When the Moroccan artist Hallima Imane Zoubai was a child, she used to play in the carpet factory that her aunts worked in. She sat by them as they worked, learning how to make knots and running her fingers through the threads. She was especially fascinated by the gridded carpet plans that her aunts followed, from which they transposed the abstract shapes of diamonds and triangles into woven textiles.
“I had the idea that the carpets were a musical image,” says Zoubai, who performed at an event in Liverpool last month. “And that they were a map of the landscape – of the mountains and the soil and the grain. I imagined the plans like a partition. The women were looking at them to guide the weaving, and the weaving itself was a kind of music.”
Zoubai left her home city, Fez, for art school in Tetouan, where she continued to question how sound might be pictured as a visual rhythm. She looked to Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee’s paintings inspired by the subject, particularly as the two modernist artists themselves travelled to North Africa and were influenced by its use of abstraction.
But she eventually realised she was looking for something that didn’t exist in their work. She was looking for music as a key to the land around her.
“Always, somewhere deep in myself, I could see a place or feel a person as I listened to music,” she says. “It makes music very important to me: the part that is related to memory, and especially a memory of spaces.
"For example, if I hear Yemeni music, I automatically think of the desert. There are so many gestures in the oud, in the poetry, that you feel that you are in an open space, where you might be looking for the shade, as the melody and rhythm come together.”
Zoubai, whose father was a musician, began researching music’s connection to the land in a literal sense: the way that many rural Moroccan songs, known as aita, originated from agricultural contexts, and how even love songs and hymns of celebration have strong nature metaphors.
Harvest songs punctuated the reaping of fruits and vegetables from the soil, buoying farmers’ spirits while they worked. Other songs were inspired by the movement or calls of animals. In cities, songs developed from the rhythm of craftsmen, such as that of leather workers beating their calfskin to make it smooth. These sources remain legible in the songs’ rhythm, gesture, and the lyrics, whether they are sung – as they still are – among the craftsmen of the inner medinas of old Moroccan towns or by professional singers at events or on the radio.
“I’m from the last generation that lived before the internet, so I heard these songs throughout my childhood – at celebrations or just going with my mother wherever she went and listening to the sounds in the crowd,” she says. “When we lose the traditional way of doing things, we lose the culture, we lose the music around it.”
Zoubai is now compiling an archive of the songs, while also performing them in art contexts, where she draws out the collectivity they inspire and their connection to the land.
Last year, she was commissioned by the Moroccan duo who collaborate as Awal (now Tizintizwa) to take part in Documenta, the prestigious art event that happens every five years in Kassel, Germany. There, in front of the Neoclassical Fridericianum museum and in a typical German square, she knelt and mimicked baking bread in the ground, just as children do when playing in the sand or soil, while singing about the reaping of grain (Is Our Bread Ready Yet?, 2022).
“I have recordings archived from my aunties and from my father singing me the agricultural songs, and I wanted to use them in the performance,” she says. “I use my voice and sing and embody this transmission. Every time like I'm making this bread with the soil and flour, I am singing what my parents and aunties taught me.”
Last month, she performed Transmission is a Bodily Circuit (2023) at a day of performances and workshops devoted to thinking through the earth from a postcolonial standpoint, organised at Fact Liverpool by the collective A.mal. There, she performed a dance inspired by the gait of a horse, rhythmically stamping her feet in imitation of the horse’s hooves. The audience, arrayed in front of her in a semi-circle, each clapped out the rhythm on the hands of the person to the right and left of to them, forming in a chain.
Zoubai pressed henna onto the palms of some of the audience members. The idea was for the henna to travel through the group, though in practice it only remained on a few hands. But her attempt at uniting the participants was successful – what henna didn’t do, imperfect rhythm did. After a few decent stretches of clapping in time, the audience was asked to stand and stamp their feet as well. It proved too much, and the group simply cheered and laughed together.
Zoubai used the performance to shed light on a feminine musical tradition particular to the north and west of Morocco – the women known as sheikhat, female singers who would leave their families to pursue a musical path. They occupy a complicated place in Moroccan society.
“Everyone loves sheikhat, until their daughter or sister wants to become one,” laughs Zoubai. “But they are like artists, and being an artist can be difficult.”
The idea of transmitting this knowledge from one person to the next mimicked the way that sheikhat would pass on their musical knowledge to younger women who also wanted to learn to sing.
Zoubai’s mixing of traditional Moroccan and contemporary art concerns also shows the legacy of the Casablanca Art School. In the 1960s, artists Farid Belkahia, Mohammed Chabaa, Mohamed Melehi and others rejected French teaching and looked instead, like Zoubai, to the art around them – from the copper and leather products sold in the souks to the geometric forms that appeared everywhere from carpets and architectural ornamentation to belt buckles and necklaces.
Sixty years on, Zoubai says her generation recognises the contribution of the Casablanca School, even if they are looking to original traditions in different ways. Most importantly, she says, the Casablanca School gave Moroccan artists a confidence that has helped them to navigate the art world’s late take-up of the Casablanca school concerns.
Today, in biennials and museums, European techniques such as oil painting and bronze sculpture have gone by the wayside. And craft forms, such as textiles and ceramics, and a mindset that values indigenous knowledge has triumphed.
“After the Casablanca group, we knew we were avant-garde,” says Zoubai. “We were already there. I read something in Souffles that really stuck with me: the fact that I didn’t have to draw a naked sculpture in art school or start all over again with the struggles and problematics of the Western art school.”
It gave her a freedom, she says, to study European modernism, because she knew those artists were not the only ones ever to try and picture rhythm.
“I said to myself, I will meet Kandinsky – but starting from my own culture."