Sunday, 23 June 2024

MOHAMED BOUROUISSA

A journey to the centre of the art world

From Fantastic Man n° 35 — 2022
Text by JOHNY PITTS
Photography by GILLEAM TRAPENBERG

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The predicament in which Mohamed Bourouissa finds himself in is apparent at breakfast. At my boutique hotel in Montmartre (Fantastic Man looks after its writers) before our meeting, I pore over ‘Périphérique’, which is perhaps the French Algerian artist’s best-known body of work. It was at the heart of the extraordinary Arles show ‘Free Trade’, which examined Bourouissa’s multifaceted oeuvre over the previous 15 years and won him the prestigious 2020 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.

At an adjacent table, one of two Americans dressed in the creative-middle-class uniform of round spectacles and US Navy mechanic’s hats catches a glimpse of what I’m reading. “Beautiful book, isn’t it?” He smiles at me, then turns to his friend. “It’s this, like, photographer who takes these super-insider pictures of these really fucked-up French projects.” It is true: ‘Périphérique’ is a beautiful book. Published by the award-winning Marseille-based house Loose Joints, it has a minimalist design that, more than a decade after the work was made, quietly calls to mind the high-minded photo essays of the 1960s, and specifically the first edition of ‘Nothing Personal’, that elegant collaboration between James Baldwin and Richard Avedon. And like that ’60s opus, it has no cover photograph; the title is loaded enough to be compelling to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Paris and the ring road that divides Haussmann’s dreamscape from the banlieues made famous around the world by 1995’s ‘La Haine’.

Too often, though, as this breakfast encounter with my two American friends suggests, it is all too easy to produce a piece of work that merely stokes an in-crowd’s passing curiosity. Or perhaps piques the interest of a reductive on trend algorithm that in Mohamed Bourouissa’s case might go something like: George Floyd x Black Lives Matter + rise of the French far right = bingo: a book about the French suburbs.

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Mohamed won the prestigious Deutsche Börse prize in 2020, but he still insists that he is a bad photographer.

But Bourouissa is too smart to fall into this trap. ‘Périphérique’ has a not-so-well-kept secret at its heart that helps to mitigate hasty readings of its contents. Inside we find images of mostly Black and Arab men, full of crumbling tower blocks, burned-out cars, police raids, hooded stares and sinister graffiti. They may seem familiar. There is, however, something uncanny about the images that demands another look. These stereotypical mise en scènes are constructed – or rather deconstructed – by the people in the photographs, from the area being documented. Bourouissa, himself from the banlieues, orchestrates the staging. He bases some of the images on the dramatic scenes found in classical paintings and plays around with the tabloid clichés and visual cues of the French suburbs in a way that chimes with W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness” in the African diaspora: the juggling of one’s own essential truths with the “truths” imposed upon the Black subject by the white gaze. To take this body of work only for its style, then, or to profess a knowledge of the project purely as a documentation of the banlieue is to be revealed as an imposter, for ‘Périphérique’ is as much satire as it is serious social commentary.

SMILE

 
It is a pleasant weekday morning in a French capital that feels slightly more subdued than usual. After breakfast I jump on the RER to Bourouissa’s studio in Pantin, just outside the Boulevard Périphérique. I don’t know this north-eastern suburb of Paris but immediately become aware that it is not a suburb like Clichy-sous-Bois, where the artist has made a lot of his work. Clichy is where two young boys of African heritage were chased to their death by police in 2005, sparking riots nationwide. Unlike Clichy, Pantin feels more like a place in transition, close enough to central Paris to be on the verge of gentrification but far enough away from my hotel in Montmartre to feel like working-class people could survive here. I make my way to an industrial estate guarded by a North African man and an Alsatian barking in a way that lets me know it would happily rip my head off were it not on a chain. The security guard steps out of a small gatehouse and asks with a frown what I want. When I say I’m looking for Mohamed Bourouissa, the frown turns into a welcoming smile, and I’m pointed in the direction of a semi-derelict mirrored postmodern building. Inside I find an artist who is himself on the verge of some kind of shift, figuratively and literally.

