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Artist of the week 169: Yto Barrada

A Tangier-based photographer and video artist who charts the struggles going on behind the scenes in tourist mecca Morocco

Morocco's mystique is synonymous with its famous fans: William Burroughs and the beats in the 1950s, who hung out in Tangier when the city was an international zone, and the Rolling Stones, who went seeking thrills in Marrakech a generation later. It's the go-to place to get inspired and indulge in druggy dalliances – or at least that's the view from Europe. The Tangier-based artist Yto Barrada's photos, films and sculptures give us a different picture – of the struggles of the people who live there.

The photography Barrada made her name with in the early 2000s captures a Tangier tortured by dreams very different from those in Western tourist brochures. The port town lies on the Strait of Gibraltar, which divides Morocco from Europe. While the Moroccan government steps up its tourist industry, attracting westerners free to travel as they please, many thousands of Moroccan immigrants attempt to make the illegal and perilous journey across the Strait every year. The spectre of this boundary haunts Barrada's images.

A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project, started in 1998, is rife with dividing lines: muddy ditches slice across green fields, new builds spring up next to wastelands, kids jimmy holes in fences to play football and Ferris wheel spokes split the sky. While swimming pools gleam from tourist posters, new developments typically sit half-finished – the trappings of the developed world without the substance. People turn their backs or stare into the distance, lost in their desire for escape from a country defined by deprivation.

Barrada has an eye for showing everyday details that open up a mass of issues. That classic symbol of all things exotic, the palm tree, is the star of her works currently on show at Tate Modern. Actually a foreign import, palms turn out to be a point of controversy for Tangier's tourist industry in her film Beau Geste. Because of its protected status, a slender mop-haired tree is the only thing standing in the way of a Tangier landowner developing a scrappy patch of ground. To get around this, the tree has been hacked into in the hope that it will die naturally – so Barrada and her team set about patching it up with concrete to save it.

It's a futile gesture of conservation, tackling the power struggle around the growing city's precious vacant lots – a battle between locals, developers, plants and animals – with the absurdist charm of a Charlie Chaplin skit. That Barrada's concrete remedy will probably be ineffective is beside the point; rather, it's the small gesture of defiance in the face of relentless and thoughtless urbanisation that seems important.

Why we like her: Sporting half-blown lightbulbs and a scratched paint job, the metal palm tree Palm Sign might have been lifted from a rundown funfair. It speaks volumes about Tangier's ramshackle modernity.

Border control: Barrada originally studied political science before turning to art. The deciding moment came when she was living in Israel's West Bank and working on her thesis. To document how people negotiated roadblocks there she began using photography, and soon realised she wanted to tell the human stories beyond the facts and figures.

Where can I see her? I Decided Not to Save the World is at Tate Modern, London SE1, until 8 January 2012 © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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