Algeria: An Artistic Spring

Nadira Laggoune-Aklouche
Curator, Art Critic, and Lecturer
Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Algiers, Algeria

Translated from the French by Monique Laird, Craig Laird and Alexandra Gueydan-Turek

Texte en français

Algeria’s contemporary art scene presents a reappropriation of the aesthetic field, a reconstruction after a crisis in representation brought about by a decade of terrorism and socio-political unrest in the 1990s. These tragic years plunged the art world into a state of shock at the very moment it was beginning to take shape, paralyzing creativity for more than 15 years. The impact of this period still resonates today in the malaise that pervades both older generations, who feel disoriented, and younger ones, who are frustrated by their inability to find their own place and gain visibility. Yet younger artists since the 1990s have also developed a new culture of screen, web, multimedia, photography, and moving images. Transformations of cultural forms and content, shaped by economic and social conflict, have demanded a redefinition of the relationship between art and reality. Artists today must live, consume, and process the sheer proliferation of images that constantly occupy their daily lives.

For those members of the new generation (25 to 45 years of age) who have not been immersed in a long pre-history of images, it has been difficult to negotiate this newly mediated reality. But for those artists who have come to terms with this history and who have regained their voices, the door is now open to a freer and more incisive representation of their time. Since 2003, the Algerian cultural scene has been in constant motion, enlivened by regular large-scale cultural events. The Algerian Year in France (2003); Algiers, Arab Capital of Culture (2007); the Second Pan-African Festival of Algiers (2009); and Tlemcen, Capital of Islamic Culture (2011) have not only boosted the creation and promotion of culture but have also (supported by major funding) set in motion numerous projects for the restoration and the opening of artistic spaces, including museums (the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Algiers, MAMA), art schools, cultural centers, agencies for cultural heritage, revitalized cinematheques, theaters, and new fine arts festivals.

This cultural movement has fostered the emergence of many rapidly growing trends and new artists, including raï, hard-rock, chaâbi and gnawi musicians; painters, poets, and graphic designers; film directors and playwrights – all regularly producing works and performing in response to the new subject matter. These events have given visual artists, newly arrived on the local and international scene, the opportunity to show their work and confront that of renowned international artists.

Increasingly, contemporary Algerian artists are creating works that confront cultural and artistic conformity. New generations of art-school graduates, including those who completed their studies a number of years ago, such as Rachida Azdaou and Ammar Bouras, and more recent graduates, such as Amina Menia, Atef Berredjem, Zineddine Bessaï, Oussama Tabti, Sofiane Zouggar, Mehdi Djellil, Adel Bentounsi, and Walid Bouchouchi, are producing work that disrupts the aesthetic status quo and challenges norms that dominate exhibition spaces and empty them of active meaning.

These artists articulate critical perspectives, creating breaches in conventional taste and allowing the artist and the viewer to break through the culture of passive communication. During the last five years in Algeria (particularly in Algiers), this artistic vitality has expanded into both private and public spaces: museums, galleries, media centers, and other municipal institutions have hosted numerous collective and individual exhibitions. But it is mainly informal gatherings that have launched alternative cultural events and creative islands. Born from spontaneous initiatives and based on the energy and the courage of diverse communities of artists, these events have boosted the emergence of an aesthetic collective intelligence, a visible niche. The collectives Picturie générale, Box 24, and Collectif Annaba Art Scène, which have emerged in the last three years on the local art scene, are still little known and rarely approached by institutions and galleries. Rather, these collectives exhibit in spaces such as apartments or local businesses provided by private donors (patrons of the arts or of artists). Together, they are turning these locations into exhibition spaces, places for experimentation, and centers for new ways of looking at and creating art. This phenomenon has largely escaped the attention of official media coverage in part because much contemporary Algerian artwork remains outside the established consensus on aesthetic and sociopolitical correctness.

