View of “Lydia Ourahmane,” 2021. Photo: Aurélien Mole.

View of “Lydia Ourahmane,” 2021. Photo: Aurélien Mole.

Lydia Ourahmane

Lydia Ourahmane’s exhibition “Barzakh,” which opened at the Kunsthalle Basel in March 2021 before traveling to Marseille, comprised the contents of the artist’s Algiers apartment. Packed and shipped by friends while Ourahmane was in France, the furnishings (bed, couch, armchairs, dressers, refrigerator, chandeliers) and personal effects (books, papers, makeup, linens, clothes) were arranged in Triangle – Astérides’s airy industrial space according to a floor plan the artist sketched in 2018, the year she moved into the flat. Within this reconstituted home, visitors could move freely from one “room” to another like ghosts passing through walls, while scrutinizing—even touching—a stranger’s belongings. Visitors’ behavior in the apartment was captured by a fully disclosed, but only partially visible, surveillance system. Listening devices that anyone could tap into at any time (simply by calling one of the phone numbers listed as titles on the exhibition checklist) were encased in five oblong glass domes adorning tables and dressers in different rooms. The show was also rigged with hidden receivers that picked up sounds in one area and broadcast them in another. The exposed, permeable nature of this domestic space reflected the barrier breaking—physical and bureaucratic—that Ourahmane undertook in order to realize the exhibition. It is fitting, then, that the Arabic term barzakh can be used not only to describe a kind of isthmus between the material world and the hereafter, but also a barrier.

The exhibition derived from the artist’s personal experience of displacement. In 2018, sixteen years after she moved with her family from Algeria to Europe, Ourahmane returned to her birth country alone. As an unmarried woman, she had difficulty finding a rental and visited more than thirty apartments before a woman finally offered her a furnished flat she’d inherited from her recently deceased aunt. When Ourahmane moved into 21 Boulevard Moustapha Benboulaid in Algiers she found cupboards, dressers, and closets still filled with the aunt’s sheets, dishes, tchotchkes, toiletries, books, and family photographs. After living in the apartment for almost two years in what she has described as “the continual presence of the previous owner,” Ourahmane left the country. When Algeria closed its borders in March 2020 due to Covid-19, she could not return.

Though the impetus to bring her apartment to Europe for an exhibition was a global pandemic, the difficulty of realizing the project had more to do with geopolitics and art terminology. In order to legally lend 21 Boulevard Moustapha Benboulaid, 2021, to the Kunsthalle Basel and Triangle – Astérides, Ourahmane first had to convince the Algerian Ministry of Culture that the contents of the apartment constituted an artwork. She prevailed and, in so doing, got the government to add “installation” as an official category of contemporary art. Navigating such bureaucratic quagmires was not new territory for Ourahmane. Her sound installation The Third Choir, 2014, made history as the first artwork to be legally exported from Algeria since 1962 when, following independence from France, the country passed strict laws protecting its cultural heritage. It is fitting that “Barzakh,” an exhibition about liminality, was contingent upon securing a temporary loan of an artwork whose status as such may itself be fleeting. (Presumably the show’s contents will no longer be considered art once returned to the apartment in Algiers.)

Red tape and semantics aside, the impact of 21 Boulevard Moustapha Benboulaid ’s physical presence was visceral. Most harrowing was the apartment’s detached front door, 21 Boulevard Moustapha Benboulaid (entrance), 1901–2021. Removed from its original context and relieved of its functionality, this newly minted artifact brutally and efficiently linked two traumatic moments in Algeria’s history: French colonialism and the Algerian civil war. During the 1990s, Algeria’s “black decade,” a metal door with nine dead bolts was added to the apartment’s original 1901 Haussmann-style wooden door. Itself an embodiment of the paradoxical state of barzakh, the double door—a barrier and a portal—is the only element of the exhibition that will not return to Algeria, having already been replaced by a new one, making it an even more poignant symbol of displacement.