A Resilience of an African Art Scene that Refuses to Go Away Quietly
Just when everyone thought the Algerian political crisis had caused its Pavilion to disappear from the official map with the country’s first-time participation in the Venice Biennale postponed to 2021. Some of the artists chosen for the show, curated by Hellal Mahmood Zoubir, have decided to stage a guerrilla exhibition. Titled Time to Shine Bright, it opens today, attesting to the resilience of an African art scene that refuses to go away quietly. On the eve of the opening, we spoke with Amina Zoubir, one of the artists included in the show, about this unusual intervention.
The Algerian Pavillon was officially announced in the Venice Biennale program several weeks ago. But suddenly it just disappeared from the official list of national participations. Why do you think Algeria needs to participate in the Venice Biennale?
Since its independence in 1962, Algeria has mostly been absent from major international cultural events. As a major African country, Algeria, like Ghana and Madagascar, deserves to have its first pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, alongside other newcomers like Malaysia and Pakistan. It is not only that Algerian artists want to present their work within an artistic project of a pavilion, we believe it is a responsibility and a civic duty to honor the country of Algeria and its flag at the most important Biennals. The Venice Biennale is an international intellectual competition of contemporary arts, and for some the aim is to compete and win the Golden Lion. As Algerian artists, we have chosen to represent the Algerian pavilion, especially in light of the new Hirak generation that came out of those protest movements where populations demonstrated in the streets across cities in Algeria. This generation was demanding political and democratic changes.
This is an experience that I lived and experienced through my work as a visual artist. It is my duty, as an Algerian citizen and artist, to express a point of view in order to support the Hirak with respect to what is currently happening in Algeria. The positive consequences of the Hirak resulted in the President resigning on April 2nd. After that, the new Minister of Culture in charge of the transition withdrew the financial support for the Algerian Pavilion and decided, on April 4th, to postpone the official participation of Algeria at the Venice Biennale. The Minister made this decision without considering all the work we did to make this Algerian Pavilion a reality.
What impact do you think your own Venice performance has had?
I have been attending the Venice Biennale since 2011, visiting during each edition the various openings at the Giardini and Arsenale, as well as all types of other events and national pavilions. At each Venice Biennale launch, I orchestrated a performance in the streets of Venice, where I asked Venetians to help me look for the Algerian Pavilion. The traces of those performances in 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 are photographs that one can see on my website. I had always looked for the Algerian pavilion during the Venice Biennale, and then one day I decided to contribute to its birth by connecting the two competent authorities that could make it a reality.
You were one of the artists who were supposed to exhibit in the Pavilion? What was the exhibition Time to Shine Bright supposed to be about?
I had always questioned the eyes of others through my works, particularly as they relate to body experiences evolving in predetermined spaces. I often look to socio-cultural, ethno-psychic and political contexts. My works examine social and historical thoughts from poetics and myths formulated in the Maghreb and across North Africa. It is crucial to know where you are talking from before you begin to imagine where you want to go and decide to give yourself the means to exist. My project is not a material work, my project is meant to support a critical thought about what we are and how we face the world. How, as African artists, we can exist in the field of contemporary art.
This is one of the main aims put forward by the curator and writer Simon Njami, with whom I worked on the Afriques Capitales exhibition in April 2017 at the Gare Saint Sauveur, in Lille in France, and on the African Metropolis exhibition in June 2018 at the MAXXI Museum, in Rome. Actually, Simon said, in Frieze Magazine, a few days after the passing of Okwui Enwezor (curator of the Venice Biennale in 2015), that it is about “placing African artists on all global platforms and creating a set of essential tools, allowing them to be understood for what they are and not what the world wanted them to be.” I also feel like answering with some of the critical thoughts expressed by my mentors Okwui Enwezor and Olabisi Silva. Peace to their souls, they left us too early to complete their fight, but I want to honor and continue their work, because it’s about deconstructing the Western gaze and thwarting preconceived discourses on art, not only in Africa, but at the international level.
