Mohamed Bourouissa on the identity crisis in France: “We have some catching up to do! | Art
IIn early 2020, when Dave was making British history by triumphing at the Brits and Mercury Music Awards, the equivalent awards in France were making headlines for all the wrong reasons. That year’s Victoires de la Musique did not feature any flagship awards for a black or Arab rapper. “Domestic rap has become the soundtrack of a national identity crisis,” said a journalist of the newspaper. Where the British rapper was crowned for his celebration of black britannicity, French hip-hop still fought for the right to be considered French.
It is a crisis that the rising star of contemporary art Mohamed Bourouissa is experiencing from the inside. As he says curtly: “France has some catching up to do. “
His latest work hopes to contribute to this. When we talk on the phone, Bourouissa is in the middle of planning. His first large-scale solo exhibition in the UK opens at the Goldsmiths CCA this month. The confinement saw a temporary workshop in Pantin, in the north-eastern suburb of Paris, become a permanent workplace. There he has two offices. One for the teams who manage its large-scale projects. “And another,” he said, “where I can be alone and dream.”
His cell phone starts playing as we talk and he needs to plug it in. “Strangely,” he said, “electricity – the electrical impulses produced by living things – has occupied my mind a lot.” Last year, for the Sydney Biennale, he produced a piece called Brutal Family Roots, which riffs on this idea in a bright way. He had discovered that the bright yellow flowering tree he had known from his childhood in Algeria as mimosa was in fact a native Australian species known to the native Wiradjuri people as garal. Its spread across the world was colonial history at large, in golden-hued pollen.
Rap music has also traveled the world, taking root in new places of urban hardship and resistance. Bourouissa therefore worked with a sound designer and two Australian MCs to transpose the frequencies emitted by trees into music. Visitors to the resulting installation were stretched out on a wall-to-wall yellow carpet, amidst potted saplings in steel drums that were hooked up to loudspeakers, on which the rappers talk about traveling with the wind and cross the water mixed with the clean air of the trees.
Bourouissa was born in Blida, northern Algeria, in 1978. He moved to France with his mother when he was five and she was looking for work. Growing up in the suburbs, he didn’t get along very well at school. He did technical drawing in college, then fine art in college (and a lot of graffiti next to it). A friend introduced him to photography, which he pursued at the legendary National School of Decorative Arts, before doing a post-graduate internship at the Fresnoy research center in Tourcoing. There he began to work with cinema.
“Everything was made up of chance encounters. I don’t come from an artistic background. At first, I didn’t even understand what it meant to be an artist. I learned it all on the job, so to speak. Going to the school of fine arts was to access knowledge, material and, with the camera, an intuitive tool to reconcile its two worlds. “Our lectures,” he says, “told a very white, western-centric story of art history – minimalism, abstraction, American abstract expressionism, conceptual art. And I thought, Well no, I want to talk about my surroundings and my friends.
Inspired by the first hip-hop documentary photographs of Harlem and Queens, Bourouissa traveled to Les Halles shopping center in Chatelet, central Paris, and photographed children in Lacoste tracksuits and matching bobs. “It’s pretty funny to think streetwear is so trendy now,” he says. “At the time, it was just a subculture. [French] hip-hop was really starting to take hold. I wanted to make it visible. It was not the clothes that we did not see, but the people who wore them. As he told the late conservative Okwui Enwezor in 2017: “Twenty years ago in France, there weren’t many images of Algerians or Blacks in the books; if there were, they were more of a sociological or ethnographic nature. It was not about portraying their essence.
Much has been said about Bourouissa’s talent for constantly focusing on neglected communities, most notably in his stellar series, Périphérique (Périphérique), from 2005 to 2009. Here he re-staged visceral scenes inspired by historical painting in striking suburban backdrops. Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix became young men in hoodies and beanies holding a flag over a flat-roof garage at night, a high-rise tower glittering in the background.
His gorgeous 2017 project, Horse Day, meanwhile, began as a film about a group of black cowboys in Philadelphia (the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club) and led to a collaborative celebration of a hidden equestrian culture in the ancient roots.
And then there is the sound piece 2020 whose the goldsmith’s salon takes its title: HARa !!!!!! hAaaRAAAAA !!!!! hHAaA !!! The word is based on “hara“, The Marseille version of” Five-O “, this watch cry used to alert the dealers of the arrival of police officers.
By emphasizing the hyperlocal in this way, Bourouissa diverts our attention from any established center (a national capital, a dominant culture) and instead shows how the people of these marginalized communities are not, in themselves, marginal: where they are is their center.
What really interests him, however, is what lies beyond this center-marginal dichotomy: “I think about the way things flow, how they rub against each other and how it creates. from space. Seen from this side of the 2020 protests – in which black riding collectives memorable presented themselves at the steps of the BLM – Bourouissa Horse Day is quite deeper.
In the midst of a global pandemic and an escalating economic crisis, Bourouissa is keenly aware of the impact any spectacle could have. “Brexit is really here now. The health situation is dire. I can’t just walk in showing off big, expensive pieces. Any young artist in difficulty will ask himself, what is this Frenchman doing? “
Does he mean like Jeff Koons and the muffled bouquet of shiny balloon tulips he gifted in Paris at the end of 2019?
“I did not dare to say it”, answers Bourouissa. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t like Jeff Koons either. I like his job; he speaks at a time.
Bourouissa certainly speaks to his family. Invited to participate in the Liverpool Biennale 2018, he wanted to create a healing garden in Toxteth, a space of resilience inspired by the gardens that the psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon had developed during his stay at the psychiatric hospital in Blida. He therefore returned to Algeria to interview one of Fanon’s former patients. Fanon of course became an influential anti-colonialist writer, and Bourouissa’s idea of a garden resonated with other biennial participants. An African studies researcher asked her if she could plant seeds (okra and hibiscus) related to slavery.
In France, however, Fanon’s work is only just beginning to find an audience. “It was this important French thinker, who was completely canceled, because at one point [during the Algerian war of independence] he sided with the Algerians. As someone who carries these stories in their bones, Bourouissa removes the layers.