A New York Exhibition Unravels the Complexities of Contemporary Algerian Art

The exhibition Waiting for Omar Gatlato: Contemporary Art from Algeria and Its Diaspora, currently at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery, offers profound insight into contemporary Algeria, specifically the country’s collective efforts to define a postcolonial identity and singular art aesthetic after years of French colonialism, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and civil war between the Islamists and the government.

The exhibition concisely articulates a nuanced and complex topic despite some of the technical and aesthetic shortcomings of the artworks. It also presents works by a wide range of artists, some who were witness to modern Algeria’s birth as a newly liberated state in the 1950s, and others born on the cusp of Algeria’s “black decade” in the 1990s.

Waiting for Omar Gatlato helps to situate this complex narrative and history through disparate examples of artworks by artists living both in Algeria and in diaspora. The survey-like nature of the exhibition successfully portrays the various experiences, considerations and questions that currently occupy a generation of artists who witnessed the political instability and civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. Although the artworks lack

The exhibition’s title, drawn from a work of criticism and a landmark film, is a reference to the need for Algerians to reflect on the development of freedom, artistic and otherwise, in a postcolonial era.

a common aesthetic, the show displays the infinite manifestations of artistic thoughts and responses to the country’s wars and social unrest by artists of various backgrounds and ages.

The exhibition, explains curator Natasha Marie Llorens in her curatorial essay, takes its name from a book published in 1979 titled En Attendant Omar Gatlato (Waiting for Omar Gatlato), written and edited by Wassyla Tamzali, on the history of the development of Algerian experimental film in the 1960s and 1970s, just after the country won its independence from France in 1962.

Fatima Chafaa, My Father’s Painting: Fatma D’Arc or Jeanne N’Soumer, 2019, mixed media installation.
Fatima Chafaa, My Father’s Painting: Fatma D’Arc or Jeanne N’Soumer, 2019, mixed media installation.

In her book, Tamzali writes about the need to go beyond pure pride in the existence of film culture and creation in Algeria to assessing the current standards of filmmaking and how to improve upon them.

The book, in turn, references Merzak Allouache’s film Omar Gatlato, which was released fourteen years after the end of the Algerian War and was regarded as a call for a paradigmatic shift among young Algerians in pursuit of intellectual freedom from the stranglehold of former French colonialism.

Thus, the exhibition’s title is a reference to the need for Algerians to reflect on the development of freedom, artistic and otherwise, in a postcolonial era still heavily ensnared by French cultural influence and collectively affected by their history of French occupation which they are still processing.

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According to Alexander Alberro, a professor of art history at Columbia’s Barnard College who wrote a brief introduction in the exhibition catalogue, it is the first survey of Algerian art in the United States. It is a believable claim: Rarely are Algerian artists exhibited in American institutions in group shows, and cultural and academic ties between the United States and Algeria are limited.

Even in the Middle East, Algerian artists are rarely exhibited. Some modernist Algerian artists, such as Mohammed Khadda, M’hamed Issiakhem and Baya, have entered the canon of modern Arab art, but arguably, some contemporary Algerian artists are more generally known and exhibited simply because they live outside of the country and therefore connected to other artists, curators and collectors, such as the artists Djamel Tatah and  Kader Attia, both of whom live and show in France. (See  two related articles, “The Artist Kader Attia Mocks Colonial History, then Heals Its Effects” and “A ‘Horizon of Infinity’: The Promise of Arab Abstract Art.”)

Bardi, El Fajr, 2015, diptych, acrylic on canvas.
Bardi, El Fajr, 2015, diptych, acrylic on canvas.

Tragically, politics and fighting hindered the development of Algerian art. When the power of the fundamentalist political group Islamic Salvation Front was at its peak, art was allowed but not encouraged by the state; and when a decade of civil war was over, artists responded to the cultural stagnation and limitation of the arts by producing works according to their understanding and notion of what contemporary art should look like.

The result, as Waiting for Omar Galato seems to suggest, is a heavy reliance on conceptual mixed media artwork and film. Perhaps it is appropriate then that the incomprehensible terror of war and the absurdity of Islamic fundamentalism would be processed by artists through a medium which allows for the dream-like and absurd to take tangible form.

Such is the work Naufrage (Shipwrecked), a 2016 film by Mounir Gouri. The film features two young men, one of whom plays the oud while the second dances to the music on a boat that is neither moving nor moored in movements more akin to contemporary techno. The disjointedness of the contemporary dance movements with the melancholy sound of the oud serves as a metaphor for Algerian youth who have to face confronting their history and their present, a dance of day-to-day living amid the question of where the future will take them.

Amina Menia’s work Chrysanthèmes (Chrysanthemums) is an ongoing series of photographs of commemorative stone markers erected along Algeria’s coastline to inaugurate the construction of public buildings and highways, or as monuments for the war victims. The series is a dig at the notion of democracy through the very artworks imposed on the public without thought given to the public who will view them, or the aesthetic effect of a particular work on others. Who is public art for if decided upon by a self-serving government?

Karim Ghellousi, Memory of the Jungle (in the desert I had to surrender), 2018, wood fragments on wooden panel.
Karim Ghellousi, Memory of the Jungle (in the desert I had to surrender), 2018, wood fragments on wooden panel.

There are works in the exhibition that speak with more subtlety about postcolonial politics, about the difficulty of untangling a complicated past from a more promising present.

Fatima Chafaa’s photographic installation combines old family photographs and prints of Lalla Fatma N’soumer, a heroine sometimes called an Algerian Joan of Arc who came to symbolize Algerian resistance to French colonization in the 1800s. The work plays on the artist’s own confusion as a child over a painting of Joan  D’Arc in her family home, which she conflated with N’Soumer.

Chafaa’s work recognizes the shared respect the French and the Algerians have for those who fight occupying forces. The work doesn’t pardon the French occupation of the artist’s homeland, but it presents a convincing argument for the questions which Llorens ends her essay with: Can nostalgia for one’s history obstruct an ability to understand one’s present? And can viewers recognize the ethno-cultural reasons that have prompted Algerian art to be what it is today?

Waiting for Omar Gatlato: Contemporary Art from Algeria and Its Diaspora runs until March 15 at the Wallach Art Gallery of Columbia University, in the Lenfest Center for the Arts building at 615 West 129th Street, in New York City.


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