Therefore, my will to support the Algerian artists that were chosen for the pavilion is based on a need to sustain the curatorial statement of the Algerian Pavilion, especially as expressed by Hellal Mahmoud Zoubir, who said we must “resist and show our positions throughout our perceptions of what art is for us, and to lend an impetus so sorely missed over these last years, showing an avant-garde and acting with this genius process of resilience, beings who bring the glow to make us shine again in the darkness of the existential emptiness.” That is why I say that it is time for us to sparkle with our light. That curatorial statement is important, because it insists on the fact that Zoubir focused on young but experienced contemporary artists. All chosen artists were born in Algeria, and all were trained at the School of Fine Arts in Algiers where the director Ahmed Asselah was murdered on March 5th, 1994, along with his son Rabah during the civil war that Algeria faced in 1990s.
What about your opinion on the controversy that followed the withdrawal of funds from the Ministry of Culture of Algeria, and what did it take, in the end, to make the Algerian pavilion happen at the Venice Biennale?
The withdrawal of funds from the Ministry of Culture is a condescending move that shows a lot of contempt. It is an irresponsible response that proves the incompetence of the new team at the Ministry. The artists worked to make the pavilion a reality at the Venice Biennale. We stand in solidarity with our Algerian people and we support the demonstrations that shook the country toward democratic change. The Algerian Pavilion is an autonomous citizen project that intended to utilize the support of the Ministry of Culture in order to exist at the Venice Biennale.
There were instances of defamation and slander against certain Algerian artists. Many of that criticism came from Algerians residing in France, England or elsewhere. They say they care about public funds, even though they do not live in Algeria permanently and do not pay taxes in Algeria. Then, there was the bitterness of some local Algerian artists who were not selected for the pavilion. I understand their frustration but that should not justify their violence and criticism that came even though they never submitted proposals or worked to create the Algerian Pavilion or any exhibitions happening in Algeria or abroad for that matter.
We were victims of a kind of conspiracy hatched by a group of people who were united in the diaspora. This conspiracy was aimed at preventing the success of the Algerian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Because this particular diaspora tried to mount an Algerian Pavilion in the past, without ever being officially chosen or even registered with the Venice Biennale administration, this diaspora tried to represent Algeria from all these other countries where they live. They gave away scholarships and grants from private and public foundations, which is really just a way to exploit the cultural resources of Algeria without actually helping local Algerian artists. I see it as a form of neo-colonialism. We need to tell our own story, the story of how we live and experience, in real time and space, this territory called Algeria.
This diaspora worked tirelessly to prevent all initiatives coming from Algeria and by doing that they shamelessly poisoned the Algerian art scene in Algeria, and even applied pressure on the new Ministry of Culture. Obviously, the controversy was born with a letter signed by a hundred people whose goal, in speaking out about the dissolution of the Algerian Ministry of Culture, was just to prevent the existence of the first Algerian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. I have been approaching this situation with a lot of discernment. In Venice, we have an appointment with the history of art and we intend to leave a trace of our actions.
How, as curators and artists, did you express your disappointment with the situation? Did you make an official statement to your own government?
Our will, our statement is to maintain the exhibition at the Algerian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. We stand in solidarity with our Algerian people and we support all their legitimate demands. We dream of a country that will allow democratic change. We are not part of any old or new regime or political system. We are only artists. The national pavilions at the Biennale are never intended to present the entire artistic creation of a country, but rather a monographic or collective exhibition bringing together works that the curator, in complete independence, found relevant according to the general theme of a particular edition of the Venice Biennale. The national pavilions cover countries of very different sizes, from China to Montenegro, Cuba, the United States or Andorra. It is within this framework that we intend to honor Algeria. We have devoted our time and resources, including financial resources, to allow the Algerian Pavilion, beyond our own individual personalities, to finally be presented at one of the most important international contemporary art events, the 2019 Venice Biennale.