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Following training in art and design at the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Algiers, Amina Menia developed her artistic practice in the urban context. With strategies of underlining, discreet architectural interventions or photographic documentation, she constantly interrogates the status of public space, the history and present of a place, its appropriation and re-appropriation. Her site-specific work often implies lengthy processes of exchange and negotiation as she reveals interstices and societal loopholes. Confronted with many forms of resistance in a place where this type of art is unusual, a number of her projects remain unrealised to date, with only conceptual traces.
Menia has a profound and all-signifying hatred of the word interdit – the French word meaning 'forbidden' which she claims is rampant in her home town of Algiers (her main terrain of action to date). Her practice could be qualified as soft militancy as she systematically critiques lack of freedom and ideological impositions in the public sphere. Chrysanthèmes/Chrysanthemums (2010-2011) is a photographic record of interspersed neglected and grandiose monuments to martyrs and diverse commemorative stelae. L'Age d'or/The Golden Age (which will take the form of an installation, an exhibition and a publication) refers to Sigmund Freud's research in The Future of an Illusion (1927) and starts with a collection of orientalist imagery prevalent all around her – ceramics decorating the city, paintings, photographs, postcards – to study how and when this particular traditionalist visual legacy came about. Menia intends to interrogate this obsessive nostalgia for past times since it continues to impede upon the nation's projection of possible futures. Simultaneously she will record the complex physical and mental effects of the changes in street names between the end of the French colonial rule and the Algerian independence. The stated Freudian aim is to allow analysis of the present reality.
Parts of the Extra Muros series (2005-ongoing) which, as the title suggests, is conceived beyond the walls of a gallery or an institution have ironically encountered such barriers. What did materialise was temporary lattice work of scaffolding on the outside of the Bastion 23, a restored Ottoman building at the foot of the Casbah (2005). This signalled typical scaffolds (échafaudage) which hold the buildings up or apart in this part of town with elaborate designs. In 2008 for the Biennale of Pontevedra in Spain, Mauresque replicated another common architectural feature, the 'barreaudage' (an Algerian extrapolation of the French word 'barreau' meaning a grid system of bars), which was installed facing indoors and hinted at shared Arabo-Andalusian culture
Chapter 2 was planned in 2006 in the metro system of Algiers. At the time, it was what Menia called an 'urban legend': commissioned in 1979, the building work began in 1982 and lasted 30 years. One line finally opened in November 2011 but, for decades, elusive non-functioning metro entrances were visible in the city centre. Her aim was to make this utopian-seeming project visible by organising public visits into the stations to the unfinished ticket desks and the train track level as a way of appropriating these underground and unavailable spaces for a fleeting moment. The officials empowered with the decision-making process lingered and left any rational reasoning for not allowing these events to occur unsaid.
Chapter 3 was a sculptural intervention designed in 2007 for the Jardin d'Essais, a French and English styled public park confiscated for years from the inhabitants of Algiers under the pretext of renovations. The proposal comprised of three meter high concrete slabs as well as walking stones and seats in different materials – this urban furniture was imagined to be quasi invisible and encourage new perspectives on space and therefore its reappropriation.
La Parisienne was a favoured spot in the European part of the city which fell into heated property development debates. The building that was significant in local architectural heritage collapsed and the current void is the focus of great polemics. For Chapter 4 in 2008, Menia imagined an event highlighting the ghostly outline of the destroyed building with support beams. The process of this temporary (re)construction was to be filmed thus recalling strategies by the likes of Dan Graham, Hans Haacke or Gordon Matta-Clark for instance. Years of discussion and hope were shattered with final rejection in 2011. There is no actual production. It remains immaterial. The structure was laid out. And the post-production is in the debate created with her non-audience and community at large.
The surprise caused by these denials is emphasised by the fact that these proposals seemingly appear modest, practical, inoffensive, eminently realisable at low cost (bar that in the park perhaps). However unrealised it is, the work consists primarily of the idea of these projects. Documentation such as correspondence, photographs and sketches exist, along with Menia's tales of endless negotiations and procedures epitomising bureaucratic inefficiencies or power games. Although the various bodies with authority she tries to collaborate with must consider themselves safe by maintaining her projects invisible, that is precisely what makes her work so radical, highly relevant and essential. She has the flair to pinpoint hotspots. But the impossibilities she confronts are loaded with potentialities.
Through repeated failure, Amina Menia has formed a courageous and still misunderstood aesthetic of denunciation. Despite having an amorous relation with her birth town and country, she disapprovingly points at blind acceptance or even aphasia in society and is thus involved in the encouragement for change. Her intended gestures and social sculptures are poetic critiques of the socio-political situation in Algeria post-civil war. Opening new artistic territories outside the local white cubes, Menia's relentless struggle is with any ambient miasma.
In Le Blanc de l'Algérie (Paris, Editions Albin Michel, 1995, p. 145; translated as Algerian White) Assia Djebar aptly quoted Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable (1953): "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on." Perhaps also a necessary absurd litany for Amina Menia until further notice.
Independent curator and writer, based in Paris, France.
Internat. Architecture Exhibition, 22 May - 21 November 2021. Curator: Hashim Sarkis.
59th International Art Exhibition, 23 April - 27 November 2022. Artistic Director: Cecilia Alemani.