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Mohamed Bourouissa at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris

An image from Mohamed Bourouissa's retrospective "Signal" at Palais de Tokyo 
Photo credit: ARETE/ Simone Kussatz
An image from Mohamed Bourouissa's retrospective "Signal" at Palais de Tokyo Photo credit: ARETE/ Simone Kussatz
This photo captures the mimosa plants of the Giardini installation in the main exhibition hall of Mohamed Bourouissa’s retrospective ‘Signal’ at Palais de Tokyo
From Mohamed Bourouissa’s retrospective ‘Signal.’ Photo made by the artist. Photo credit: ARETE/ Simone Kussatz

TO MAKE THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE: MOHAMED BOUROUISSA’S “SIGNAL” AT PALAIS DE TOKYO IN PARIS, FRANCE

Introduction:

Having once immersed myself in the vibrant Los Angeles art scene, the Mohamed Bourouissa retrospective “Signal” curated by Hugo Vitrani and Alice Rochepeau at Palais de Tokyo held special significance for me. Back in 2019, while still residing in Los Angeles, I didn’t seize the chance to go to his exhibit at the Blum Gallery on La Cienega. Now, in Palais de Tokyo, I embarked on this exploration with minimal knowledge of the artist, approaching it with a sense of curiosity and a genuine eagerness to learn—feelings I encourage you to share as I delve into his retrospective.

Upon immersing myself in Bourouissa’s work, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how deeply it resonated with me. However, as is often the case with contemporary and conceptually driven art exhibits, a substantial amount of supplementary reading was required to fully grasp it, especially within the context of France’s intricate history and its contemporary challenges.

Mohamed Bourouissa’s Background:

Mohamed Bourouissa is a French-Algerian contemporary artist born in Blida, Algeria, in 1978, a city known for its roses, cork trees, and orange, and cedar groves. Blida is also recognized for hosting the first psychiatric hospital in Algeria, which segregated the local community from its French colonizers. Bourouissa moved to France at the age of five and grew up in Courbevoie, a densely populated suburb of Paris. He received formal training at esteemed institutions such as Le Fresnoy, École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, and Université Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne, one of the thirteen successor universities of the University of Paris, also known as Sorbonne University. Today, he lives and works in Gennevilliers, the same city that many Impressionist artists, including Cézanne, Monet, Berthe Morisot, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Alfred Sisley, frequently visited and captured in numerous artworks. It’s also the city where the Manet family and the painter Gustave Caillebotte lived.

Thus, the retrospective builds on the narrative of a person from an oppressed group, becoming an artist, receiving superb education in France, creating, and finding inclusion in French society and its cultural institutions, and worldwide recognition echoing the Horatio Alger myth, thus the rags-to-riches story.

Artistic Journey and Global Recognition:

His artistic journey reflects a cultural odyssey, evident in his work, which includes photographs, videos, paintings, installations, sound effects, and drawings. He engages in collaboration with communities outside of his own, creating an oeuvre that is both intellectually and emotionally driven.

I observed Bourouissa’s remarkable journey, marked by a rich array of exhibitions, biennales, and artist residencies worldwide. His films, featured in the ‘Dynasty’ exhibition in 2010, a collaborative project between the Palais de Tokyo and the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, played a pivotal role in garnering international recognition and fostering his professional growth. These experiences illustrate the importance of networking within the art community and seizing opportunities to showcase one’s work on a global stage.

Now, with the retrospective at Palais de Tokyo, the Louvre Museum engaged him in a unique project titled “Public Garden,” offering a year-long portrait of the Tuileries Garden through short videos filmed weekly on a mobile phone. These videos will be posted every Friday on the museum’s Instagram account. Thus, it seems as if his idea for the retrospective extends to the Tuileries and, from the Tuileries to people worldwide. And there is something about the movement from indoor to exterior that creates a sense of freeing oneself from a confined space.

Algeria’s history:

Before delving into the retrospective analysis, it’s crucial to understand the historical context of Algeria, which endured over a century of colonization by France, starting in 1830. The indigenous population faced discrimination, land dispossession, and political marginalization that led to many violent acts on both sides. The Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) marked a turning point, leading to Algeria gaining independence but leaving a complex legacy. Algerians who came to France after the independence faced challenges and limited opportunities after migrating for economic prospects.

