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In the context of events organized on the occasion of the "Year of Algeria in France", it seemed essential to stage an exhibition that retraces the tracks of the history of modern and contemporary fine arts in Algeria. The exhibition aims at acquainting the public with Algerian artists and their works produced since the 1920s in an attempt to provide details of the particularities, biases, and specificities connected to that country.
Whilst taking into account the practice of four consecutive artistic generations, the selection of artworks is closely bound to the questions and problems posed by the relationship between the "model" role played by Western culture and the singular and "ethnic" cultures of the artists.
Even if the origins of Algerian art history are associated with the rebirth of the miniature under the tutelage of Mohamed Racim – whose work is not shown in this exhibition – pieces by Azouaou Mammeri, Abdelhalim Hemche, and Mohamed Temmam confirm attempts to appropriate elements of modern art, from Impressionism to Fauvism, and to develop a distinct iconographic language.
From the 1920s to the beginning of the fifties, this generation further embraces other more personal or autodidact proposals of which the best-known representative is Haddad Fatma Baya Mahieddine (Baya), who exhibited at the Galerie Aimé Maeght already in 1947.
In those years, however, young artists also pursued other issues and claim for themselves the aesthetics of a synthesis between their heritage of Arab-Moslem calligraphy and Western abstraction. Mohamed Khadda, M’Hammed Issiakhem, Mohamed Louail, or Choukri Mesli impose and pursue work that asserts its importance once the country’s independence is retrieved; this finds confirmation in their participation, amongst others, in the gathering of 1967 established under the name of "Aouchem" – The school of pattern – which perpetuates this research and manner of expression.
In the years around the end of the War of Independence, an irrefutable rupture marks cultural life, a change that is most particularly verifiable on a structural level with the creation in 1963 of the "Union Nationale des Arts Plastiques" [National Union of Fine Arts]. If a certain preponderance for aesthetics close to Socialist Realism may be observed and the desire to privilege all "popular" art forms is seen in numerous public commissions of the time, the presence of artists more engaged in singular means of expression, of which Ismail Samson and Denis Martinez are among the most representative, is equally noticeable.
At the beginning of the seventies and most particularly in the eighties, attempts to break away from academic painting take place at the École des Beaux-arts [College of Fine Arts] and find expression in the work of artists such as Malek Salah and Hellal Zoubir. During the terrible 1990s, however, their teachings experienced years of relative silence and their revival these last few years has been all the stronger with the creation of the Essebaghine group, with, amongst others, Karim Sergoua and Ammar Bouras, whose works are in this show.
Then, it seemed necessary to present Algerian artists who are members of the "diaspora", of which Samta Benyahia, who lives in France, and Houria Niati, based in London since 1977, are the most representative. Finally, the exhibition introduces a generation born in France after 1962: here from the many artists represented in that group, we have selected works by Zineb Sedira, who was born in Paris but lives in London, and whose work interrogates issues of feminine representation in Arab-Moslem and Western cultures.
In substance, this history would seem eminently related to those of other post-colonial situations that have seen artists and art fight it out and assert themselves in a ray of contradictions and complexities generated first by the presence and then by the heritage of teachings from the Western world. Despite the endeavor of the phenomenon of globalization – with its own contradictions and often-arguable objectives – to record the multiform presence of contemporary creation in all the regions and cultures of the world, the relative absence of Algeria in this concert of current recognition is clearly manifest. The reasons for this situation are themselves numerous and complex and depend as much from the very particular colonial history of this country as from the difficult and delicate task faced by the artists of creating art that rallies cultural identity to a participation in modern issues.
It is however less paradox to examine how the changes and mutations affecting Western art in the last two decades have led us to reconsider – with the help of other criteria and modes of evaluation – the proposals that have been made on its periphery for almost a century. The linear historicity of art having come to an end, retrospective readings of its production and chronological merits are themselves questioned, thus enabling us to concentrate more on the realities of specific individual and cultural commitment to be found here and there, even if this means being part of an exogenous historical account, whilst still putting claim to an individual history.
It is impossible to treat these issues comprehensively through the selection of artists presented in the exhibition; they are therefore more profoundly bespoken in a publication with contributions by several authors, a catalogue chapter on the artists in the show, and finally an appendix comprising manifestos, articles, writings, and forewords of specific exhibitions… The volume thus intends to provide critical and lesser-known information on the artistic history of this country.
Malika Bouabdella treats certain special features such as Khadda, Issiakhem and Mesli in the context of independence, Dalila Orfali writes about purchase politics and the founding of a museum of fine arts, Fatma Zohra Zamoum is concerned with the more contemporary period, from the 1970s until today.
Ramón Tio Bellido
* 1950 Toulouse, France. Curator of Le XX° siècle dans l'art algérien, among other exhibitions; art critic and writer. General secretary of AICA, International Association of Art Critics. Lives in Paris, France.
Le XX° siècle dans
Château Borély, Marseille, 4 April - 15 June 2003
Orangerie du Sénat, Paris, 25 June - 17 August 2003
Ramón Tio Bellido
Co-curator: Dalila Orfali
Editing: Fatma Zohra Zamoum