It came as something of a shock to remember, during one of the final prep meetings for New Cartographies in February, that we first approached Cornerhouse with the idea for the exhibition back in 2008. As university lecturers based in Durham and Manchester, we certainly couldn’t claim that curating formed part of the day job. So we were thrilled and slightly surprised when Cornerhouse agreed to host the show in what (at that point) seemed the far off Spring of 2011. Nevertheless, we were convinced that our research project, investigating the relationship between France and Algeria in post-war visual culture, could form the starting point for an exciting exhibition of visual art exploring not just the thorny and complex ties linking one of the major European powers with what used to be its most prized colonial possession, but also some of the key contemporary issues – such as migration, national identity and cultural difference – affecting large numbers of countries and millions of people across the Mediterranean region and beyond
In setting up the exhibition, we wanted to bring together work which offered a variety of perspectives on France and Algeria, and the ways in which big historical and political changes have an impact on the everyday lives, memories and stories of individuals. The ten artists featured in New Cartographies reflect the different relationships people have to the two countries. Some of the artists are based in Algeria and have Algerian nationality (Zineddine Bessaï, Omar D, Amina Menia). Others were born in France to Algerian parents, or are part of the broader Algerian diaspora (Kader Attia, Bruno Boudjelal, Katia Kameli, Zineb Sedira). The work of a third group (Yves Jeanmougin, Sophie Elbaz) reflects the now largely historical connections with Algeria of European settler and other minority ethnic groups.
The one outsider, at least in terms of a direct connection with Algeria, is the UK-based photographer John Perivolaris. In June of last year, we commissioned John to undertake a journey between Manchester and Algeria with the mission to capture and uncover the different ways in which the links between France and Algeria manifest themselves in each country. But if we sent him on his way from Manchester, it was also because we wanted him to explore some of the less well-known links which have emerged over the years between the UK and Algeria. While in London, for example, he took a detour via the rather well appointed and discreet offices of Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil and gas company. North to North, the installation based on John’s journey, will open the show in Gallery 1, with the record and portrait of his own journey serving as an invitation for gallery visitors to undertake their own journey around the networks of links and connections opened up by and between the different contributions.
Sadly, one of the people who won’t be joining us for the preview evening on 7 April is up-coming artist Zineddine Bessaï from Algiers, whose work is showcased in Gallery 1. Despite strong support from Cornerhouse, and appropriate credentials, Zineddine’s application for a visa was turned down by the UK Border Agency. Reading the letter he was sent, it is hard not to conclude that the main reason for rejecting his application is that Zineddine is young, male, unattached and Algerian. It’s a powerful irony – though one that might be lost on the UK Border Agency – that Bessaï’s work explores the contemporary phenomenon of clandestine migration from North Africa to Europe, and the desperate and tragic efforts made by young people in order to reach the promised lands on the northern shore of the Mediterranean.
Dr Edward Welch
Co-curator of New Cartographies: Algeria-France-UK