Bourouissa’s Success Against Historical Challenges:

Bourouissa’s success becomes even more significant against this backdrop, challenging negative stereotypes and paving the way for the acceptance of people with a Maghreb background and other marginalized groups living in the banlieues of Paris.

As I explored Bourouissa’s retrospective, which also includes works from his artist friends such as Neïla Czemark Ichti, Abdelmajid Mehdi, the collective Hawaf, LILA, Ibrahim Meïté Sikely, and Christelle Oyiri, the exhibition weaves a narrative connecting the Algerian colonial experience with the struggles of marginalized groups in France, the US, and the city of Gaza, and it seems even Australia.

Giardini Installation – A Metaphorical Garden:

The Giardini installation stands out as a captivating highlight, meticulously designed to grace the expansive Grande Verrière of Palais de Tokyo. It serves as a canvas for showcasing the artist’s diverse works, strategically arranged into distinct zones. Bourouissa’s fascination with sensory blending transforms the exhibition into a metaphorical garden, where various worlds and unique perspectives interlace, offering the audience a textured and multi-dimensional experience.

The exhibition seamlessly transitions from the artist’s personal history to collective history and expands further into a broader historical context, notably delving into the repercussions of colonial psychiatry in Algeria. This perspective finds its roots in the racist theories of Antoine Porot, the founder of the Algiers School of Psychiatry, who asserted the biological inferiority of Algerians. These beliefs led to the institutionalization of Algerian patients in Blida’s first psychiatric hospital and their subsequent segregation from their French colonizers. Frantz Fanon, a black psychiatrist and philosopher from Martinique, later challenged and questioned this practice, playing a crucial role in the decolonization movement and exploring the psychological and societal impacts of colonialism and racism. The resilience garden becomes a symbolic journey, guiding the audience from personal to collective history and, ultimately, to a global historical perspective.

Within this narrative, one patient, Bourlem Mohamed, creates a poignant portrait titled “Oiseau de Paradis,” representing himself as a bird of paradise.

Reflecting on Antoine Porot’s views, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with Alfred Hoche, a German psychiatrist involved in eugenics and euthanasia during the early 20th century. Co-authoring ‘Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens’ in 1920 with legal scholar Karl Binding, Hoche advocated ending the lives of those deemed ‘life unworthy of life,’ laying the foundation for the ‘Aktion-T4’ program in Nazi Germany. This program, later a model for “‘Operation Reinhard,” exemplified the horrifying consequences when a person is considered inferior to others, leading to atrocities like the systematic killings in the Euthanasia centers in Germany and Austria and the Final Solution in Nazi-occupied Poland.

The retrospective takes a deeply personal turn as I reflect on my brother’s separate schooling for children with disabilities and my exposure to TV series like “Roots” and “Holocaust.” The segregation based on perceived inferiority, leading people to sit, live, eat, work, and gather separately, always raises the poignant question: How do we measure human value, on what terms, and are these terms just?

Individuals often spend their lives overcoming an “inferiority complex” shaped not by their inherent worth but by societal injustice. The Giardini installation, referencing patient Bourlem Mohamed, introduces the “Resilience Garden,” where healing through gardening becomes a collective project. Curated spaces with succulents, green plants, and mulch, adorned with a sculpture resembling Frantz Fanon, symbolize resilience against mental and physical suffering. Potted Mimosa plants, interspersed with hung objects, derived from the “Brutal Family Roots” project, add layers of meaning to the exhibition. These Mimosas, significant in Algeria, France, and native to Australia, also recall the fate of the Aboriginal people.

A cautionary label highlights the fragility of the plants, emphasizing the consequences even subtle vibrations or actions can have in the interconnected system. This aligns with the broader understanding of how individual actions contribute to the collective experience and environment, emphasizing the importance of mindfulness in our interactions with the world.

As the retrospective unfolds like a concept album or musical score, creating an energetic experience, I find myself grappling with moments of mystery, such as the sounds emanating from the speakers after 20 minutes of wandering. Moving through photos, paintings, and installations, the audience encounters powerful images, like a Tarantula on a man’s cheek symbolizing fear during and after the Algerian war, potentially a nod to xenophobia. The sight of an ankle bracelet used in the criminal justice system raises questions about societal standards and acceptance, while a woman with lip augmentation prompts reflections on beauty standards. Additionally, a colorful bird captured in a man’s hand implies a longing for freedom or the absence thereof.