Increased globalization and the Internet allow artists to approach reality differently and offer innovative types of representation; at the same time, representation itself explores new uses of the aesthetic space. These acts of exhibiting in an alternative space enable the flexibility and freedom to offer different representational modes and models.

This movement is alternative, emerging, and resistant, because it consists of communities of change that offer breathing room where new ways of doing and being can occur. These communities are essential to the future of local art because they express the artists’ relationship to the world through the lens of surroundings in permanent turmoil. This artistic and political engagement is salutary because here more than elsewhere, it shines a new light on the images we have of ourselves.

The political events and tumultuous social context that fuel the daily news have become a source of inspiration to artists. They combine collective and individual memories of recent history and translate them into images. In so doing, they challenge the discourse that renders these subjects officially taboo. Ammar Bouras (JT, 2001, One Way Trip, 2003, Thagout, 2011) pioneered deconstructive work in video in the 1990s; while Amina Menia develops her work from archives of past and present architectural heritage (Peeled, 2013, Enclosed, 2014). Among the youngest artists, Oussama Tabti (Standby, 2011, The Treaty of Amsterdam, 2012), Atef Berredjem (The Raft of Lampedusa, 2009, A Relative Theory of Man, 2011) and Sofiane Zouggar (The Astrolabe, 2012, Untitled, 2014) reopen our approaches to recording reality, while at the same time distancing perspectives on migration, borders, and politics.

Derision, a typically Algerian attitude, permeates the critical discourse of these young Algerian artists.They absorb it from popular imagery and enrich it,using it in their sharp, mocking treatment of rarely discussed current topics such as hegemony and power. Zineddine Bessaï (The Harraga Guide, 2011 and Qatar, 2013) uses derision ironically; Mehdi Djellil (Feed Your Head, 2014) uses it grotesquely; and Walid Bouchouchi (In Ball We Trust, 2014) uses it playfully. In revealing and denouncing existing social structures, this generation challenges the system and its contradictions and calls for its transformation.

Such new artistic movements and daring trends emerge from a heterogeneous cultural universe that unites arts and crafts, culture and folklore, amateurs and professionals. Using art to bear witness and resist, these artists anchor a detached exploration of their individual and social experiences at the center of their work. They implicitly criticize the lack of public attention to social, political, and cultural issues by denouncing easy consumption and exposing the poor quality of official imagery. Breaking away from representations that are identifiable, pleasing, and accessible, the paintings of Maya Bencheikh Elfeggoune and Fella Tamzali (Untitled, 2014) eschew simplistic discourse. Kachba’s treatment of political actuality is skeptical (Who’s Lying to Whom? 2014); Adel Bentounsi depicts the situation of the artist (Heartburn, 2013); Djamel Agagania portrays the uncertain future of citizenship (Feeling Exhausted, 2014); and Mounir Gouri (No Woman No Cry, 2014) and Hicham Belhamiti (The Thinker, Daddy, and Me, 2014) present characters who are downcast or pensive.

Such expressive directions are disturbing for those who prefer conventional imagery. By subverting the classical order, these creative discourses restore the vital link between the works and their critical function. Through paradigmatic shifts and polysemic openings, the works encourage viewers to deal creatively with their own lives. While change takes time, the very existence of these images, their aggressive language, and proliferation, is beginning to have an impact on current modes of expression.

For the last decade, these emerging artists have been supported by both local art patrons and Zineb Sedira, an artist from the diaspora who created |A.R.I.A.| (Artist Residency in Algiers), a program that provides a bridge between Algerian artists and international artists and curators. This support has generated offers to artists for exhibitions and residencies with international art festivals and institutions. In addition, local public institutions increasingly understand this movement and are starting to promote both visual arts at home and their exhibitions abroad. Perhaps the best example is the 2014 Dakar Biennale where the artists’ collective Picturie générale, composed of 16 Algerian artists, inaugurated the first Algerian pavilion, a showcase of Algerian creativity at the most important arts event on the African continent.