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Meriem Bennani wins EYE Art & Film Prize

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EYE PRIZE: MERIEM BENNANI

Meriem Bennani freely admits her delight at winning the Eye Art & Film Prize earlier this spring. "I am a young artist. I haven't had that many exhibitions and I've actually never won a prize," the artist (née 1988) tells Geoffrey Macnab. "I was extremely surprised, humbled and excited."

The Moroccan Bennani, now based in New York, will use the proceeds from the award (£25,000, donated by the Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor Arts Foundation) to underwrite her latest project. It's a science fiction piece which she started last year and which is set on an island in the future. Each neighbourhood is populated by people from a different African country. The first chapter focused on Morocco. Now, she will explore other African cultures.

Bennani is best known for her big studio video installations, often celebrating Muslim culture and satirising western attitudes toward it. They skilfully use elements from documentary, cartoons and reality TV. This is the not type of work that she can make on her own in a garret - and so the Eye prize money will be particularly useful.

Bennani returns often to Morocco and her work is clearly inspired by aspects of Islamic culture. She points out, though, that in an internet-connected world, national boundaries don't seem as significant as they once did.

Journalists always ask her how important social media is to her artistic practice. For Bennani, using digital elements and putting videos on Instagram is second nature. She doesn't use Instagram as much as she once did but points out that it's a useful tool for communicating. "I don't think it (social media) is even a subject that is interesting anymore," she declares.

Art critics rhapsodise about her work. Andrea Lissoni, Senior curator of International Art (Film) at the Tate Modern, first saw her work three years ago in galleries in New York and Los Angeles. "On both occasions, I was really blown away," he says, enthusing about her "freedom, her high level of commitment, the background, energy and keenness on developing intricate narratives."

Bennani uses absurdist humour in her work. "The humour has two aspects," she explains. On the one hand, it is just the way she expresses herself. She likes to make people laugh. On the other, she feels that humour frees audiences and enables them to connect in a less inhibited way with a piece which may be dealing with complex social and political ideas.

Yes, she says, as a Muslim woman in Trump's America, she can't help but notice the prejudices and hysteria in certain sections of the society. New York may be very open and welcoming for a young artist like herself but she sees the tensions elsewhere.

"I mostly suffer from it when it comes to my passport, when I have to travel places and get a visa," the artist says of the suspicion with which outsiders are treated in the US. "But when you say ‘Morocco,' they don't really go into the identity politics. For most people, it is more of a vacation spot!" She also adds: "I am an artist dealing with some of these issues but I don't walk around being a Muslim woman. Things are way more complicated in everyday life. I actually only think about that [her identity as a Muslim woman] when I am asked the question."

Like other artists specialising in video, Bennani exists in a space between fine art and cinema. She is a passionate fan of the work of Paul Thomas Anderson but cherishes the freedom that she has as an artist rather than as a filmmaker. "For me, it was really exciting to get the Eye prize (in Amsterdam). I went there and I saw the museum and its programme. I realised it was one of the only places I've ever seen where there is a complete intersection of art and cinema."

SEE NL Magazine #35 May 2019 / Cannes - Annecy Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by Eye International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.

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