Christelle Oyiri’s Unfolded Screen:

An unfolded screen, drawing inspiration from the East Asian tradition of folding screens, takes center stage. This unique installation features photo images of celebrities and serves as a canvas for the artistic expression of Christelle Oyiri. A multifaceted individual of French origin, Oyiri is a producer, DJ (known as Crystallmess), writer, and artist with Ivorian and Guadeloupean heritage. Her work delves into the complexities of identity, disconnect, and exclusion, as she reflects on her youth idols who were predominantly white. Through this unfolded screen, Oyiri skillfully navigates themes that resonate with her personal journey, offering a poignant exploration of the nuances of belonging and cultural identity.

The Sahab Museum – A Virtual Oasis:

Another noteworthy aspect of the retrospective is The Sahab Museum, established by Hawaf, a collective of artists, architects, researchers, and developers formed in 2021 between Gaza and Paris. This virtual museum, created by and for Palestinian artists, delivers a unique experience. Viewers are greeted with mattresses adorned with hand-painted sheets, inviting them to gaze into a sky depicting a serene scenario. The artwork of various artists living or originating from Gaza floats gently in various combinations against a light blue sky, a stark departure from the current reality in Gaza marked by the smoke of bombs and airdropped food packages.

This immersive project evoked memories of visiting a Vincent van Gogh Immersive experience exhibition in my hometown in Germany, albeit with an entirely different narrative. The museum’s theme revolves around a tigress venturing into the world of humans, guiding visitors from Gaza City to the sky above Gaza, ultimately leading them to the Sahab Museum. The intent is to connect through this virtual space, providing a respite from isolation. A giant tiger sculpture in the hall resonates with Delacroix’s influence on Bourouissa, reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix’s 1854 painting ‘The Tiger Hunt.’ The juxtaposition of these artistic influences adds depth and richness to Bourouissa’s retrospective.

Within this virtual space, participants are encouraged to curate their own imaginary exhibits in exchange for a small donation. This initiative promotes a positive vision for the future, aiming to support and uplift artists in or from Gaza.

“Shoplifters” and “Geneologie De La Violence”:

Bourouissa’s “Shoplifters” (2014) comprises a series of photographs captured in Lefferts Garden, Brooklyn, depicting individuals who have recently shoplifted essential items. What sets these images apart is the deliberate staging of the scenes – they weren’t taken by security cameras during the act but as posed photographs, prominently displayed at the supermarket entrance. Notably, “Shoplifters” was exhibited at the NS-Dokumentationszentrum in Munich in 2019.

Another standout feature of the retrospective is Bourouissa’s film “Geneologie De La Violence” (2023). The movie unfolds as a couple with a Maghreb background engages in an intimate conversation about parenthood. However, their moment is abruptly interrupted by a police officer who, driven by suspicion rooted in racial profiling, disrupts their private exchange.

Both projects, “Shoplifters” and the film, serve as poignant reflections on societal issues, shedding light on microaggressions, humiliation, and less overt forms of violence that contribute to stress and anxiety, often manifesting physically as sensations like tingling or prickling. Moreover, they subtly address instances of police misconduct and unethical behavior, highlighting the abuse of power within these dynamics.

Ibrahim Meïté Sikely’s Artistic Response:

Just across from the theater, hangs Ibrahim Meïté Sikely’s oil painting, ‘How Can I Lose if We Never Win’ (2023), depicting Spiderman falling in Bois l’Abbé, a banlieue of Paris. The image draws inspiration from Pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Fall of Icarus’ from around 1558. This artwork is a poignant commentary on the tragic incident involving 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk, who was fatally shot by the police for not complying with a traffic stop last year. The painting not only serves as a powerful artistic response but also highlights the consequences of changes in the French law system. Formerly, French police officers were restricted to using firearms solely in self-defense. However, a recent modification allows the use of force if someone fails to comply with traffic stops. This incident echoes the tragic fate of George Floyd, where an American police officer killed a black person due to racism.

