The first and most significant aesthetic task of French colonization was to map space.1 To dispossess people of their land, the colonial regime had to know that land. It produced a vast quantity of drawings to document its knowledge. Based on that knowledge, it built cities and histories, and through these produced a complex imagination of Algerian space. In that context, when La belle revue commissioned a text from me about the contemporary art scene in Algeria, I wondered how it might be possible to relate information about Algerian artists without succumbing to the temptation to map the scene, or, to make it visible in overview from elsewhere.
This question felt especially urgent for the same reason that La belle revue had asked me to write in the first place: I have spent years studying the history of Algerian aesthetics, which included long periods of research on-site. In late 2019, I presented a survey exhibition of contemporary art by artists based in Algeria and in its diaspora at the Wallach Art Gallery in New York City.2 In 2021, I presented a revised version of the same project with Triangle-Astérides at La Friche de la Belle de Mai in Marseille.3 Each exhibition encompassed the work of more than twenty artists, many of whom I had been in close dialogue with for several years. The ambition of this pair of projects was to make something of the contingent, effervescent quality of Algerian aesthetics sensible to viewers who lived elsewhere. Such an ambition is apparently in line with the idea of an artistic overview based on geography, which is what La belle revue had asked of me. Yet it is possible to build an exhibition that contradicts itself, one that refuses a clear relationship between territory and artistic production even as it promises to do so. In a short journal text, it is not so easy to stage this kind of contradiction.
I hesitated, proposed alternative writers, and then proposed to write with artist Sadek Rahim about his city of Oran. Rahim has been an active player in that’s scene’s construction since his return to Algeria in 2004. With Tewfik Ali Chaouch, he initiated the Biennial of Mediterranean Contemporary Art in Oran in 2010. I went to his studio in January 2022 and graciously accepted a series of delicious things he had picked up from a local bakery experimenting with traditional North African pastry ingredients—pistachios, honey, and almond paste—and traditional French pastry forms. Rahim related the scene and its recent history in terms of its people. The former director of the Institut Français, Gaëtan Pellan; Rahim’s co-curator for this year’s iteration of the Biennial, Nadira Laggoune-Aklouache, who is also a foundational figure in Algerian contemporary art and art history; Bouchra Salhi, director of the Ahmed Zabana Museum and head curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne d’Oran (MAMO); Tewfik Ali Chaouch, who founded a non-profit dedicated to the arts called Civ’Oeil, which also serves as the administrative home for the Biennial; and many others. The story of contemporary art in Oran is in the trajectories of people, rather than a story about spaces. It would take a cacophony to represent it.
What follows is not that text, which is beyond the scope of this invitation. Yet the structure of Rahim’s testimony interested me because it spoke to the role the city of Oran has played in the lives of Algerian artists throughout the 20th and into the 21st century—a place with a looser relationship to centralized, nationalist power.
Franco-Algerian historian and aesthetic theoretician Anissa Bouayed cautions against the centralisation of Algiers in the history of Algerian aesthetics. Such a thought mistake would produce an imagination of art too closely mirroring the structure of power under the colonial regime. The École des Beaux-Arts d’Alger and the Musée des Beaux Arts d'Alger were built to centralise artistic production during the French colonial period, and to consolidate it where it could be instrumentalized to bolster a gilded image of the colonial capital.4 Pointing out that some of the most prominent figures of post-liberation Algerian art—Mohammed Khadda, Issiakhem, and Abdelkader Guermaz—were neither born in nor grew up in Algiers, Bouayed argues that “… clinging to Algiers would bury the important trace of the journeys taken by the most significant Algerian painters of the forties and fifties, especially since the city is overshadowed by the powerful visual myth produced by the Orientalists, and by the exclusive control over sites of training and production in the hands of the city’s elites and by the political control of the colonial authorities.”5
Bouayed’s careful aesthetic counter-geography centres on Oran. In the decades immediately preceding Algeria’s liberation (1962), Oran was known as wine country. Charles Goetz, a French artist who had moved to Oran in 1934, recalls that the city had a “core of art lovers, knowledgeable collectors, [who were] joined by those newly interested in art: architects, members of the liberal professions, medical profession, exporters, wine merchants…”.6 Coupled with this wealth, there was an informality to life in Oran relative to Algiers, and a general anti-protocol atmosphere that fostered un-official initiatives, such as gallery La Colline (1941-1962), founded by Robert Martin, born in 1915 in Tiaret, a city southeast of Oran.7
La Colline contributed significantly to making Oran an alternative centre for those artists—like Khadda and Issiakhem—who came from modest backgrounds. Martin not only showed their work alongside well-established artists, but he also supported artists such as Abdelkader Guermaz directly with a monthly stipend. La Colline became a meeting ground for artists and writers, including Issiakhem, Abdallah Benanteur, Emmanuel Roblès, Albert Camus, Jean Sénac, and others. Some Algerian artists studied at the École de Beaux-Arts d’Oran in a formal capacity, but others were able to acquire skills and establish networks informally. Oran thus served as preparatory ground and as a point of departure for artists to move directly to Paris to develop their practices, by-passing the more strictly controlled visual arts institutions in Algiers and thus distancing their work from Orientalist formal legacies.
