Exodus: A Mirror of Hope for the Future of Art Biennials

Interview by artist and biennial participant Anne Murray, — Master of Fine Arts and Master of Science in Theory, History, and Criticism of Art and Architecture, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, USA — with the curators and co-founders of the Mediterranean Biennial of Contemporary Art of Oran, Algeria, Sadek Rahim, and President of Civ-Oeil Gallery Tewfik Ali Chaouche.

With today’s mixture of classic and unconventional biennials, it is necessary to re-think the purpose and drive behind the biennial format itself and to question where we are going globally in terms of art, its movements, and its connection to globalization.

Recently, avant-garde approaches to the biennial format such as the Museum of Non-Visible Art Biennial (MONA Biennial), the upcoming Wrong Biennial, which combines digital pavilions with physical exhibitions around the world, and the Worldwide Apartment and Studio Biennial, have created an altogether different context, questioning the purpose and venue of biennials in contemporary times.

But what happens when someone decides to create a biennial that defies convention and is themed from the heart, refusing to indulge in the mass of political ambiguity and safe quadrants of benign titles and approaches that have come to define the biennial format in recent years, but instead, confronts directly the global issues of exodus? Such are the underpinning principles of the Mediterranean Biennial of Contemporary Art of Oran, Algeria, which is in its 4th edition this year.


Photo credit Anne Murray, Curators Sadek Rahim (on the left), Tewfik Ali Chaouche, and journalist Stéphanie Pioda


Sadek, what was your major role as a curator in this exhibition?  I understand that you worked with several of the young artists helping them to develop their ideas. In the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, they paired more established artists with emerging artists to help build and support the younger artists and their careers. Do you think this combination will be a new trend in biennial exhibitions? As an established artist yourself, were you acting as curator and mentor to these young artists?

Sadek Rahim: What David A. Bailey and Jessica Taylor have done as curators of the Diaspora Pavilion in Venice, and which is very interesting, is to create a pavilion structured as a project. They had the great idea to put out an open call for emerging British artists of various backgrounds in 2016. These young artists had not only to work on projects for the biennial, but also over a two-year period they underwent mentoring and support from a group of established artists. What we wanted to do at the Mediterranean Biennial of Contemporary Art in Oran, was similar, except with regard to Algeria, there is a sense of urgency, because we are significantly behind in this area.

The curatorial work with three young artists was such a great experience for me as an artist and as a supporter of change in the cultural and academic programs of our country. These three artists: Islem Haouti, Nora Zaïr, and Djamel Benchenine were a good example of what we can do to help young artists to take a step forward. By the end of our time working together Benchenine had an installation 6 or 7 meters long called Camps. The work is a model of a Sahrawi refugee camp (Dakhla) in the city of Tindouf in Algeria. He made the tents of this camp out of wood — originally white — and painted them in black, a color that reflects the tragedy of these people’s lives. In 2016, Djamel was invited as an artist to The International Film Festival of Western Sahara (Fisahara), which takes place at this camp and others and also, simultaneously, in Madrid, allowing for a greater visibility within the world of Spanish cinema, as well as raising awareness of the Saharawi cause in Spain.

Nora Zaïr, photographer, worked on Rumi poetry. Rumi was one of the first who elaborated the ‘Sufi turning’ or the dervish dance. The physical exertions of movement, specifically dancing and whirling, in order to reach a state assumed by outsiders to be one of ‘ecstatic trances’ a way to travel ‘above’ to be closer to heaven. Her installation, a photograph is glued to one of the panels of the museum elevator. Nora photographed a kid next to graffiti on a wall, which said ‘’towards a reinvented world.”

My work with photographer Islem Haouti was mostly about contemporary techniques and how to represent photography in a contemporary way. Islem chose to print a photograph called freedom taken in the Western Saharan camps on a sticker and directly mounted it on one of the walls of the museum. The picture was taken when he worked with the Spanish human rights organization ARTifariti, inside a camp in the Western Sahara in 2016. I think this collaborative combination should be utilized in biennials, especially those of the Arab world and more precisely of the MENASA region (Middle East North Africa South Asia).


Photo credit Sadek Rahim, Camps, an installation by Djamel Benchenine


Tewfik, what do you as a curator and/or artist bring to the biennial that is unique?

Ali Chaouche: As the curator and founding artist of this biennial, I do everything I can with the organization, administration, and the making of the different exhibitions. There are multiple objectives for this biennial: to create a platform of contemporary art for exchange between artists of the Mediterranean region, also to create an Algerian art market in partnership with the international art market, to make the work of contemporary Algerian artists known internationally, to participate in the confrontation of some of the themes that unite us, and also to participate in the evolution of contemporary art in the Mediterranean.


How much do you think the venue and the support of the organizations involved has affected the outcome of the biennials of the past and the current biennial?

Ali Chaouche: Without a doubt, the place of exhibition and the support of state institutions plays a crucial role in the continuation of this art event: previously we had no financial support from the Ministry of Culture, and yet, thanks to various sponsors and partners, we were able to organize the biennial anyway (in the basement of the Mediathèque (former Cathedral of Oran, which is currently empty). Now with the new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and a director who is in favor of a partnership, the financing for the next edition is open to possibilities and we have an optimistic vision for the future.