This poignant observation underscores how the definition of a crime can undergo significant shifts with changes in the legal system, giving rise to injustice in societies where racism and discrimination persist. It draws poignant parallels with historical instances, such as the exoneration of Nazi doctors who, during the Nazi era, escaped guilt for the systematic killing of innocent people with disabilities. This exemption from culpability seems rooted in the absence of a comprehensive framework like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

Contemplating this historical injustice, one can only fathom the profound pain endured by the families impacted by these systematic killings and those inheriting the consequential historical trauma. The implicit message sent through such actions implies a devaluation of lives deemed unworthy by the authorities and society at large. This chilling perspective suggests that the perpetration of such acts is perceived as less of a crime, creating a painful narrative of forgiveness and degradation. The families affected, through this mistreatment, endure not only the loss of their loved ones but also the degrading aftermath that diminishes their worth in the eyes of society.

Culmination – “Horse Day”:

The retrospective culminates with Bourouissa’s artwork titled “Horse Day”, made of different components, which developed from the project made between 2013 and 2017, in which Bourouissa aimed to shed light on the often-overlooked history of Black riders in American equestrian culture, particularly in the context of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia. Through an artistic residency, he documented the community’s presence, challenged the stereotypical cowboy image portrayed in American cinema, and explored the diverse contributions to the history of the American West. The project culminated in a celebratory event, “Horse Day,” where the community participated in an equestrian competition, challenging and deconstructing traditional Western narratives.

Universal Commentary on Oppression and Acceptance:

In conclusion, Mohamed Bourouissa’s retrospective at the Palais de Tokyo offers a universal commentary on oppression, resilience, and the need for societal acceptance. From his personal narrative to the broader historical context, Bourouissa’s art beckons viewers to actively engage with marginalized communities, fostering inclusion and diminishing alienation. His work stands as a resolute plea for a more inclusive and compassionate world.

For more information please visit the websites: Here are the links, you may have to copy and paste them.

Mohamed Bourouissa’s “Signal” at Palais de Tokyo

(February 16  – June 30, 2024)

https://palaisdetokyo.com/en/exposition/signal/

Mohamed Bourouissa’s Public Garden project at the Tuileries

https://presse.louvre.fr/mohamed-bourouissa-jardin-public/

For more information about me:

Simone Suzanne Kussatz

https://fabrikmagazine.com/author/simone-kussatz/

https://simonekussatz-arete.blogspot.com/p/biography.html

Simone Kussatz from ARETE interviews California-based artist Virginia Katz

https://simonekussatz-arete.blogspot.com/2023/12/the-landscape-as-extraordinary-human.html

https://artillerymag.com/byline/simone-kussatz/

From Mohamed Bourouissa’s retrospective “Signal”. Photo made by the artist. Photo credit: ARETE/ Simone Kussatz
From Mohamed Bourouissa’s retrospective “Signal”. Artwork made by the artist. Photo credit: ARETE/ Simone Kussatz
From Mohamed Bourouissa’s retrospective “Signal”. Artwork made by the artist. Photo credit: ARETE/ Simone Kussatz
From Mohamed Bourouissa’s retrospective “Signal”. Unfolded screen by Christelle Oyiri (right). Photo made by Mohamed Bourouissa (left). Photo credit: ARETE/ Simone Kussatz

SAHAB MUSEUM:

From the Mohamed Bourouissa retrospective “Signal”. This image shows the interior of the Sahab Museum. Photo credit: ARETE  / Simone Kussatz
From the Mohamed Bourouissa retrospective “Signal”. This image shows the interior of the Sahab Museum. Photo credit: ARETE  / Simone Kussatz
From the Mohamed Bourouissa retrospective “Signal”. Images on the screen were made by Palestinian artists to create their own show at the Sahab Museum. Photo credit: ARETE/Simone Kussatz
About the Author
Simone Suzanne Kussatz was born in Germany, lived in the US for 25 years, spent a year in China, and currently resides in France. Educated at Santa Monica College, UCLA, and the Free University of Berlin, she interned at the American Academy in Berlin. Holding a Master's in American Studies, journalism, and psychology, she worked as a freelance art critic in Los Angeles. World War II history fascinates her, influenced by her displaced grandparents and her father's childhood in Berlin during the war, and his escape from East Berlin in 1955. Her brother's intellectual disabilities and epilepsy added a unique perspective to her life.
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