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The Ecole Supérieure des Beaux Arts (ESBA) in Algiers is an excellent school for two reasons: firstly, for it being Algeria’s only art school with the rating of 'supérieure' since 1985; and secondly, for it certainly being among the world’s best-situated learning institutions for the arts. Erected in the 1950s on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, the building rises up from a garden of palm trees, and the blue of the sea is visible from every studio.
Interestingly enough, the Mediterranean not only plays an optical role for the ESBA. Particularly in recent times, the Mediterranean basin in Algeria has become an identity politics reservoir, with which diverse art projects attempt to newly position themselves. Between an enlightened Europe and an Islamic Mahgreb, the Mediterranean offers an alternative of self-description as convincing as it is sparkling – and nowhere does it sparkle like from the terrace of the ESBA.
How does one study art in a veiled culture? "Do you see this catalog?" asks Mohammed Djehiche, director of the art school, displaying a publication rather worn in places. "A French artist who wants to show here sent it to me. But I won’t be able to show him," says Djehiche, without regret. Why should he regret something not suited to his country’s cultural canon of values? He doesn’t see himself as a pioneer for western values in the Islamic world. The naked women Vanessa Beecroft exhibited at the National Gallery in Berlin, attentively followed in ARTE broadcasts, met with little understanding in a country like Algeria.
"The different cultures is not a problem, but rather a wealth," announces Djehiche at first moderately. Later he adopts an aggressive tone: "We have the right to be different. We have a right to our own vision of contemporary art. Mimicking things from the West can destroy us...We would degrade ourselves to a sub-Occidentalism, and we’ve had enough dictates, especially in the arts," explains the most powerful art-school director in a country a French colony for a hundred years and only independent since about a half century.
At the same time, the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux Arts of Algiers was in itself the fruit of colonialism, already recognizable in its name. Built in 1870, in the French Belle Epoche style, it was relocated to a modernistic, new building in the 1950s, where the art school has remained up until today. It was only after the independence that the school received its first Algerian director in 1962. Today the colonial, neo-classical legacy is still present in countless plaster casts that skirt every part of the building and garden, and which include a pair of sculptures donated in the 1940s by Paul Belmondo, the father of the actor Jean-Paul Belmondo.
An art school in the colony is a copy workshop, and its copying business runs in both directions: via the school not only was the occidental pictorial tradition, together with revealing depictions of the body, imported into the Arabic nation; developed since 1905 in its own specially-furnished copying studio, the style arabisé – the version of local forms and formats compatible with the West – was exported back to Europe again. "Whenever the Occident shows an interest in the Orient, it has to eat it with a western sauce," knowingly reports the sauce-lover Djehiche, under the portrait of his president of state found hanging here like it does in every official space in Algeria. There’s a western gaze directed at the Arabic world from which one has to first decolonize oneself. It’s not an easy task breaking away from the postcolonial legacy which nowadays lures with the connection to the western art world.
Not only Algeria’s connection to the West, but also its connection to the international art world is sorely needed. During the 1990s the art school’s greatest problem was its isolation. While entertainment art flourished in the West, Algeria sank into the dark ages of a national terrorism similar to a civil war, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The afterpains of this national trauma are felt everywhere – especially in the arts. Dealing with the trauma of terror is Theme No.1 in the arts in Algeria. Today, in the historic citadel of Algiers, occupied by the Turks before the French, art is shown – memory art. Not only do people pay tribute to the National Liberation of 1962 with great devotion; but even more present, the bondage of terror haunts the collective memory of Algerian artists.
In Algeria, even art schools participate in memorial culture – especially when recalling how their former director, Ahmed Asselah, predecessor of the current director, fell victim to a brutal assassination on the school grounds. More than just a memorial plaque noting the exact time of the slaying refers to this day in the year 1994; with an annual art festival as well the school commemorates the times of terror, which today - inshallah (as God wills) – are finally over.
Author of numerous texts on philosophy and contemporary art; lives in Berlin, Germany.