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New Cartographies opens with a multimedia installation by John Perivolaris. Commissioned by Cornerhouse Gallery, North to North (2011) documents the artist's journey from Manchester to Algiers and introduces the audience to the curatorial programme of the exhibition: to establish "New Cartographies" between France, Algeria and the UK.
With the New Cartographies exhibition, curators Joseph McGonagle and Edward Welch present a fresh approach to contemporary art by ten established and emerging artists from Algeria, France and the UK. While the importance of Algeria's role in the post-colonial discourse has been ignored in the wider cultural field, "the years since 9/11 and the launch of the 'War on terror' have seen a growing perception of Algeria's strategic importance in the eyes of both the United States and the United Kingdom in terms of trade and global security."  Rather than presenting Algeria as a defined, national territory, New Cartographies explores the relation between Algeria and the global world.
While Perivolaris presents a trip from Northern Europe to Algeria, Zineddine Bessaï's H-OUT (The immigration guide) (2010) examines the obstacles migrants might encounter undertaking the reverse journey on a large, colourful world map. The difficulties in obtaining visas, crossing borders etc. specific to individual countries are described on the map using the Algerian dialect (ironically Bessaï was the only artist who was refused a UK visa). Despite the wit and humour used in H-OUT (The immigration guide), the work tackles the serious issue of the plight of so-called Harragas, which translates as "those who transgress rules, boundaries or frontiers". This term is interpreted literally in Bessaï's next installation Harragas (2010), a circle of candles and small cardboard figures.
Continuing the theme of migration and travel, Bruno Boudjelal's collection of photographs and accompanying diary extracts about his journey to Algeria is presented adjacent to Bessaï's installation. Algeria from East to West (2001-2003) is based on Boudjelal's extraordinary personal story, which not only speaks of the socio-political tensions between Algeria and France, but also, most importantly, reveals the psychological and emotional repression of the post-independence generation. It took Boudjelal over thirty years to find out about his dual heritage. His father denied his Algerian identity and left the family when Boudjelal was still young. Determined to reconnect with his Algerian origins, Boudjelal documented his visits, to warn-torn Algeria between 1993 and 2003. In fleeting blurred photographs Boudjelal approaches his subject matter, the Algerian people and their life during the civil war, in a tender and respectful way.
Omar D's Devoir de mémoire / A Biography of Disappearance, Algeria 1992- (2007) is one of the most emotionally effective works in this exhibition. About fifty from among the hundreds of passport photographs of disappeared people, which Omar D collected over the years and in close relation to the families of those who vanished without a trace, are displayed in the gallery. This moving work is unique in its personal and political ambitions. The trauma of this especially dark side of the Algerian civil war is still repressed today; Omar D's book of the same title, published in 2007 in the UK, was never released in Algeria. The Algerian government has recently decreed an amnesty law that protects those responsible for the disappearance and torture. It forbids the families to keep on searching for the disappeared. The law obliges them to forget, under threat of legal action. The disappeared have thus twice disappeared: from social life and from memory as a victim.
To disclose what is forgotten and repressed is also central to Zineb Sedira's new work Gardiennes d'images (2010), which is having its UK premiere at the Cornerhouse Gallery. This video installation explores the photographic archive of Mohamed Kouaci, the only official photographer of the Algerian War of Independence, which ended in 1962. On three screens, London-based Sedira presents interviews of Kouaci's widow Safia, who inherited the entire photographic archive after Kouaci's death in 1997. This is an important work that not only brings to light his forgotten oeuvre, but also seeks to counter the historiography of the Algerian War, which is still controlled by the French authorities. As Kouaci's investment in presenting the atrocities from the Algerian point of view interferes with the "official" narrative of this war, his work has been rarely presented publicly. The title of the work, Gardiennes d'images, also raises the question of who keeps the Algerian version of history alive. The lack of public archives in Algeria makes the wives and daughters of those who fought in the war the sole keepers of these memories.
Amina Menia's photographic installation Chrysanthemum (2010/2011) consists of a life-size photograph of a landscape with a white stele at its centre and a series of smaller photographs of gravestones. The latter are mounted on billboards facing the landscape photograph on the opposite wall. This installation, which was especially commissioned for this exhibition, not only reflects on memory and commemoration, but also on different types of monuments. On the one hand, monuments dedicated to the martyrs of the Algerian revolution are looked after scrupulously. On the other hand, "opening steles" for building projects indicate the suspension of the projects after the official inauguration ceremony. With her work, the artist points out the narrative dimension of this type of monuments as a symbol of promise evoking "the waiting, the suspended, something in preparation…" With Chrysanthemum, Menia, who is one of the few artists to work site-specifically in Algeria, delivers a conceptual work highlighting the relation between object and urban space, landscape, time and architecture.
On her search for the story of her Sephardic Jewish grandfather, Sophie Elbaz travelled to Constantine in Eastern Algeria in 2007. The floating images in Elbaz's video Qacentina (2007) are a metaphor for the fragility of the artist’s knowledge and memories of her family history. The video is presented together with a photographic triptych entitled L'Ile Fantastique (2007). In her own words, the artist sought "to replace a phantasmagoric imaginary with real images". About her journey she says, "I never felt both so familiar with and foreign to a place. The decor was there for everyone to behold, but because of my emotions I saw this differently. I was highly disoriented in a familiar country. In fact I went a long way to find things that are very close. These escapes allowed me to arrive at the essential. Not the quest for identity but the reconciliation of identities. To become able to place images on a transmitted imagery or imaginary is extraordinary."
The strong presence of artworks trying to give a voice to stories that have been and still are silenced is overwhelming in New Cartographies. Oscillating between artist and researcher, political activist and historian, the participants in New Cartographies merge the personal and the political. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Algeria's independence in 2012, New Cartographies introduces the British public to burning topics and opens a debate around the place of Algeria in the global world.
Cultural theorist, PhD candidate at Goldsmiths College, London. Based in Berlin, Germany, and London, UK.
8 April - 5 June 2011