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Algerian-French artist Kader Attia’s work on show at Sydney’s MCA
The Australian

Algeria occupies an important place in the French mind, but its history and culture, despite its famous sons Camus and Derrida, remain fairly obscure to most of the English-speaking world. It is not nearly as well known as its western neighbour Morocco, or even Tunisia to the east, because it never developed a comparable tourist business or indeed allure. Also, for the past few decades civil war (1991-2002) and problems with Islamic militants — which began before the world in general had any idea of the scale of the menace — have made it unsafe for travellers to visit.


The region first comes into historical focus in the Roman period, after the Roman Republic replaced the Phoenician city of Carthage as the dominant power in the western part of north Africa — or what is still called today the Maghreb, from the Arabic word for west. Part of what is now Algeria fell within the kingdom and later province of Numidia, while the western part, as well as Morocco, constituted the kingdom of Mauretania. Mauretania became a client kingdom under Augustus and was annexed to the empire under Claudius.


The native inhabitants in antiquity were originally tribal Berbers — whose descendants today are the Tuareg — but as part of the Roman Empire many of them assimilated the Roman way of life. After the fall of the empire in the 5th century, the Maghreb was invaded by Germanic barbarians, then reconquered by the Byzantine empire 100 years later. Finally, in the 7th century they were overrun by the Arab conquests that followed the establishment of the new religion of Mohammed.


The Arab invasion led to an ethnic division that is still a source of tensions almost 1½ millennia later: Islamic fundamentalism, for example, is more common among Arabs than Berbers. To Europeans, the area was long known as the Barbary Coast, and for centuries Algiers became a base for pirates preying on the south of Europe, the Mediterranean islands and European shipping.


Pirates not only plundered smaller communities but carried off their men and women to sell as slaves or to hold for ransom. In 1541 the emperor Charles V attempted unsuccessfully to invade Algiers and put an end to the pirate threat, but by that time the pirates were an important part of the fleet of the Ottoman sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. Britain was much more successful in the bombardment of Algiers in 1816, resulting in the liberation of thousands of slaves, but the slaving and kidnapping trades did not disappear until the French invaded and annexed Algeria in 1830.


The French held Algeria for 132 years from 1848 not as a colonial possession but as a fully integrated administrative area of France. By the time they left in 1962 there were more than 900,000 European Algerians and 100,000 Sephardic Jews, almost all of whom left, causing further difficulties in the places where they resettled, such as Corsica.


But far more serious in the long run were the consequences of Algerian emigration to France: many educated and Europeanised Algerians already lived in or moved to France, and Algerian soldiers continued to serve in the French regular army. But the large number of auxiliary troops known as Harkis were not formally entitled to emigrate to France. Many did, with the help of their French officers, but tens of thousands were abandoned to be tortured and massacred by the FLN rebel fighters. The Harkis in France, mostly uneducated and unassimilated to French culture, were marginalised until recently, when presidents Jacques Chirac and especially Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to improve their situation.


Kader Attia was born in France to an Algerian family (his mother is a Berber) living in the outer suburbs of Paris, and spent his early life alternating between his two countries, aware, as his father already was, of belonging completely to neither. Throughout human history, the vast majority of people have lived and died in almost the same place; but in certain periods of dynamism and mobility, such as the Hellenistic age or the Roman Empire, expatriation and movement in both directions between metropolis and colonies became common.


Geographically too, the Mediterranean has always been a particularly fluid zone of migration and cultural exchange. Such mobility favours a higher level of self-consciousness, but also of existential discomfort among all concerned, from the melancholy of the colonist, unsure of where home is, to the anxiety of the colonised, who may discover new intellectual horizons and new opportunities, but who also suffer the pain of separation from the unreflecting certainties of their native culture.


