Marseille exhibit around cars tells little-known history of Maghreb families in France

Stepping into the hall of the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations in the French southern city of Marseille, you may think that you’ve arrived at a car dealership.

The exhibition titled Renault 12 celebrates family adventures through the lesser-known history of two car models.

Stage director Mohamed El Khatib is the mind behind the installation artwork.

“Here at the Mucem we’ve installed about ten cars, basically Renault 12 and Peugeot 504 car models, they are two classic cars connected to the Mediterranean journeys and odysseys. These were the cars that were used to return to the ‘bled’ [Editor’s note: home country in Arabic] the 70s and 80s.”

“Having met about a hundred people from Marseille, I observed that returning to the ‘bled’ is part of the national heritage.”

With no satnav or air conditioning, entire families would travel by car for several days from France to Tunisia, Morocco or Algeria. 

Childhood memories

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The guest artist tried to convey an emotion when customizing the cars.

“These are cars that immediately carry tenderness and are almost engines of emotion,” he says.

“They are immediately imbued with another time, another place, and a rather happy one at that. These cars are a bit like Proust’s memory-laden madeleine cakes that evoked childhood memories. As soon as you put one in the museum, people come and share their stories, so the cars are story-laden.”

Inside the hall of the MUCEM, photographs by Marseille resident and photographer Yohanne Lamoulère are on display together with pictures that locals gathered to tell their own Odysees.

El Khatib travelled across France and Spain to go to Morocco every summer until he was 18.

“For me personally, these are happy memories because I remember my father toiling away for ten months a year and suddenly there was something festive and we had the feeling of being part of a collective story. “

“I remember, as soon as we [would get] on the motorway, people we didn’t know, because they were loaded like us, the cars [would be] honking at each other. Suddenly we were part of a story.”

The customized Renault 12 models as well as Peugeot 504, are on display in the Mucem hall until November 27.

The battered bodywork of one car is a reminder that some families sadly never made it home.

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