12.03.23 // Interview by Raffael Merawi
Edit by Hasan Gündogan
Anuar Khalifi is an artist living between Barcelona and Tangier. He creates detailed and vibrant paintings that spark critical discourse and address a variety of topics including identity, duality, diaspora, orientalism, colonialism, extremism, and modern consumerist society. In our first-ever gAze interview, 18-year-old reporter Raffael Merawi talks to him about his upbringing between Spain and Morocco, his affinity for football jerseys, and how he uses symbolism in his work.
Hey Anuar, the first time I came across your work I was 17 years old and at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Christie‘s Paris in 2021. I really empathized with “The Wounded Raver”. For me, “The Wounded Raver” was a perfect reflection of Arsenal‘s terrible 2020-2021 season but still being supported by their loyal fans. Like Arsenal legend Dennis Bergkamp once said “When you start supporting a football club, you don't support it because of the trophies, or a player, or history, you support it because you found yourself somewhere there, found a place where you belong.”
After checking out your earlier work I noticed that this was not your only work that contains a football reference. In „Istiqama“, for example, we see a man in an Inter Milan jersey standing on his boat in the sea, facing roses lying in front of him.
Which leads me to my first question, what motivated you to involve football in your work and do you follow football in your free time?
I used to love football in my youth, as every child that was raised in Spain.
It was an important thing when I was growing up, and I could say that I was a Barcelona supporter. I’ve lost interest, but I still keep track of the league and watch big competitions. But I consider it part of the common culture and I use it in my paintings as a time reference for when the painting was done and the cultural moment.
The t-shirts are used as an identity sign. However I don’t like the advertising on them, the advertising on them seems very aggressive and it puzzles me that people wear them. It also seems very contradictory to see images of refugees and immigrants arriving in Europe wearing football t-shirts and I use that symbolism in my paintings in an attempt to change the meaning.
Does color also play a role there?
For example, in the painting that you mention, Istiqama, I used the Inter the Milan jersey because the colors suited the nocturnal atmosphere of the painting, despite the fact that some people would argue against the use of black and navy, and because I could change the spelling of the advertising - keeping the general look - to Forever instead of Pirelli.
Football jerseys are also interesting to exemplify how humans use colors, for example as in the football jerseys or flags, to identify and love some of them and, sometimes, hate others.
Is there a team that you don't use?
I have never used a Real Madrid t-shirt in my paintings…
Haha, I kind of had a feeling that you would say that.
I sent some of your work to a friend of mine a few months ago, who loves football but has zero interest in art, and it really fascinated me how, because of the football references, he immediately started paying attention to your work and began dissecting the beauty it contained for himself.
Could you tell me where your desire comes from to connect past art history like Goyas Painting „The Injured Mason“ with symbols of the modern world for example by using people of color wearing football jerseys and tracksuits in „The Wounded Raver“ or „The Opening“ and why do you refer to those symbols as tricks?
Your friend, who does not like art, was intrigued by the fact that I used a football jersey in the painting, and that motivated him to look further into it and understand it for himself. That’s an example of why such a symbol can be used as a trick. And I’m glad that it had the effect that I intended.
I believe that art must point to a transcendental meaning and even material objects can have that effect, in this case, for example, the football jersey.
I use Goya’s painting to make something similar to a song-cover. I like to think that many of the characters I paint are emigrants from the modern world and have been expelled from it. Goya's original painting “The injured mason” is much taller than my painting to represent the fall from the scaffolding.
In the case of my painting, “The wounded raver” the painting is not as tall and the background is fully green to suggest that the fall, in this case, is internal.
How would you describe your upbringing and youth growing up between Tangier and Barca, and to what degree have these places shaped your view?
The interesting thing about growing up in two different cultures is always the journey between one and the other. But in my particular case, what you discover is that, if you do away with borders, there’s much similarity if you dig into each culture.
Tangiers is one of the entrance points to Africa from Europe and it is situated looking to it. But at the same time you can look at Europe from outside.