Bourouissa greets me at the entrance and apologises for the mess; he’s in the process of moving his studio to somewhere more suited to a new uptick in work. With its cardboard files of archival material and bits of old tech piled up in corners, this studio gives the impression of an unself-conscious creative space where deep work happens. It feels liminal somehow, sandwiched spiritually and geographically between where he is from – a precarious periphery – and where he is perhaps going: the art-world establishment. He looks tired and a little stressed, but he also has a down-to-earth warmth that reminds me of the working-class Arabic community I grew up surrounded by back in Sheffield. He pours black coffee into a couple of plastic cups, and we sit by the window of this building that feels half warehouse, half 1980s dead mall. He asks if I’ve had anything to eat, and I tell him about the encounter with the guys at breakfast. He breaks a smile somewhere between amusement and exhaustion and says he isn’t surprised. “It’s funny, and I can exactly imagine it. It’s been hard. A lot of people don’t really understand what I’m trying to do, on lots of levels. Because I started with photography, people only look at me as a photographer, and because I made a series called ‘Périphérique’, it’s even narrower than that: I’m a banlieue photographer. I get calls from magazines trying to commission me to make pictures in the suburbs. They think I can just turn up somewhere for a couple of days and reproduce what they’ve seen in my previous work. But I try to explain to them that ‘Périphérique’ took me a lot of time – days, months or even a year just to make one picture. Then I need time to look at the picture after it is taken and make sense of what it is about, maybe play with it in Photoshop and so on. I do photography, and I like this medium, but I have to be honest: I’m a very bad photographer.”

BLIDA

 
Mohamed Bourouissa is not a very bad photographer, but is perhaps getting at the fact that he isn’t representative of the classic documentary tradition many magazines are used to. We met for the first time in person at Paris Photo a few months previously for the launch of a project I collaborated on with Taous Dahmani, who wrote an essay for ‘Périphérique’. It was for a special edition of ‘The Eyes’ magazine entitled ‘B-Side’. The goal was to address what we saw as discrepancies in the representation not just of race in photography but also of class, and where the two intersect. So we brought together a selection of photographers of colour working in Europe whose work had risen up through and been shaped by other geographies and traditions than the usual and had thus accrued forms that challenged the mainstream canon of the photography world. Bourouissa was one of the first people we approached.

Born in 1978 in the mid-sized Algerian city Blida – where Frantz Fanon famously practised psychotherapy and developed the ideas set down in his decolonial Masterpiece ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ – Bourouissa moved to France at the age of five with his mother, who was looking for work. He grew up in the Parisian suburbs, surrounded by the type of anger and disenfranchisement that would eventually boil over into the 2005 French riots. Yet he was also sustained by a close-knit community and the kind of creativity that happens when no one is looking, finding inspiration in hip-hop culture as a graffiti artist. Despite mediocre results at school, his proclivity for artistic expression eventually landed him a place at the prestigious Panthéon-Sorbonne university, where he studied fine arts. It was a bittersweet experience that gave him access to materials on the one hand but seemed to deem his own culture unworthy of art on the other.

For his first body of work, ‘Nous sommes Halles’, Bourouissa spent time in the shopping district of Les Halles with a second-hand Pentax, documenting the street fashion of working-class people. This gave him the opportunity to apply his new art school skills while focusing on the type of people he grew up with and the aesthetics that surrounded him. Even this more straightforward early work was layered with complexity. Most of the images included people attached to a subculture known as caillera (similar to what in the UK might be derogatively called “chavs”); the term is a reappropriation of Nicolas Sarkozy’s obnoxious assertion that the 2005 rioters were scumbags, or racaille. Much as working-class British culture reappropriated brands such as Burberry in the 2000s, the caillera wore Lacoste, and the brand is a common motif in the ‘Nous sommes Halles’ pictures. In this work the influence of New York photographer Jamel Shabazz, who documented everyday style on the streets of New York in the 1980s, is evident. It tells us how Bourouissa sees himself as an image maker: Shabazz is not an outsider looking for an urban horror story but an insider documenting what he knows.

