FFive months ago, a fairly large envelope fell into the mailbox of Meriem Bennani’s lawyer. The New York-based Moroccan-born artist had obtained a green card and was now a legal permanent resident of the United States. “It’s weird,” she says over a glass of sparkling water in a bar near Nottingham Contemporary, the gallery where she is installing Life on the Caps, her new video exhibition. “Of course, I’m grateful. My whole life has been lived from visa to visa. She expresses ambivalence about her new home, before adding that she doesn’t want to focus too much on herself, “because, you know, I’m fine”.
This puts Bennani in dramatic contrast to the characters in Party on the Caps and Life on the Caps, his two half-hour videos set in a futuristic sci-fi detention camp called Caps (short for “capsule”) , located on an island in the middle of the Atlantic. In movies, teleportation has replaced air travel. Would-be illegal immigrants to the United States are intercepted as they attempt to zap across the Atlantic and interned in the camp, which has grown from an island compound to a sprawling migrant colony and Latin Quarter.
We’re introduced to camp by Fiona, an animated crocodile, cereal box character, and unofficial camp mascot (Bennani holds a master’s degree in animation from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, as well as a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Cooper Union in New York). We then meet the human inhabitants of Moroccan neighborhoods, who party, protest, play music, undergo strange age reversal processes, create memes, move the American “troopers” who monitor the island, and sometimes speak directly to the camera, in this strange mixture of pseudo-documentary and sci-fi cartoon.
Bennani loved Disney films growing up in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, and was particularly taken with those that mixed live action with animation, such as the 1964 musical Mary Poppins. “It blew me away! ” she says. “I was like, ‘How do they do that?'”
The artist is familiar with postcolonial politics, now understanding how two staples of her childhood – Disney videos and the Cartoon Network channel – may have served veiled neocolonial ends. She considers Fantasia, the 1940 Mickey Mouse movie, to be Disney’s greatest imperialist “flex.” She says, “It’s the pure marvel of animation, plus the addition of European classical music. It’s like ’empire!’ but it’s still beautiful and magical.” A third Caps film, not screened in Nottingham, pays homage to Fantasia, while twisting the story to address the multitudes beyond America’s borders.
Moroccan rappers and social media stars perform alongside Bennani’s friends and family in his Caps films, each playing the role of an islander. This addition of North African pop, as well as computer-generated animation, means the films stay paced and never turn into boring polemics.
It all sounds like an odd mix for a filmmaker, but for Bennani, it’s a pretty well-established formula. In Fly, an animated fruit fly guides viewers through the private lives of the citizens of Rabat and Fez. In Mission Teens, Bennani appeared as a CGI donkey, filming footage of real-life snotty teenagers at elite francophone schools in Rabat. And in 2 Lizards, Bennani and his roommate — fellow animator Orian Barki — come across as languid talking reptiles, trying to make the most of life in Manhattan.
This work, which the animators posted on Instagram, became a pandemic hit and led to more commercial requests. “We developed a TV show, but it didn’t work out,” Bennani explains. “It was too mainstream for the art world, but too bizarre for Hollywood.”
She and Barki are working on a new script, but while this is in development she is happy to open her exhibition in a free gallery in the center of a major British city, which attracts visitors from many walks of life. “It’s really important to me,” Bennani says, adding that she’s included a playground-style indoor space for young gallery-goers. “I’m pretty bored with the art audience, the art world,” she says. “It’s not who I’m doing the job for.”
Nottingham is, of course, the setting for one of Disney’s best-known films, Robin Hood. “It wasn’t the one I watched a lot,” she says. “But ethically, it’s not bad. “). And British politics provide a suitable setting for Bennani’s spectacle, with the government recently announcing its intention to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. The artist sighs when I mention this. Science fiction, for her, is not about cleverly predicting the future, but rather finding ways to think about our lives today. The Home Office’s overseas treatment plans put his imaginary island into perspective. “It is,” she says, with a vivid, almost cartoonish sense of desperation, “hardly a dystopia.”