like that of neighbouring Tunisia. Arab leaders were falling one after the other and the ground for ISIS was being laid down including in Morocco.

Ironically, Morocco’s last two kings’ obsession with modernizing the country generated a feeling of divided selfhood in many Moroccans’ psyche, beautifully captured in a song by one of Morocco’s first and most celebrated Fusion bands, Hoba Hoba spiritBlad Skizo (schizophernic country).

In fine:

Mounir Fatmi was born in 1970 in Tangier, 15 years after Morocco obtained its independence. Prior to that, Tangier had a special status within Morocco. The city was part of The Tangier International Zone under the joint administration of France, Spain, and the United Kingdom and later Portugal, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States. The international status of the city lasted from 1924 until its reintegration into independent Morocco in 1956.

Mounir Fatmi thus grew up in an ever more complex socio-political context than the rest of Morocco. The North is primarily inhabited by Rif Berbers, famously known for independentist uprisings against Hassan the 2nd (father of the current king). As a result, the entire region was neglected by the government for decades. Illegal marijuana agriculture, contraband, and human trafficking became the major sources of income in the region. On sunny days (most days), from Tangier’s beaches one can see the Spanish coast, only 14 km away. The European dream, and feelings of inadequacy in one’s own country, were even stronger in this region.

Modern Times- A History of The Machine, is a very astute representation of the Moroccan and Arab current identity. Despite great efforts in acknowledging indigenous culture, revising languages and offering curricula in schools, and TV programs, the dominant identity still remains very Arab-Muslim failing to disentangle the Muslimhood from the Arabhood. With continuous investment from Europe and the outrageously rich Gulf countries, it is even more difficult to extract oneself from the influence of these powers. The huge number of galleries that opened in the last two decades in the cities of Casablanca and Tangier (the only two cities with Fine Art schools) is only encouraging for as long as we chose to ignore that most of these spaces are ran by French, Spanish or wealthy Moroccan intelligentsia. 

Mounir Fatmi still “feels” suspiciously French in his approach and in the way he speaks of his work. Given the choice between Bedouin tent life or Paris, many artists arguably chose to identify with French intellectuals. This distance from the Arabic language and culture can be felt and reflected in his work. He was exhibited in France, Sweden and Japan before being in the Arab world and Morocco. His work has been several times censored in the Arab region, due to his very controversial choice of topics and play with visuals. Artists contemporary to Mounir Fatmi are many, Yto Berrada, based in New York, is a well established visual artist, also from Tangier. Chama Mechtaly is known for her Judeo-Amazigh art. Fadoua Berrada, Leila Feraouina and Lalla Essaydi are all highly acclaimed in Europe, their and Fatmi’s success is only possible now, thanks to a different view of the west on Morocco and Moroccan artists. Artists moved from privileged relations with high European administrators, such as Churchill teaching Glaoui to paint with a “white” view on his own country, to glorifying Naive Art with Chaibia, to upscaling, acclaiming and awarding Europe educated Moroccan Artists.

Another favourite by M. Fatmi
Brainteaser for moderate Muslim

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