A hip-hop head through and through, Bourouissa speaks passionately when Shabazz’s name comes up. “He was the first photographer I saw who came along and gave dignity and respect to the people. With ‘Nous sommes Halles’ I wanted to do a similar thing for my people and leave a trace of my generation in some way. That was very important for me when I was in my twenties. It’s a conceptual work, using photography with this very specific intention in mind. It was the first moment where I decided to have real intention with my work. It said ‘We are here’ and provided an alternative view of French culture that was multicultural, even just in terms of the fashion on display. Like hip-hop music, we remixed ingredients, reappropriated Lacoste and so on. At the moment, that late ’90s, early ’00s style is back in fashion, and everybody thinks it looks cool, but I think in 20 years it’s going to show how things were working on a cultural level – this mix of people that reinvented French culture. I’m interested to see how it works as a historical document.”

PARADOX

 
When I look around at Bourouissa’s archive, much of it unglamorously wrapped up and ready for transit, it strikes me as something of a miracle that people will indeed be able to look at and reckon with it in a couple of decades. I think of how archiving is so often reserved for those with the time to produce a large dedicated body of work on the one hand and the resources to store and preserve it on the other. How many narratives are lost between the cracks of history simply because they are not in the orbit of economic power or deemed culturally significant by those at the centre of the art world? But I wonder if this raises something of a paradox. When Bourouissa was practising his craft in the early ’00s, he was documenting people in a similar situation to his own. As Claude Lévi-Strauss suggests, however, is it not true that the person who begins to document something immediately becomes detached from the very thing he or she is documenting?

I ask Bourouissa how he makes sense of his new-found position as an artist from the periphery who is now being embraced by the establishment. There is a pensive moment of silence as, catching some sunlight breaking through the window, he looks out onto a makeshift courtyard containing a couple of old armchairs and a blue plastic table faded by the sun. “I think it’s about balance. For me, it is important not to do things just because people expect them of me or because they think my work should represent only one thing. Being human is not just about identity or ethnicity but also philosophy, spirituality, faith… Transcendental questions are important for an artist to grapple with. But I naturally want to work in a way that benefits my community. I’m working on a project with someone at the moment who had been getting in a bit of trouble, had no experience of filmmaking, but had a great idea for a film. So I put a team together, and we collaborated. I think it really altered the perception of the neighbourhood in which we’re living. I like travelling the world, but I have a child, and it’s definitely important to me to be active where I live. It’s a place where my son might grow up, and I need to be a part of building the community around him. I wouldn’t label myself an activist, exactly, but I just try to be engaged with my community in a modest way, be rooted in my surroundings.”

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Much of Bourouissa’s art blends highly conceptual work with people and communities you won’t usually find in an art gallery. The results are not only nuanced but often wildly original. He produced 2009’s ‘Temps mort’ with a friend who sent him low-definition videos during a stint in prison. Working with these moving images and further collaborating with the friend upon his release, Bourouissa produced an intimate, experimental piece that captures the everyday experiences of people who have fallen foul of the French system, beyond the sensational. Because of his refusal to make a clean, straight documentary in high definition, the result is haunting and visceral.

Similarly, 2015’s ‘Nasser’ is a short video of Bourouissa’s own uncle reading out a legal judgement against him by a criminal court. Nasser’s imperfect French clashes with the cold legal language of the document, and the discordance speaks more eloquently of the disjunction in French society than any full-length documentary. This is work that is not just about people from the periphery but of people from the periphery. It does not patronise, is not looking for any clean – and thus reductive – narratives. To detach the notion of conceptual art from working-class, Black or immigrant experience is not only a mistake, says Bourouissa, but is connected to the history of inequity imbedded in colonialism.

“There was this French psychiatrist named Antonine Porot, who justified the subjugation of Algeria by suggesting that its indigenous people were not capable of conceptual thought. He claimed that Europeans should lead because they were the only ones who could operate in the world of ideas. In many ways it’s a similar thing right now, where people suggest that if you’re Black or Algerian you can only talk about the banlieues or identity. In fact, being poor and Black in France gives you the ingredients to think conceptually – through religion, perhaps, but also the surreal everyday experience of growing up in the proximity of poverty. When I was a teenager, I grew up bonding with kids over our love of graffiti, but there was something under the surface of our relationship with this art of vandalism – something like a storm or maybe an echo. We wouldn’t talk about things in this way, wouldn’t have labelled what we were grappling with as postcolonial trauma, but it was there, and evident in the modes of expression we used. We all had this same kind of energy. I don’t want to reduce it by connecting it purely to suffering, but we grew up subconsciously feeling, I think, that something was ‘wrong.’ You wouldn’t have been able to put it into words, but it was there, and it is only when you get older that you see the shape of such things. My work tries to deal with this in many ways. What is behind or under the surface of our culture, our relationships, our country?”