With the abrupt and definitive departure of the pieds-noirs in the wake of Algeria’s Liberation in 1962, the landscape changed—both figuratively and literally. Vineyards were reappropriated and, in some cases, closed. La Colline and other art spaces dependent on a settler colonial society retreated to Paris. In this absence of infrastructure, raï music and urban street art practices gained visibility, replacing modernist painting as the dominant aesthetic discussion.8
Today, Algiers is still the centre of intellectual and artistic life in Algeria, and Oran is still a less rigidly authoritarian alterative space, a distinction which is only intensified by the two cities’ different experience of the Black Decade (1991-2002).9
Since the end of the Black Decade, Oran has also come to be dominated by a different kind of departure: the undocumented crossing to Europe, especially by young men. Several Oranais artists are tracking this other understanding of departure as it comes to saturate the city’s collective imagination. Sadek Rahim was born in Oran but lived most of his formative years abroad—in the UK, but also in Beirut—before returning to establish his base in Oran in 2004. Lydia Ourahmane was born in Oran during Black Decade and lived there for significant parts of her childhood, immigrated with her family to the UK in 2001, and then returned to Oran periodically in her early adulthood before settling part-time in Algiers in 2018. Though from different generations and socio-cultural backgrounds, Rahim and Ourahmane’s practices signify something markedly Oranais in their work, namely an attention to the multivalent conditions of people’s journey out of the city.
The oriental rug is central in Sadek Rahim’s work. Often, it is a rug that has been commercially produced for a mass audience using synthetic materials. His material is the mundane object that nevertheless signifies broad ideological concepts. “In order to discuss their work, young people I observed as part of my work often invited me to their home,” Sadek explained to Marie Deparis-Yahil, curator of his expansive 2019 retrospective gravity³ at the Museum of Modern Art Oran (MAMO). “In the villages, generally, one receives guests in the living room in a seating area that often consists of a large carpet, large cushions, and a low table. Most often, the carpet is simple, bought at the corner market. I can’t help but think of the myth of the magic carpet each time these young people speak about their life goals. Their ultimate dream – a utopia – appears to be to live in Europe, a world known only through the television.”10 An idealization of life in Europe (the irreality of television) recalls an Orientalist idealization (the myth of the flying carpet).
Initiated by the artist and funded by Sadek Rahim’s professional network, gravity³ filled the entire premises of the MAMO.11 Though many of the works presented related notions of departure, inertia, and immigration, Constellation (2019) and The Missing (2019) capture both sides of the undocumented journey across the sea. The pair of works forms a single installation. Rahim has cut out each individual rose from a commercial carpet in which the rose figures as an organising motif. The roses are excised in such a way that the carpet loses none of its structural integrity, although it no longer insulates against the cold nor provides comfortable, decorative seating. On the other side of the gallery, Rahim has installed the roses he cut out like stars in the night sky. Freed from their everyday existence as the decorative anchor of everyman’s living room, they spread out or cluster as they wish, without injunction.
Lydia Ourahmane’s Fleeing Will Save Us (2016) is a pair of small polaroid photographs. Referring to the early research for the larger body of work of which Fleeing Will Save Us is one part, Ourahmane writes: “During that time and even now, for the people I work with, this illegal immigration is a recurring subject. They’re all getting themselves ready to leave, all of them. If you ask someone in my neighbourhood how many people they know that have crossed, the answer will be, like thirty, forty, fifty of their friends. In my neighbourhood it’s a real and ongoing thing that’s happening on an everyday basis.”12 Ourahmane befriended some of these young Oranais from her neighbourhood. They brought her to caves where they stayed for some time before attempting to cross the water to Spain. The Polaroids thus function as a memorial to their dreams of passage in the wake of their attempt and subsequent arrest and detention in Europe.13 On one concrete wall in the foreground of a Polaroid, a phrase in Arabic is scrawled in spray paint. According to the artist, it reads: “fleeing will save us.”14
Recasting the undocumented journey in terms of myth of flying carpet, or staging it in the idyllic, heavy afternoon light of the Mediterranean’s rocky coastline, Rahim and Ourahmane’s work represent the complex and pressing dream of departure for the unknown. They also capture an echo of Oran’s historical role as a place in which elsewhere is reachable through informal systems of communication and solidarity. The people they represent are following the same lines of flight as Khadda or Issiakhem through Oran. In Ourahmane and Rahim’s works, the city emerges as one node in a network that overlays Algeria, Spain and France; one that counters both colonial and post-colonial notions of nationalist space marked with monumental degree-and-identity-granting institutions. In so doing, they render a contingent, effervescent portrait of Oran’s place in the Algerian art scene.