This journey is present in my work and in a way I didn’t need to embark on another physical journey, as many young people do, to find myself. In a way, it gave me an advantage over other people that have to leave their home and travel to find themselves, because this journey was a constant from a very early age. This was very stimulating, especially when I was a kid and growing up, because it aroused a lot of curiosity and to link me to my ancestors. In my childhood I spent a lot of time in the Medina of Fez but now I spend more time in Tangiers.
Did you have access to art or museums at a young age?
When I was growing up I read a lot of comics and watched cartoons, as most children did. Then movies and music. I only used to go to museums on school trips. I am from Lloret, a touristic town in the Costa Brava, and then you could really see the difference in people who came from different cultures, unlike now, where everything is more homogenous.
I began to develop an interest in museums when I was a teenager. How the art world functioned was a mystery to me and, as a self taught artist, to find my language and see myself represented was very difficult. But at the same time, it’s fascinating to discover this in my own culture and experience, which has led me to shed light and discover certain aspects of our experience that are veiled in the history of art.
Would you please tell us about your DJing past and how that influenced you - and if DJing gave you an unexpected perspective to culture in general? Are there any obsessions with certain sounds or tracks?
Djing is a kind of musical research. Music gives you access to different ways of thinking. It’s like having a constant connection to other artists. Djing is a curatorial endeavor, and it allows you to mix different expressions and see how it all plays together. Music is part of our human experience and is linked to feelings, thoughts, memories, ideas, political ideas, etc.
It has helped my development as a person and as an artist. Every vinyl that I own I could tell you when I bought it, how I was feeling, what was happening in my life at that particular moment.
I remember how I felt the first time I listened to it. I don’t really have an obsession with a particular music or tracks, but hip hop allowed me to develop self awareness and an identity when I was a teenager.
We want to collect a short list of influential books for our young readers in this series of interviews, so that we can inspire maybe some of them to pick those books up anywhere. Could you please name three books outside the field of art which have been informative to your practice? How are they translated in the paintings?
And furthermore what books would you recommend to the next generation of artists/creatives?
Three books that were informative to my practice - and my life - are the autobiography of Malcolm X, the Forest Passage, by Ernst Junger and The Book of Strangers, by Ian Dallas. They informed my world view and my paintings represent how I see the world. Though every piece of information that you come across, especially that which has an impact on you, will shape your thoughts and will impact your work.
A book that I have found and that I treasure, which has helped me understand my own art, is Sound of Eternity, a book by Oliver Potros about the painter Ivan Agueli. In my particular case, because it connected art with my own spiritual tradition and practice. He was a Swedish sufi, anarchist, painter and writer. He died in Barcelona.
Another book which I would really recommend is Sculpting in Time, by the film director Andrei Tarkovsky.
However, I believe that the more you read, inside and outside of your own field, will help you widen your view.
A lot of famous western artists such as Picasso - who also lived in Barcelona for a long time, have taken advantage of the aesthetic and uniqueness of African artifacts / sculptures.
For example, In „My black death“, artist Arthur Jafa writes about how Cubism is the direct transportation of spatial implications onto the practice of western painting since it became limited at some time. And that African artifacts provided an alternative system to order space and time. Picasso himself is quoted on how he used all of this as „inspiration“ and new skill…
Some of your paintings sometimes sort of feel like a counterattack to a lot of white artworks - even though, of course, they have their own beauty and meaning. Could you tell us your thoughts about this?
Every work of art is connected to other artworks and is in dialogue with them. What matters is if the use of aesthetics and ideas is accompanied by the true meaning of the context in which they were produced. I believe that meaning has to be experienced in order to be expressed through an artwork. The ability that someone of the diaspora, or what has been called the Global South, has is the capacity to understand different languages and symbolisms and adapt it to their own expression and meaning.
In my artistic practice I use veils and symbolism to hide meanings.
Those meanings are perfectly understandable for someone from the context where they are produced, but they might be cryptic for someone who is not familiar with them. So, in a way, I’m trying to hide things, to not reveal everything. In every conversation, if you express everything that you feel and know it might be used as a tool of control. But that does not mean that someone from a different background would not be able to relate to the painting and interpret them.
Lastly, what are you working on right now?
At the moment I’m at the final stages of preparing my next solo show at The Third Line, Dubai, which will open in April 2023.