In order to capture this “echo,” Bourouissa’s body of work is expansive not only in terms of its content but also in its form, spanning sculpture, painting and atmospheric installations. In his project ‘HARa!!!!!!hAaaRAAAAA!!!!!hHAaA!!!’, a call used by lookouts on north Marseille’s infamous estates to inform dealers that the police are on their way is elevated to a piece of sound art. Through distortion and repetition, it transforms into a kind of abstract incantation, stretched and warped. This sound from the suburbs has been heard everywhere from Danish art galleries to London universities. Similarly, Bourouissa’s film ‘The Whispering of Ghosts’ features the sound of ululation, a type of high-pitched modulated cry used throughout Africa. It is commonly used in celebration during special events like marriage ceremonies, but Bourouissa believes it is also a perfect example of how certain communities use a kind of artistic invocation to express trauma through indirect, visceral methods. These are necessarily abstract forms that allow information to be transmitted outside or beyond realms of officialdom. Whether or not they are quickly understood by the mainstream is perhaps beside the point. “‘Périphérique’ operates in a similar way,” he tells me. “If you are looking at the book to voyeuristically observe the suburbs, you will learn nothing, except maybe something about your own perspective. That book is really about the mechanisms of power. What you learn are things that are hidden under the surface.”

FRUSTRATING

 
Those mechanisms of power are still very much in place in France, a country that keeps few statistics about racial inequality due to a constitution that suggests, obliviously, that anyone who has French citizenship is simply French, that race and ethnicity don’t matter. But look beneath the surface and you’ll see a country that is deeply divided along racial lines in terms of wealth distribution and overall life opportunities. This is something Bourouissa sees acutely in the art world. When he expresses his frustrations, it isn’t with bitterness but rather in somewhat detached observations, perhaps because he isn’t overly invested in establishment bullshit.

“It took me a long time to be recognised in France. My first solo show was in 2018, but I’ve been visible since 2008. In 2010 I made the Berlin Biennale, and the Venice Biennale the year after. It works like that with all of my body of work. For example, I made this film ‘Horse Day’ in 2014, but it wasn’t recognised until around 2018. When I made this work I was trying to show how Hollywood constructed a kind of propaganda through its valorisation of white cowboys, without acknowledging the long existence of Black cowboys, but people didn’t really get what I was trying to do. It is only when something like Black Lives Matter happens that people retrospectively begin to understand what I was getting at.”

Bourouissa believes much of the problem has to do with structural inequality in the creative sector. If the people in charge of commissioning projects aren’t representative of the demographics of the country at large, how can they begin to understand the nuances and complexities of artists from those communities? “What I’m about to say probably won’t make me any friends,” he says, “but I think in France we’re a little bit behind the US and UK in terms of these kinds of conversations. The legacy of colonialism has still not really been dealt with in France. We prefer to talk more about assimilation rather than integration. Even in a place like Germany you had somebody like [the late Nigerian curator and art critic] Okwui Enwezor, who was not only a great curator but also the director at Haus der Kunst. In France we had to wait until last year to have a Black director of an institution, and even then, he is the director of the museum of immigration. It’s very frustrating, but though we are late dealing with these kinds of questions, it’s a beautiful thing to see so many artists right now who are focusing on such things in their work. It is creating a slow shift, I feel.”

What is apparent is that Mohamed Bourouissa is not an artist caught up in a news cycle: he’s in it for the long game. And one day, in a few years, I have faith that the American I met at breakfast will, with cappuccino in hand, look over ‘Périphérique’ again, and perhaps even read the accompanying texts. Then, in a moment of profundity, he’ll see what the work is really about.