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Yasmina Reggad: Since 2005, you have been inviting colleagues and friends to travel to Algiers with you. I believe that the primary image of Algeria in the collective unconscious is the civil war of the ’90s. Since then, there have been a lot of misrepresentations about this country. So you’ve opened a path and generated interest for today’s Algeria. What motivates you and how do you convince people?
Zineb Sedira: I guess because I love the country, its people, the landscape, the culture, the sense of humor, and its generosity… initially I wanted to share it with people I know and love. Then I realized that many artists and curators wanted to visit but were too scared to and worried about language barriers. So I helped them on a practical level, with their visas and accommodations. I also facilitated meetings between my guests and local artists and curators. These exchanges have been very fruitful and have led to many concrete projects.
The German-Algerian scholar Yasmina Dekkar is presently taking part in organizing Matters of Collaborations, a workshop with artists, filmmakers, authors, curators, and scientists that will take place in Algiers at the end of June 2012. The British professor Joseph McGonagle co-curated New Cartographies: Algeria-France-UK at Cornerhouse in Manchester last year; and the Franco-British Curator Caroline Hancock is preparing an exhibition in January 2013 at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin around post-colonial affinities between Ireland and Algeria.
Yasmina Reggad: What are the opportunities for Algerian artists to develop their career in Algeria? You also are a model and mentor for the young generation of artists there; how do you engage with them?
Zineb Sedira: Well, I have been going to Algiers regularly for almost a decade and I am starting to know the art scene well. Algeria has a small and shy art scene, which is desperate to develop and engage with other communities. On all of my trips, I have met many talented art students whom I have been following up on. They have indeed managed to create work and challenge some of the "conventional" teaching from the École des Beaux-Arts. The result is very exciting and promising. I also got involved in their career development, do some mentorship, and facilitate access to residency programs abroad, such as the Delfina Foundation in London. It has always been important for me to "expose" them to international artists and curators, because it is difficult for them to get access to this type of professional network and development opportunities.
Yasmina Reggad: Why did you choose to formalize your commitment to participating in the development of the arts in this country by developing a residency program? Why did you design it as a research- and process-oriented residency?
Zineb Sedira: The informal platform enabled local artists to initiate a dialogue with artists and curators outside Algeria. /A.R.I.A/ is a way to further develop this informal arrangement by implementing it as an official structure. We are also collaborating with Association Chrysalide, a local structure, which makes a huge difference for guest artists in terms of local knowledge, networking, and support in logistics. There aren’t many private cultural initiatives in Algeria and the socio-political context doesn’t really promote this type of initiative. So starting with 3 visiting artists was already a lot for the country.
Algeria is a very poorly known country, so I can’t expect that an artist will produce work on the first trip (although I encourage them). That’s why I wanted the residency to be focused on the research process, to start with. /A.R.I.A/ will be flexible enough and provide the tools for artists to "take risks".
Yasmina Reggad: /A.R.I.A/ was launched in May, hosting the Tunisian artist Nicene Kossentini. We are now halfway through her residence and I am amazed, not only by the engagement that Nicene has shown towards her fellow artists and other art students, but also by her commitment to and interest in working with the local community. Very quickly she started to develop a new work in Algeria and she is already thinking about coming back. Was this the main objective of /A.R.I.A/, to "hook" the artist to Algeria so they’ll come back to produce some work? What roles do you think the guest artist should or can play in the Algerian context?
Zineb Sedira: You are right to say that /A.R.I.A/’s intention is to "hook" the guest artists so that they can come back. But more importantly, I want them to become "ambassadors" of their experience of Algiers. This will break the image of Algeria as a "difficult" and "impenetrable" country. Obviously, this would help further if the artists wants to produce a work in Algeria or about Algeria to project the country in a wider context. That’s why we are trying to develop public programs during the artists’ stay. /A.R.I.A/ will offer them diversity in art forms, disciplines, and even taste.
Yasmina Reggad: You have always been very supportive with initiatives and artists based or originally from the Maghreb region. Is there any artistic or cultural dialogue between Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria? It isn’t a coincidence that, in this year of the pilot program, you took the risk of an experimental exchange with a very particular residency program, ArtSchool Palestine, evolving in a similar context as Algeria in the past (and somehow the present). Why do you think it is important for /A.R.I.A/ not only to be a platform of encounters between Algeria and the rest of the world, but also to create bridges with and to revive and enhance a dialogue with the neighboring countries?
Zineb Sedira: I was always interested in the neighboring countries, so Tunisia was a natural choice. Also, because of the recent events (Tunisian revolution), I felt there was an interesting link to the Algerian revolution of "October ’88". After the terrible civil war that resulted from this, I am watching very carefully what is happening in Tunisia. However, neither Nicene nor /A.R.I.A/ have any "political/activist" messages. Since the inception of the project, it was clear for me that each year, one residency would be "reserved" for an artist from the Maghreb.
On the other hand, working with Art School Palestine is very important, because the Palestinian cause is very present in the Algerian’s everyday life. I feel there are also similarities and potentially strong artistic exchanges. Exchanges with other "Arab" countries are important, because the Arab world is not a homogenous space. There is very little "communication" and very few bridges built between the Middle East and the Maghreb, and it hasn’t always been like that. I really would like to restore and develop this relationship further in the future.
Independent curator based in London. Founder and director of the non-profit organisation Photo-Festivals. Coordinator of /A.R.I.A./ Artist Residency in Algiers.