- See: Zahia Rahmani’s landmark exhibition Made In Algeria in 2016 at the MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditteranée); Zahia Rahmani and Jean-Yves Sarazin, Made in Algeria: Généalogie D'un Territoire: [exposition, Marseille, Musée Des Civilisations De L'europe Et De La Méditerranée, 19 Janvie-2 Mai 2016]. Vanves: Hazan, 2016.
- https://wallach.columbia.edu/exhibitions/waiting-omar-gatlato-contemporary-art-algeria-and-its-diaspora; Natasha Marie Llorens. Waiting for Omar Gatlato: A Survey of Contemporary Art from Algeria and Its Diaspora (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019).
- Anissa Bouayed, “À l’ombre d’Alger: l’intrusion silencieuse des artistes algériens dans les lieux culturels de la cité oranaise,” Insaniyat, Revue algérienne d'anthropologie et de sciences sociales, 2006, 2. Unless otherwise notes, all translations are mine. [Les institutions artistiques instaurées par le pouvoir colonial, Ecoles des Beaux-Arts, Musées, Maison des Artistes, sont emblématiques d’une volonté de prestige tout en étant ceux de la transmission d’un patrimoine visuel, d’un savoir esthétique et de techniques picturales.]
- Anissa Bouayed, “À l’ombre d’Alger,” 3. [Dans cette approche, s’en tenir à Alger ferait perdre la trace signifiante des itinéraires des plus grands peintres algériens des années quarante et cinquante, d’autant que la ville est surexposée par la prégnance du mythe visuel installé par les orientalistes, par le verrouillage des lieux de formation et de production aux mains des cercles algérois et par le contrôle politique des autorités coloniales.]
- Anissa Bouayed, “À l’ombre d’Alger,” 8. [A un noyau d’amateurs d’art, collectionneurs avertis, s’associent de nouveaux adeptes. Des architectes, des membres des professions libérales, corps médical, commerçants, négociants en vin… ]
- Jean Sénac, Visages d'Algérie, Écrits sur l'art, textes rassemblés par Hamid Nacer-Khodja, préface de Guy Dugas, Paris, Paris-Méditerranée / Alger, EDIF 2000, 2002.
- Karim Ouraras, “Tagging in Algeria: graffiti as aesthetic claim and protest,” November 2017, The Journal of North African Studies 23(1-2):1-18; Marc Schade-Poulsen, "Which World?: On the Diffusion of Algerian Raī to the West," in Siting Culture (London: Routledge, 1997): 59-85.
- Luis Martinez, The Algerian Civil War, 1990-1998 (New York: Columbia University Press in association with the Centre d'études et de recherches internationales, 2000).
- Marie Deparis-Yahil, “En direct: éxposition gravity³, solo show de sadek rahim au MAMO, musée national d’art moderne et contemporain d’oran, Algérie. https://pointcontemporain.com/sadek-rahim-gravity-3/ Translated from the French: “À l’occasion de discussions, j’ai souvent été invité chez eux par les jeunes que j’observais pour mon travail. Dans les villages, généralement, le moyen de s’assoir et de recevoir les invités au salon consiste souvent en un grand tapis, des grands coussins et une table basse. Le plus souvent, le tapis est simple, acheté au marché du coin. Je ne pouvais m’empêcher à chaque fois de penser au mythe du tapis volant, lorsque ces jeunes commençaient a parler du projet de leur vie, de ce qui semblait être leur rêve ultime – une utopie- : vivre dans un monde qu’il ne connaissent que par la télé, l’Europe.”
- Florian Gaité has explored the implications of self-initiated projects in the artistic context of Algeria in detail, with an explicit focus on Rahim’s working model. Florian Gaité, “Plasticien du bled. De Sadek Rahim au hirak, l’art contemporain algérien en quête d’autonomie,” Critique d’art [En ligne], 53 Automne/hiver, mis en ligne le 16 janvier 2020: http://journals.openedition.org/critiquedart/53874
- Lydia Ourahmane in conversation with Ben Blackmore, see http://www.lydiaourahmane.com/in-conversation-with-Ben-Blackmore. Ourahmane uses the term “illegal immigration”, but I replace it throughout the text without the emphasis on illegality.
- Venetia Porter, “Art and Image,” Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila S. Blair, eds., Islamic Art: Past, Present, Future (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 63.
- The translation of this phrase I made and confirmed with native speakers is different. The phrase reads: “Trebaw ya mussakheen,” which translates roughly to “educate yourself, filthy people” or “learn some manners, dirty ones.” The phrase “Fleeing will save us” would look more like this is Arabic script: الهروب سوف ينقذنا.