Cognitive Dissonance: A Conversation with Anissa Boukili El Hassani

By Julia Fortin

Throughout her work, Anissa Boukili El Hassani attempts to be a bridge between cultures, for everyone and for herself. Born in Marrakech, raised in Quebec, Anissa sees herself as perpetually torn between opposing cultures. This sense of cognitive dissonance is a constant struggle for her rational mind.

Early on in our conversation, she recited this poem to me that she wrote and continues to come back to. Excerpt from her first published poetry collection, these few words are an expression of Anissa’s life experience:

Écartelée entre les dunes et les bancs de neige
Entre les mers
Celle-ci et l’autre
Tu viens d’où?.
Je suis le fruit des croisades contemporaines 
Universellement étrangère 
Je ne serais jamais des leurs ni des vôtres 
[I am the product of contemporary crusades 
Universally foreign 
I will never be one of them nor one of you] 

Anissa Boukili El Hassani was five years old when her family left Morocco in June 2002, only a few months after 9/11, to come and live in Quebec. Twenty years later, on a sunny, but cold Sunday in March, I had the chance to sit with herin Tiohtià:ke/Montréal to talk about her multidisciplinary artistic practice. I came into this conversation with an idea of what her art was about. I left with my perspective shifted, surprised to find an artist not only fascinated by mathematics, physics and the efficient perfection of technology but also willing to get out of her comfort zone and show her vulnerability. 

Anissa’s plurality of identity is translated into a plurality of mediums and artistic disciplines. Painting, sculpture, poetry, installation, and performance are some of her many means of expression. She mentioned being interested in everything. “I have phases and I get to the bottom of my phases,” she says.

Lately, Anissa is moving toward technological art. She is currently working on a research-creation project that combines performance art with technology, through which she seeks to find the causal links between migration and destruction. This year-long project is created in the context of the Young Volunteers program offered by the government of Quebec. 

At first glance, Anissa’s pieces do not appear to be closely tied with technology; the repeated patterns are reminiscent of mosaic tiles and mosques, which we wrongfully tend to attribute to the past. Yet, said patterns are created using design softwares and laser cutter machines. Technology allows Anissa to make peace with her desire for perfection. Whereas some would consider her methods “cheating,” Anissa points out that learning to use these tools is an art in itself. If a machine can do the job, she will use it so as to be more efficient. 

During her time completing her BFA at Concordia, Anissa discovered an interest in abstract geometric art. This interest comes together naturally with the ornamental style of Islamic art. That is not to say, however, that Anissa completely rejects figurative art. She compares it to a first love, something she has grown out of but will always be attached to. 

“For me, aesthetics are as important as the concept,” she explained. It’s a political choice. A way to make art that is democratic and not elitist, that will speak to everyone. Anissa tells me that when creating a piece, she often asks herself “Is my dad going to understand?”. Anissa shows a desire to create anti-capitalist and anti-colonial work. A desire to change things. A desire to make art that speaks to people outside of the art world.

In her piece Ailleurs 1.0, viewers are confronted with her own image. Created in 2021 and exhibited during Anissa’s second solo show Contrefaçon, the installation is composed of two types of reflective materials. A laser-cut pattern covered in silver foil reveals a tinted mirror. When looking directly at the piece, viewers see her reflection behind decorative bars. Although not intended, Anissa particularly appreciates the interpretation shared with them by one of her professors. To him, looking at Anissa’s piece felt like being in the section designated for « women » in a mosque. Like most of Anissa’s work, Ailleurs 1.0 is the kind of piece that reluctantly makes you say “you just had to be there.”

On May 5th, 2022, Anissa performed her piece Le début est la fin et la fin est le début for the first time in public at the V.A.V. gallery, a student-run space affiliated with Concordia University. This performance was created in homage to one of Anissa’s close friends, whom she lost in 2020. The piece culminates in an installation composed of various materials, including textiles, candles, photography, coffee and a piece of jade.

A book in art binding was created in advance but left unfinished. Anissa explains that she intended to write down poems linked with memories on the silkscreen printed pages of the book. She never came around to it. “It was too difficult for me,” she admits, “it's like an unfinished work, but it makes sense because grief never leaves.” She chose to leave the book closed during the performance, suggesting in some ways that the public is only a witness to a private event. Through this work, Anissa shares her vulnerability in a manner that is often foreign to even the most experienced artists. 

Her art shows a desire for control, yet an acceptance of life’s imperfections. Despite her perfectionism, Anissa is able to overlook flaws and accept them for the greater good of her work. While her art is informed by the cold precision of technology, it is also infused with warmth. It reflects light. It is inherently human. In front of it all, I find myself drawn to the unfinished bits and unwritten words. I believe that the best of Anissa’s work is yet to be seen. I look forward to its discovery.

You can check out more of Anissa's work work at her website and Instagram.