Muhcine Ennou, Untitled (2019).
Venue: TAC Eindhoven
SEA Foundation production
An abandoned shopping cart, hidden in the bushes of an urban park. An inflatable bounce castle in the shape of a church, resembling a candy pink dream that stands out against the blue sky. An inexplicable portrait of an orange chair on the beach. A window filled with raindrops, behind it the contours of three palm trees. The interplay of alienation and the familiar is an alternating constant and a narrative trigger in the work of Tilburg based photographer Muhcine Ennou.
The exhibition Belanden at TAC Eindhoven, supported by SEA Foundation, shows Ennou’s work from between 2016 and 2019. During this period, Muhcine Ennou found himself between two places: Morocco, where he was born and raised, and the Netherlands, where he lives and works since the end of 2019. In this timeframe, Ennou shot the series Sometimes Here, Sometimes There, in an attempt to capture the feeling of ‘home’. Using different cameras, ranging from analogue to the camera on his phone, Ennou found pleasure in looking at his environment with an observing eye. Always on the road and nowhere really landed, he struggled to bring the idea of identity and place together. That is why Ennou photographed everyday situations and places in which the boundaries between the recognisable and the unknown fade away.
“As a way of reconciliation, I wanted to take pictures of the places which held significance to me in both countries. A lot of the photographs came out of my memories of being a little boy, feeling lost around places where I grew up and where I used to play, and imagine scenarios. It was always about dreams and longing.”
Two American examples
Closely related to Ennou’s work, there are two American artists that come to mind. As a source of inspiration, Ennou mentions William Eggleston, a photographer mainly known for his pioneering work in colour photography, and Edward Hopper, who painted scenes pervaded by psychological tension and socially isolated figures. What makes these two American artists so interesting for the Moroccan-Dutch artist on a quest for a sense of belonging?
Colour taking the lead
One of the first things that stands out in Sometimes Here, Sometimes There, is Ennou’s emphasis on colour, light, shape and shadows. By accentuating these, Ennou photographs a reality that is reminiscent of film sets. Depending on the location (Morocco or the Netherlands), the colours differ from deep blue to bright orange and pink, and from the warm orange light of the south to the bright grey light of the north. These colours evoke a world discovered by photographers such as William Eggleston in the 1960s. Eggleston was one of the first photographers to experiment with colour photography as art. In a similar way to Ennou, Eggleston photographed everyday subjects that were part of the daily life of a U.S. citizen in the 1960s. Motels, petrol stations, dinners and cars, but also landscapes were given the characteristic vibrant tones from deep yellow to cyan.
The American Dream
The dinners, the highways and the cars in Eggleston’s work reflect the idea of the American Dream. Today, this dream still appeals to many of us, or as Judeo-Iraqi cultural critic Ella Shohat remarked in Babel and Babylon: Living and Thinking Diaspora (2010): “Anglo-American culture became a kind of third space for me, an imaginary homeland, which transcended my own two languages. But the phantasmatic space of “America” often associated with the Hollywood dream factory and the American Dream, was for me associated with the 1960s.” Muhcine Ennou was also caught by this dream: in 2015, he was invited by the U.S. Embassy in Rabat to follow a visual arts programme overseas. For him, it was a dream coming true, a confirmation of the glamour and the riches.
There is, however, also a downside to the dream life. A certain feeling of loneliness remains present in the work of Ennou, as it radiates a certain distance. The subjects of the series Sometimes Here, Sometimes There are often straightforward: buildings, vehicles, parks, chairs. They are occupied or lived in, but human presence is hard to find. The few people that are existent in Ennou’s work, seem to be deeply absorbed in their own thoughts and worlds. This minor human presence, together with the isolated objects and architecture, reinforces the feeling of loneliness and solitude even more. It is this cinematographic atmosphere that connects Ennou’s work with the work of Edward Hopper.
While Egglestone’s photography is straightforward American, Edward Hopper saw his paintings as more than a manifestation of the American aesthetic experience. They were the expression of his “inner experience”, as he described it. The figures in his work all seem to be alone in their thoughts; isolated beings in a world that demands financial, romantical and social success.
These figures are placed in places of transit: hotel rooms, road-side diners and late-night cafes. They seem to be continuously on the road, in the absence of a place where they can leave their fears behind. This again connects to the situation of Ennou, which translates directly to his work. As he was travelling between Morocco and The Netherlands, the buildings, vehicles, parks and chairs he photographed became anonymous and transient. They were memorised in the photos as objects of appreciation, wonder and observation.
Where do we land?
The two American artists connect to the different levels of observational awareness present in Muhcine Ennou’s work. William Eggleston’s colour photographs show us a dreamlike world in saturated hues, capturing colour as the protagonist in the social-economical play of the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. Ennou’s use of colour, light, shapes and shadows, endorse this leading role for formal aspects to tell a story. The slight alienation we feel however when looking at his pictures, are reflected in his inspiration found in Edward Hopper’s paintings.
The two early 20th century artists represent the feeling of being on the road, a detachment from a home. Similarly to these two artists, who portrayed anonymous diners and highways, Ennou also captured many unidentified situations and places, as he was moving around the world. As today’s world demands all kinds of success, there is a desire for a ‘home’, a place to land or to belong to. Muhcine Ennou shows us with Belanden, that even in uncertain times, one can find peace in showing acts of appreciation and observation, opening up the world as a place for contemplation and wonder.