Were there interpretations of the theme, Exodus, that were different than one would expect?

Ali Chaouche: Yes, there were some artists whose works interpreted the theme of Exodus in a very different way; that is what makes contemporary art so rich. Video art was more present in this biennial, which was new, for MAMO was only inaugurated in March 2017 and did not always have the technical requirements for video projection.

One specific interpretation that caught our attention in terms of the technical and the artistic features, is without a doubt, your performance video, Exquisite Exodus. As an American artist, and global citizen, your work was quickly noticed for your beautiful performance video and photographs, which takes a more psychological perspective in the video accompanied by a narrative text.


Photo credit Anne Murray, Exquisite Exodus by Anne Murray, watch the video here: (pictured above is fellow artist participant, Sihem Salhi, watching the video) 


How do local artists feel about the Venice Biennial? Is it a goal to be represented there?

Ali Chaouche: The Venice Biennial remains the principal frame of reference for excellence for every artist in the Mediterranean region and, most certainly, for Algerian artists in their quest for international recognition, knowing full well that after having exhibited their work in the ‘oldest biennial in the world’ its fame will move an artist further up the list of notoriety; some of the artists who have benefited from this recognition and opportunity are French-Algerians, who have had the opportunity to show in other national and curated pavilions, which are not labelled as Algerian, thanks to the help of their galleries, for example Kader Attia and Adel Abdessemed.


Sadek, as an Algerian artist with growing notoriety, especially after your recent participation in Art Dubai, what are your thoughts and goals and are they related in any way to the Venice Biennial?

Rahim: Even though one’s chances are slim, with my gallery owner in Algiers, Amal Rougab, and the president of the Biennale of Oran, Tewfik Ali Chaouche, we are setting up a project and hoping that the Ministry of Culture will finally provide support in order to try to have a space at the next edition of the Venice Biennale.  It is important because for a long time artists of Algerian origin have participated in the Venice Biennial but under so many other flags other than the Algerian one: Kader Attia, Zineb Sedira, Samta Benyahia…


The development of national pavilions has been a large part of the history of the Venice Biennial, how does that relate to Algeria historically and the desires of Algerian artists?

Rahim: In Algeria since its independence in 1962, protectionism, populism and above all nationalism are strict in the country; I wonder how the Algerian state resisted an opportunity like the Venice Biennial to show its power and greatness as is often done during military parades and other nationalist occasions.


Photo credit Nora Zaïr, a photograph called, Up, by Nora Zaïr


What are some of the issues related to the contemporary art scene in Algeria that you see manifesting themselves?

Rahim: Many artists leave Algeria because there is a great lack of galleries, museums, art fairs — the art market here is at its very infancy. Most of these artists leave the country for Europe or the USA, like Yazid Oulab, Massinissa Selmani or Adel Abdessemed. Artists who are still in the country bet on international events to show their work, to make a living and especially to prove to all the world that there is a consequent art production in the country. So, events such as the Venice Biennial are the ideal opportunity for Algerian artists to prove themselves and their very artistic existence.


What makes the biennial in Oran distinct from other biennials in the world?

Ali Chaouche: It’s the people and the city, who are open to Mediterranean cultures and to the world, the people are welcoming and curious about contemporary art. On the economic plane, Oran is the 2nd largest city in Algeria after the capital, with its oil port of Arzew and its industrial zone; it has been in a state of urban expansion since 2010 and there is an awareness of that it is still in an adolescent stage (with the formation of new networks of roads and urban spaces, etc.) From this, there springs an interest to create new contemporary art spaces like the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Oran, and the emergence of collectors and art lovers. Businessmen such as Mr. Dillali Merhi who owns work by Dinet, donated a part of his collection to the Royal Hotel of Oran, where many art enthusiasts who are investors in Oran in the domain of art and culture can meet up. It is a city that is flourishing day by day with its youth population very focused on new mediums of contemporary expression.


Why do it? What makes you put the time in to create a large-scale exhibition like this in Algeria?

We decided to create this biennial in 2010 with the encouragement of many partners, who promised us their support. Our financing is neutral and non-political and we maintain freedom in our choices and ideas with respect to the founding principles of the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria. Our Biennial is founded and created by an artistic and cultural association independent of any guardianship. In the end, what really brings us to realize the magnitude of the impact and importance of this biennial, is our success in the previous editions, which makes our commitment to sharing and creating exchanges between other countries and artists of the Mediterranean and the world, a key factor in creating a message of peace for a better world.


What do you have planned for the upcoming biennial?

Ali Chaouche: Everything depends on financing: if our association had sustained financial support from the ministry of culture for this event it would have been different: We would have had an open call to find an event agency that could create the programming a year in advance. We would have chosen three independent professional curators, with each proposing a different theme: 1 curator for the Algerian diaspora abroad, 1 curator to choose the local artists, 1 curator to choose the foreign artists. The biennial would extend to other spaces around the city of Oran and we would create a catalogue before the opening of the exhibition and other brochures to share around the city and to attract tourism. There would also be guided visits for students and scholars with mediators of contemporary art.


4th Mediterranean Biennial of Contemporary Art of Oran, Algeria

July 2nd-31st, 2017

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Oran