Return Favor


Left: Curator Simon Njami with artist Mona Hatoum. Right: Artist Imran Channa and curator Nadira Laggoune. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

THE ALGERIAN EMBASSY in Beirut is not a friendly place, but you’ll never hear me say the staff there are inefficient. After weeks of rejection and indifference, they finally agreed to give me a visa just twelve hours before the flight I’d booked to Algiers was scheduled to depart. Before I could fully process the fact that I’d actually scored the page I needed in my passport, I found myself sitting in the middle of a Zineb Sedira film—in the restaurant of the Hotel Safir, the grand, dilapidated setting for the artist’s mesmeric, split-screen video installation Saphir.

That work is a slow-moving study on alienation, intimacy, and an overwhelming longing to leave. I was unnerved by how easily I could embody the contained turbulence of Sedira’s characters. Staring out the Safir’s enormous plate-glass windows to the port, the ferry terminal, the Bay of Algiers, and the deep blue Mediterranean Sea was enough to make me imagine running through the halls of the hotel in The Shining with a tube of red lipstick in my hand—until the artist Katia Kameli and the curator Simon Njami saved me from having lunch alone.

Sedira and Kameli are two among an increasingly critical mass of early- to midcareer artists who, well beyond the parameters of their own practice, have taken on the task of opening up the contemporary art scene in Algiers to the world. Some—such as Amina Menia and Ammar Bouras—were born in Algeria and live there all the time. Others—such as Sedira, Kameli, and Kader Attia—were born abroad and divide their time between Algiers and Paris or Berlin. They may have been visiting Algeria all of their lives, but only in the past ten years have they been returning often, for art as much as for ancestry, as artists contributing to the local infrastructure, not just collecting material for their own work.

Left: Artist Kader Attia and curator Abdellah Karroum. Right: Artist Halida Boughriet.

“We always came back for our families,” says Sedira, who is opening a project space next year with Attia, and starting a residency program on her own. “Then we began coming for our work, to shoot films and take photographs. As we were coming back more and more, we began wanting to bring something back, not just take something away.”

A number of curators, scholars, and critics have followed, to the extent that a dynamic young community now periodically materializes in Algiers. The group’s center of gravity—and by all accounts the primary axis on which the city’s nebulous contemporary art scene turns—is Nadira Laggoune, the independent curator who packed the Hotel Safir last week for the third Festival International d’Art Contemporain, otherwise known for its comical negation of the more famous Parisian fair—“not that FIAC, le FIAC.”

Although it has taken place three times in as many years, FIAC is the international biennial of Algiers in all but name. (It is set to follow a two-year schedule from now on.) Laggoune’s edition, titled “Le Retour” (The Return), opened Saturday evening at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain d’Alger, a little-engine-that-could institution that opened five years ago in a beautifully rehabilitated piece of neutralized neo-Moorish architecture.

The museum, which everyone calls MAMA, is a two-minute walk from the Safir. In the lobby of the hotel, I met the artists Halida Boughriet and Amel Ben Attia, who smuggled me onto a bus to make the ludicrous start-and-stop journey.

Left: Curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung. Right: Dealer Fabienne Leclerc and artist Sadik Kwaish Alfraji.

No one gets a tourist visa to Algeria—mine was swiftly improvised as “cultural” after Laggoune dispatched a last-minute invitation letter—and there are no tourists, none, in the capital. In a place that’s heavy on revolution-forever and resistance-every-day rhetoric—the opening of FIAC was bracketed by a festival of politically engaged film and a conference on the legacy of Frantz Fanon—there are also no fast food chains, no recognizable coffee franchises, and no familiar high-street fashion shops in the city, which, in the twilight of 2011, was a special kind of urban bliss.

Algeria’s decadelong civil war—never locally acknowledged as such—wound down after 2002. There are shockingly few traces of armed, brutal conflict visible in the city, where splinter factions, paramilitaries, and the state fought on the level of surgical massacres, disappearances, and fear. As a result no one seems to know how dangerous Algiers is, just that it is or might be, and so there was the bus, brief and eventually abandoned.

MAMA’s interior architecture is a dizzying, escalating swirl of decorative, white-painted woodwork. Laggoune deserves credit for counteracting it all with a minimalist installation for twenty-five artists, all of them emphasizing introspection and imagination in relation to the theme of the return. The show moved from strength to strength with Boughriet’s Mémoire dans l’oubli, portraits of elderly women as defiant and dignified odalisques; Neil Beloufa’s riveting fifteen-minute video Untitled, which re-creates an ostentatious villa in cardboard, and speculates on why a group of guerrillas would ever hide out in a house made of glass; the thematically precise inclusion of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s work on the twice-made ruin of a former Israeli prison in South Lebanon; and Imran Channa’s enigmatic pencil drawings, copies of photographs documenting key moments in Pakistani politics, which the artist then systematically smudges. “It’s about the fabrication and erasure of history,” he said breezily.

After the opening, there was a dinner in a banquet hall, which felt like a party congress in some lost Soviet bloc, replete with a live band perfectly suited to the dead time between news broadcasts on a sad state television station. I missed the sudden transition to a Michael Jackson marathon, instigated, no doubt, by the Delfina Foundation’s Aaron Cezar, infamous for his dance-till-you-drop approach to the after hours of art events.

Left: Philosopher Rachida Triki with artist Akila Mouhoubi. Right: Artist Zineb Sedira.

The next morning, no worse for wear, we took a longer, more leisurely walk to Gallery Racim—a space run, like MAMA, by Algeria’s Ministry of Culture, effectively the only game in town given the city’s total absence of a sustaining art market or a commercial gallery system—for a symposium on biennials in the global south.

The Tunisian philosopher Rachida Triki, also a curator and critic, set the tone: “The role of the historian is to deal with the drama of globalization,” she said. Biennials and art fairs that select artists from the developing world, the third word, the global south—whatever you want to call it—are privileging “a certain formalism, a certain academicism,” which risks being colonialism all over again, and moreover drives a dangerous wedge between the actuality of daily life and the production of artwork for a distant, unknown audience.

The curator Gabriela Salgado warned about self-exoticism and institutional mission creep. The curator Abdellah Karroum stressed the need to distinguish among terms. Pat Binder and Gerhard Haupt, of the online resource Universes in Universe, revisited the history of the Havana Biennial to caution against using the third word tag to play power politics. A spat ensued with Njami, who said he loved the third world tag, embraced it, and wore it with pride. When Sedira and Attia presented their project space, Art in Algiers, an inevitable rift between generations emerged. Clearly, it’s complicated whenever art is tangled up in nationalist ideology, a fifty-year-old war for independence, and an unspoken war of repression in between.

We packed into the tiny bar of the Hotel Albert Premiere for further debate. Then we decamped to the seaside restaurant Le Dauphin for dinner. The next day, after the art historian Alice Planel introduced me to the inscrutable logic of the Casbah, Menia invited all of us over for a home-cooked meal. I nearly choked when I discovered that her soft-spoken husband, a journalist and playwright, was none other than Mustapha Benfodil, author of the installation that was abruptly banished from last spring’s Sharjah Biennial. That’s another story, but I look forward to pleading down the embassy’s door again soon.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie