A striking ceramics piece by Youness Atbane, The Undocumented Museum (Untitled Africa), recreates the map of Africa with Legos-inspired figures of three colors standing on a table, each representing one of the 54 countries in the continent. Standing above it are three figurines who face southward.
For Atbane, working in ceramics drew upon his family’s heritage in a pottery studio in Safi, a port city known for its ceramics artists. During school holidays, Atbane sculpted his own toy figurines made of clay. It was in Safi that he discovered that a potter could become a sculptor in his free time. “My great uncle was fascinated by the body,” Atbane wrote in an email. “He reproduced Greek or Roman statues that he saw in magazines. In a very direct way, his work broke the taboos of the Muslim tradition where body sculptures were proscribed.” Piled up in the storerooms, covered with fabric “to hide them from clients,” Atbane saw damaged and unfinished bodies. It was, he said, an undocumented museum.
As an African artist who divides his time between Casablanca and Berlin and who works in both the visual arts and performance, Youness has followed the debate on the restitution of African heritage from Western museums to their countries of origin. Statues, masks, sculptures and mummified bodies are works, he wrote, intimately related to the representation of the body. “They testify to the existence of ancient civilizations, history, and cultural practices indispensable to the building and recognition of nations.
The south-oriented statues in his installation seem ready to begin their return to their original lands. But this return is disputed by some institutions who argue that Africa does not yet have structures equipped to receive them. To Atbane, such an argument embodies “cultural domination hidden under the pretext of preservation.”