Attia, who is the subject of an exhibition in Sydney, embodies this predicament, which becomes a central preoccupation of his art. In one set of works he considers the phenomenon of the “phantom limb” — where the brain produces illusory sensations of a limb that has been amputated — as an analogue of the experience of cultural loss and displacement. But whereas much art on such subjects is vitiated by self-pity or resentment, Attia sees loss, trauma and mourning in a broader perspective and is interested in the processes of healing.


In an interview shown in the exhibition, Attia takes as an example of his concept of repair a precious Japanese tea-bowl that had been broken and repaired with gold. In the West, he says, we tend to think of repair as restoring a thing to its former state. But such invisible mending can become a form of amnesia; in the repair of the Japanese cup, the breaking is acknowledged and becomes an essential part of the aesthetic of the remade piece. It is a suggestive metaphor for the process by which all culture needs to be consciously remade in the process of a living tradition.


The exhibition begins with a large room full of metal shelving on which books and magazines are displayed, one group from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the other from about 100 years later. The earlier publications are mostly popular illustrated papers like the Journal des Voyages, which specialised in regaling an uneducated working-class readership with tales and pictures of the barbaric customs of native peoples in the colonial world.


The other set of books and magazines deals with the eruption of global Islamic terrorism over the past 20 years. There are parallels with the earlier and sensationalist presentation of alien barbarism, but Attia is not suggesting the problem is not real: rather he seems to be drawing our attention to the difficulties of the modern world, shaped by the habits of thought of science and technology, in understanding the non-rational or even violently irrational ways of thinking of pre-modern cultures.


Attia is clearly no religious zealot. A room in the exhibition full of what appear to be kneeling women at prayer turns out to be made up of hollow shells moulded in aluminium foil over bodies no longer present. The work is profoundly ambiguous, alluding perhaps to the disappearance of ego in the act of prayer, but also inevitably leaving us with a sense that the hollowness of the figures cannot be entirely positive.


More clearly critical is a video work that we are explicitly told is a reference to the Ka’aba in Mecca. The video shows a large white cube built of smaller sugar cubes. Then black crude oil is poured on to the structure and within moments the oil begins to eat away at the sugar, causing one of its walls to fall in, before the whole thing subsides into a seething mass of decay. The allegory is not hard to interpret.


An extended video work nearby deals with the subject of the phantom limb and includes interviews with philosophers, therapists and historians discussing both the medical phenomenon and the cultural dislocation for which it is being taken as metaphor.


Interspersed with these interviews are shots of amputees whose phantom limb experience is recreated with the used of mirrors; later in the film we are shown how this mirror illusion was staged for the camera.


The point is several times made by therapists that once amputees have acknowledged their loss, there is nothing to stop them living a perfectly happy life. The same cannot be said, however, for the victims of appalling facial wounds in war, some of which are documented in a set of photo-collages. It is hard to see how many of these unfortunate men could even survive physically, let alone recover psychologically.


The horror of war is evoked in an installation shown just behind the set of printed materials mentioned earlier. It is an impressive spectacle: a crowd of austere heads, carved from teak, are silently watching an excerpt from the climactic episode of Abel Gance’s film J’accuse, originally made in 1919 as a desperate lament for all those who had just died in the war, and remade in 1938 as an expression of even greater desperation as a new war was about to begin.


The excerpt shown is the most famous part of the film, in which dead soldiers and sailors rise from their graves and march through the countryside like vengeful ghosts. The images of the Douaumont Ossuary, with its tall tower and sinister flashing lights, must have been added in the 1938 version, since this monument to the dead of Verdun was completed only in 1932.


This is the spectacle being watched over and over again by the powerful wooden heads, all of which have the same terrible facial mutilations that we saw in the photographs — except that here, in this transformation through the making of art, something fundamental has changed: where the photographs were specific and repellent, the carvings are universal and poignant.


In theatre as in painting, Aristotle said, we can contemplate things that we would turn away from in life. What could never be remedied in reality is thus repaired by art; although it is disappointing — and ironic considering his interest in the subject of colonialism — to learn that this most powerful section of Attia’s exhibition relies on the skills of African carvers from Mali and Congo.