FFive months ago, a very important envelope fell into the mailbox of attorney Merrim Banany. The Moroccan-born, New York-based artist received a green card and is now a legal permanent resident of the United States. “It’s weird,” she said with a soda in a bar near the Nottingham Centre for Contemporary Art, where she is installing Life on the Caps, her new video exhibition. “Of course I appreciate it. My whole life has been from visa to visa.” She expressed ambivalence about her new home, before adding that she didn’t want to focus too much on herself, “because, you know, I’m very good”.
This puts Bennani in stark contrast to the characters in Party on the Caps and Life on the Caps, her two-and-a-half-hour video set in a futuristic sci-fi internment camp called Caps (short for “capsule”), Located in the mid-Atlantic United States. In the movies, teleportation has replaced air travel. Potential illegal immigrants to the United States were stopped while trying to cross the Atlantic and detained in a camp that has grown from an isolated shelter to a sprawling immigrant settlement and Latin Quarter.
We were introduced to the camp by Fiona, an animated crocodile, cereal box character and unofficial camp mascot (Bennani holds a MA in animation from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, and a BA in Fine Arts from Cooper Union, New York). We then meet the human inhabitants of the Moroccan community who party, protest, play music, go through bizarre age-reversal procedures, create memes, defeat the American “soldiers” who oversee the islands, and sometimes speak directly to the camera, in this pseudo-documentary and Strange mix of sci-fi cartoons.
Growing up in Rabat, Morocco, Bennani loved Disney movies, especially those that combined live action with animation, such as the 1964 musical “Mary Poppins.” “It took me by surprise!” she said. “I was like, ‘How did they do it?'”
The artist is familiar with postcolonial politics and now understands how two major parts of her childhood — Disney Video and the Cartoon Network Channel — may have served their covert neocolonial ends. She sees the 1940 Mickey Mouse film Fantasia as Disney’s greatest “variant” of imperialism. She said: “It’s pure animation charm, with the addition of European classical music. It’s like ‘Empire! “But it’s still beautiful and magical.” The third Caps film, which didn’t open in Nottingham, paid homage to Fantasia while twisting the story to address a large crowd outside the United States.
The Moroccan rapper and social media star performed alongside Bennani’s friends and family in her Caps film, each playing the role of an islander. The addition of North African pop music and computer-generated animation means the film keeps pace and doesn’t get bogged down in boring arguments.
It all sounds like an odd combination to the filmmaker, but to Bennani it’s a very mature formula. In Fly, an animated fruit fly guides viewers through the private lives of Rabat and Fes citizens. In Mission Teens, Bennani appeared as a CGI donkey, filming real-life runny teens at an elite French school in Rabat. In 2 Lizards, Bennani and her roommate, animator Orian Barki, cast themselves as lazy reptiles trying to live their best life in locked-down Manhattan.
The animator’s Instagram post went viral and sparked more business inquiries. “We developed a TV show, but it didn’t work out,” explains Bennani. “It’s too mainstream for the art world, but too weird for Hollywood.”
She and Barki are working on a new script, but while it’s in development, she’s excited to open a free-to-view gallery in the heart of a major UK city that attracts visitors from all walks of life. “That’s really important to me,” Bennani said, adding that she offers an indoor playground-like space for younger gallery-goers. “I’m bored with the art audience and the art world,” she said. “That’s not the person I work for.”
Nottingham is of course the location for one of Disney’s most famous films, Robin Hood. “It’s not one that I watch very often,” she said. “But morally it’s not bad.”).British politics provided a fitting backdrop for Banany’s gig, with the government recently announcing Plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. The artist sighed when I mentioned this. For her, science fiction isn’t about subtly predicting the future, it’s about finding ways to think about our lives today. The Home Office’s overseas disposal plan puts her imagined island in perspective. “It’s,” she said, with a jolly, almost cartoonish sense of despair, “just a dystopia.”