Waiting for Omar Gatlato. A Survey of Art from Algeria and Its Diaspora

In the midst of the chaos of perpetual lockdowns, an exhibition survey of art from Algeria and its diaspora, opened recently at Triangle – Astérides in Marseille.

This exhibition marks the second iteration of curation by Natasha Marie Llorens of this unique example of contemporary artists with roots in Algeria. In the autumn of 2019, I met Llorens, while she was in the process of working with artists to set up the first version of this exhibition at Wallach Art Gallery in New York City, where the selection of artists included many emerging artists from Algeria. For the most part, I was well acquainted with these artists, as I had met them while I was an artist-in-residence at Les Ateliers Sauvages, an art space founded by Wassyla Tamzali in Algiers. Tamzali, has almost single-handedly supported many of these artists, bolstering their careers with her art residency, and her interconnected network across the globe. In this current exhibition at Triangle in Marseille, some of the emerging talents have been replaced with the superstar cast members of the diaspora including Kader Attia and Zineb Sedira, who is selected to represent France in the 59th Venice Biennale.


Hellal Zoubir, Icare (Icarus) oil on canvas, 124 x 199,5 cm, 1978, © Hellal Zoubir, Courtesy of the artist


These powerhouse artists have led the way for the next generation, forging a path questioning and pushing for the decolonization of the art world, of Algerian thoughts and movements, exploring and documenting this process through their extensive works in a multitude of media. The exhibit includes a commissioned sculptural work by Adel Bentounsi, as well as historic works such as Icarus by Hellal Zoubir. Sedira’s C Print, The Lovers, is well known and striking in its display of two dilapidated ships leaning one against another as two rotten cores, their underbellies of rusted steel. Each of these works tells their own story, each political in its own way, provocative, silent, and bold, subtle, and overt. The selection of artists is a contemporary canon of Algerian artists and the diaspora, and their movements in style, philosophy, and media. 


Exhibition view "En attendant Omar Gatlato. A Survey of Art from Algeria and Its Diaspora", Triangle - Astérides, Centre d'art contemporain, Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille, 2021. Fayçal Baghriche, Le bras du Cardinal, 2020, commissioned by Centre national des arts plastiques © Adagp, Paris 2021.  © Photo Aurélien Mole


While the show’s title comes from a text by Tamzali, the origin goes further back to a film, which Llorens describes, “The link to Tamzali was made out of an obligation to show how many have come before me, how much work has already been done in this line. What really interests me is the film, Omar Gatlato, because it was a watershed moment in the self-representation of post-liberation Algeria. It broke a set of codes about what Algerian aesthetics looked like in the mid-1970’s.” 


Photo of curator Natasha Marie Llorens - Photo credit: Maarten Nauw / Framer Framed


Indeed, one is inspired to watch the film, to understand and analyze, to discover what this aesthetic might be and what might have been the presuppositions she refers to. In the Wallach Art Gallery show, there was a sculpture made from a pressure cooker by Adel Bentounsi. It stood on its own, a pedestal topped by this typical item found in the Algerian home. One imagined the heat and steam within it, the boiling point controlled and encased in steel. This item is not only found in Bentounsi’s work, but also in works by Sadek Rahim in the past and others, as well as carpets which appear in Rahim’s work over the years and in other artists not only from Algeria, but in the North African region. The semiotics of a culture in flux include these items both mass produced and handmade, an everyday familiarity with these objects has made them like clay to the artists, something to be manipulated, to be arranged, displayed, and finally interpreted.


Exhibition view "En attendant Omar Gatlato. A Survey of Art from Algeria and Its Diaspora", Triangle - Astérides, Centre d'art contemporain, Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille, 2021. © Photo Aurélien Mole 


Artists also have taken on the mythologies of other cultures; regarding his painting, Icarus, Zoubir explains,”Icarus is one of the stages, in which I was preparing for another flight, that which would open the way for me to new experiences - This quote from Djalâl ad-Dîn Rûmi served as my leitmotif: ‘As soon as you advance on the path, the path appears.’” His reference hits home when I think of Algerian art, how the path has opened up for so many of these artists once they began to walk it. 


“Everything is different in Marseille, which is the city in which I was born and with which I have a long and complicated relationship. I did not choose different artists on the basis of surrounding cultural narratives, though. The show evolved out of a set of partnerships -- with the Box24 in Algiers and with the Cnap in Paris, on the basis of a long-term research project I conducted in their archives from 2017-2019,”says Llorens of this second exhibition and the process of creating it. She further explains the concept, “In the Marseille version, I am a bit more focused on the thematic threads that helped organize the exhibition that I borrow from Omar Gatlato, but hopefully, the focus is in service to people's encounter with the work rather than my conceptualization.” 


If you can take the time to go out and see some exhibitions, this one will be well worth it, in its scope and sequence of works in concert, each singing its own song, while as a chorus, it unites a living history. 



Anne Murray



Triangle – Astérides February 12- May 16th, 2021
in partnership with le Centre national des arts plastiques within the framework of Cnap, and with Box24. 


A coproduction of la Friche la Belle de Mai
with the support of l’Institut Français d’Algérie et de la Région Sud. 


Artists : Mohamed Aksouh, Arezki-Aoun, Kader Attia, Louisa Babari, Baya, Fayçal Baghriche, Abdallah Benanteur, Mahjoub Ben Bella, Adel Bentounsi, Halida Boughriet, Nasser Bouzid, Fatima Chafaa, Hakima El Djoudi, Hassen Ferhani, Abdelkader Guermaz, Mohammed Khadda, Mourad Krinah, Nawel Louerrad, Amina Menia, Ahmed Merzagui, Lydia Ourahmane, Sadek Rahim, Sara Sadik, Zineb Sedira, Massinissa Selmani, Fella Tamzali Tahari, Djamel Tatah, Hellal Zoubir, Sofiane Zouggar.



cover image: Zineb Sedira, The Lovers, 2008, C-print,120 x 100 cm, © Zineb Sedira / DACS, London, Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris/London