Guest Voices : Candace LaRocca

Today’s guest post comes from Candace LaRocca, one of the docents at the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art and a great friend of the museum. During the years of preparation for Earth Matters, LaRocca has been involved in numerous aspects of the show, most notably helping to translate for our artists from Francophone Africa. In the following post, LaRocca gives a warm and personal account of her experience with working with two artists from Morocco, Hassan Echair and Younes Rahmoun.

From time to time, docents are asked to help out in other areas in which we have a special interest or skill.   I was asked if I could do a rough translation of the one-hour interviews that Karen Milbourne, curator of the Earth Matters exhibition, had taped with the artists Hassan Echair and Younes Rahmoun in Morocco.   I saw this opportunity as a “win/win” situation; it would allow me to brush up on my French at the same time that I would  get to know the artists’  work,  which would assist me in giving tours of Earth Matters!

By accepting this assignment I was able to become very familiar with their work.  The honor of transcribing Dr. Milbourne’s interview required listening to the audiotape a multitude of times!!!.  The benefit was that I felt that I actually was “on location” with her and the artists in Morocco!   I could hear birds chirping in the background during Echair’s interview, I could hear other conversations and work going on during Rahmoun’s interview, and these details made a powerful impression that transported me to Morocco and the artist’s studios. It was amazing to see how much they covered during their one-hour conversation: upon transcription, each interview would be about 14 typewritten pages!

While Echair was unable to come to Washington D.C. for the installation of his work, Anthony Stellaccio (the Earth Matters Project Manager) arranged for the installation of his work to be handled via “Skype,” another first-time opportunity for both me and the museum. We started at 8:00 AM.  The installation site was set up as a mini movie set.  I sat in a corner while the screen was focused on Echair’s work. I interpreted while he worked with our design team for the installation of “Ascension.”   I was quite relieved to see him smiling, drinking a cup of Moroccan mint tea and holding his little girl on his lap in his living room. It seemed such a nice family setting and so relaxed and charming. I shared with him that I was concerned for his personal well being since he had spoken so emotionally with Dr. Milbourne about his work and concerns.   His response was “Yes, my work is not a joy; but someone has to represent these people.”

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Gallery shot of Hassan Echair’s Ascension

Bamboo, quartz, cord, paint, installed at NMAfA in 2013

Photograph by Franko Khoury

I was able to meet Younès Rahmoun personally during the opening of the exhibition; he was equally kind and caring.   As soon as I introduced myself, he wanted to let me know that there was another French- speaking artist who might need some help.   I recalled that he and Dr. Milbourne had discussed the work of Wolfgang Laib during their interview and let Younès know that Laib’s Wax Room was on display at the Phillip’s Collection (a museum of Modern Art in DC).   He managed to see the work prior to his return home and commented that it was “awesome.”

As a docent, I now have the opportunity to add a personal perspective to my tours as a result of my meetings with these artists.  Both Echair and Rahmoun are very deeply involved in their work and committed to expressing the needs and concerns of the people they represent.

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Gallery shot of Younes Rahmoun’s Kemmoussa

Plastic bags and compressed nails, installed at NMAfA in 2013

Photograph by Franko Khoury

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Guest Voices: Chelsea Ellsworth

Today’s guest post comes from former NMAfA intern Chelsea Ellsworth. Having joined the NMAfA team at one of the busiest and most crucial times – during the install of the show – Ellsworth got a first hand view of all the work it took to execute this ambitious exhibition. One of the most ambitious pieces, perhaps, was Moroccan artist Hassan Echair’s site specific installation Ascension. Not only was it one of the most ambitious pieces, it was also the first artwork at NMAfA installed via skype, with the artists supervising the installation in DC all the way from Morocco. Below, Ellsworth gives us an account of some of her experiences with this work and with Earth Matters.

My name is Chelsea Ellsworth and I worked as an exhibits intern at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.  I helped the exhibits team to install the show Earth Matters from January to April and had the opportunity to work specifically with one artist in particular, Hassan Echair.  Hassan Echair created a piece entitled Ascension that was to be reproduced for this exhibition at NMAfA but, as he was located in Morocco, we had to prepare his piece for him remotely.

At the start of my internship, I was asked to source and purchase materials for Hassan to make this piece here at our museum.  As time went on, I was assigned additional projects in the preparation of this piece.  As I worked on these projects, I had many questions for Hassan that I sent via email.  Some of these were translated using an online translator but others were so complex that I sent them to some friends who spoke French so that they could translate them more accurately.  Despite the language gap and the physical distance, Hassan and I were able to communicate in order to prepare his piece for the exhibition.  Eventually, Hassan notified us that he would not be able to come and install the piece, leaving its completion to us.  As a result, I had the exciting opportunity to create and oversee this piece while working with the Exhibits installation team.

As the rest of the team was busy working on other aspects of this exhibition, I took responsibility for this piece and got to work preparing all of the components for assembly.  My supervisor, Kevin Etherton, and I worked together each day to assemble this piece and to prepare it to show to Hassan.

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Kevin Etherton and Chelseal Ellsworth installing Ascension

 

We continued to communicate via email with Hassan but we got to a point where photos and emails were no longer enough to get this piece completed.  We then scheduled a day when we could have a French translator and a Skype connection with Hassan in Morocco.

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Artist Hassan Echair supervises the installation of his work via skype

 

That day was very interesting as I was able to communicate with Hassan directly for the first time and see his reaction to what we had done with his design.  I was anxious to hear his feedback and worried that he would find something terribly wrong, but I was glad to hear that he loved the work we had done and was pleased with how his piece had turned out.  He gave us some minor alterations here and there and then sat down with me on Skype and demonstrated how to properly tie his bamboo poles together, something that would have been very difficult to figure out through email.

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Hassan Echair (b. 1964, Morocco)

Ascension, 2006, Bamboo, quartz, cord, paint

 

I loved working on this piece and I am glad to say that we completed Hassan’s piece and he was pleased with the results.  I loved having the opportunity to speak with Hassan and to see his reaction to our weeks of hard work and I am glad that we were able to create this fantastic work of art together.