Stefan Mesch on "Casablanca" Images like colourful floor tiles
How many places can you capture: portray? Which place could you explain to whom – in a lecture? In short adjectives? Or better in a collection of photographs? Can you visually portray what was special about the kitchen, the garden of your childhood? The way to school? The first of your own vacations? In which medium: as text, a list? With dimensions and numbers? Is photography the most objective medium? Details, moods. Annoyances. The ordinary, the typical. Things that leap to the eye. And things only you see as such: psychogeography.
Illustrator and comic book artist Calle Claus portrays Casablanca – the largest city in Morocco. At the invitation of the Goethe-Institut, he travels to Morocco in October 2013 as part of the Comic Transfer project. He is accompanied by the Spanish illustrator Franciso Peña. Claus’s "Casablanca" comprises five pages, 22 panels. A flying visit in three brief episodes: a walk through the old city, a taxi ride, then impressions, the diversity around the mosque and along the seaside promenade.
When my sister, mid-20s, travels, she first searches food and influencer hashtags on Instagram. She trusts the tips, recommendations of her peers; wants to see what people like her say is ‘worth seeing’. Last week I read “Morocco”, a short story by John Updike, 1979. Now I happen to know: In April, Restinga is usually too windy for a beach holiday. Agadir was virtually destroyed by an earthquake in 1960. And: ‘Casablanca didn't look at all like in the movie.’ Is that all: Snapshots? Fragments? Hashtags?
Calle Claus’s "Casablanca" also has fragments: I see veiled women next to unveiled women. A popcorn seller on the beach. Anglers on folding chairs. Claus describes the city as ‘smelling strongly’, ‘enigmatic’ ‘teeming’, among other things. A picture in front of the mosque should help him collect as many Facebook likes as possible. The taxi driver boasts about charging tourists five times more than he charges locals. Is that all?
No. Drawings stylise – they omit, focus on the essential. They show what must be shown to help understand the essence, atmosphere. Someone who can draw therefore carries a responsibility as soon as he ‘documents’ cultures and people: Nothing is objective. Each stroke and line is a judgement.
I am happy to see that at no point does Claus play the Morocco expert: His sentence – ‘Around the mosque and its inner courtyard, life is lively and relaxed' – lays his cards on the table, in all the hackneyed phrases. This is not the eye of an insider, a know-all: The German observer captures impressions and colours – powerful, optimistic, vibrant, sunny, forceful. ‘One step inside doesn't mean you understand,’ and Claus’s style, which is consciously naïve and good-natured, along the lines of a children’s book (thick felt pens, simple figures with cheerful expressions) does not suggest that he understands very much.
A small panel without speech balloons or text shows the head of a pink crocodile that is either breaking out of the pavement or is being buried under paving stones. I google ‘pink crocodile Casablanca’ and ‘alligator sculpture Medina Casablanca’ but find nothing. I think we will understand and see just as much here as Claus himself does. A found object, an irritant when strolling through the city that does not explain itself... and therefore cannot be explained by Claus.
When I travel to new places, I first visit four websites. Under “Useful Notes: Morocco" on TV Tropes (Wiki), I am curious about Tazmamart prison, the Sean Connery film "The Wind and the Lion" and Brian Jones' album "The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka". Goodreads recommends books on Morocco by Paul Bowles, Lawrence Osborne and Ernst Jünger – and, more interesting, by Mahi Binebine, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Couki M. Hamel.
Internet Movie Database recommends “Fear Eats the Soul” (“Angst essen Seele auf”, a film about a Moroccan guest worker in Munich), the drama “Casanegra”, the horror film “Kandisha” and the Netflix series “Morocco: Love in Times of War". Reddit recommends a walk from the mosque to the lighthouse, as well as the following video.
I think of “Mad Men” and the time when tourism advertising was essentially with colourful drawings, stylisations instead of photographs. I think of Miroslav Šašek, who published seemingly simple travel books for children from 1959 to 1980 – "This is Paris", "This is Munich" – and who was never commissioned to produce a book on African cities or nations.
Can Calle Claus visualise what defines Casablanca? Details, Moods. Annoyances. The ordinary, the typical. Things that leap to the eye. And things that only he sees as such: Psychogeography? For me, the merit, the charm of “Casablanca” does not lie in how 'objectively' something is 'captured', assessed. But in how Calle makes it clear that this is an outsider who is collecting and passing judgements (‘smelling strongly’, as an opinion of an entire city?!).
Reductions, forms of racism can be picked up more quickly, more clearly in comic books than in ‘objective’ photographs. Calle’s good-natured illustrations in the style of a children’s book prove that this is not an illustrator who looks down on a city that he reduces to the child-like. Claus’s pictures tell me: ‘I am an outsider. Awestruck like a child. I am sharing my very first, superficial view. And I place images like colourful floor tiles, slabs: brightly coloured, ornamental, (necessarily) flat.’