Exodus: the 4th Mediterranean Biennial of Contemporary Art

Artist Anne Murray, talks to Sadek Rahim and Tewfik Ali Chaouche, curators and co-founders of the Mediterranean Biennial of Contemporary Art of Oran, about the past, present and future of the Algerian biennial.

Anne Murray: What was the impetus to create a biennial in Oran?

Tewfik Ali Chaouche: My objectives as a co-founder were to introduce contemporary art to the people of Oran who did not have many opportunities to see exhibitions and visual art events. With the exception of our Civ-Oeil Gallery, which shows contemporary art from time to time, there are no other exhibition spaces in Oran, or in the region for that matter. We also took into consideration several other objectives. We wanted to create a platform for exchange between artists of the Mediterranean region. Our second objective was to begin developing a homegrown art market while creating new ties with the international art market. We wanted to promote the work of both contemporary Algerian artists known internationally and emerging artists, and finally, to actively participate in the evolution of contemporary art discourse with conferences and publications.

AM: What makes the Oran Biennial unique?

TAC: It’s the city and its people, who are open to Mediterranean cultures and to the world – they are welcoming and curious about contemporary art. On the economic plane, Oran is the 2nd largest city in Algeria after the capital. With the oil terminal of Arzew and its industrial zone, Oran has been rapidly growing since 2010. As part of the urban development, the city has invested in the restoration of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Oran, where the biennial is held this year. What makes the Biennial in Oran unique is also its grassroots character – it is independently run by a civic cultural association, without any involvement by state authorities.

AM: Please tell us a little more about the beginnings…

TAC: The Civ-Oeil association was created in August of 1997. We began with the National Salon of Fine Arts of Oran, which eventually turned international and grew to encompass the Mediterranean. After the 5th Mediterranean Salon of Fine Arts, which turned out to be a big success, we decided to create the Biennial, with a commitment to sharing and creating exchanges between other countries and artists of the Mediterranean and the world, a key factor in creating a message of peace for a better world.

AM: How much did the Biennial grow since its first edition?

TAC: The three previous editions were held at the Oran Cathedral (Médiathèque). The 1st Biennial opened in November 2010 with the theme Contemporary Art in Every State. The show featured around 120 works by thirty artists representing four countries of the Mediterranean. The second edition in March 2012 was entitled Young Contemporary Creation. It featured fifty artists, fifteen of whom were from outside Algeria. For the first time, we had two artists-in-residence, Samta Benyahia and Flaye. In June 2014, we inaugurated the third edition, entitled The Other, again with fifty artists. For this year’s, fourth edition we have invited 37 Algerian artists and another 20 artists from abroad, hailing from England, Canada, Spain, France, Syria, Switzerland, Turkey, Tunisia, Palestine, the United States, Greece, Italy, and Thailand. For the first time the exhibition took place at the recently inaugurated, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Oran.

View of the Oran Biennial exhibition at Musée d’Art Moderne d’Oran. Photo courtesy of Civ.Oeil

AM: I noticed that the last edition included a selection of invited artists, open call artists selected from around the world, and emerging Algerian artists. What was the rationale for such selection?

TAC: Concerning the selection of artists this year, we have invited three contemporary Algerian artists who have been recently recognized for their creative productions and their exhibitions in Algeria and abroad. The other participating artists, who were chosen from the open call, come from different cities in Algeria and the Mediterranean. We have also included several works by artists from outside of the Mediterranean region, because of their relationship to the theme of exodus. The affinity with this theme was our main guiding principle in this year’s selection.

AM: What is the importance of this year’s theme of exodus?

TAC: The theme of exodus symbolizes a commitment to humanity, which, in my opinion, remains the center of interest of contemporary creation and, which doesn’t necessarily imply a literal interpretation of the theme; some of the works presented in the last edition made clear reference to the current humanitarian crises, while others interpreted the theme from an abstract perspective.

AM: Sadek, what was your role as a curator in this exhibition? I understand that you worked with several of the young artists helping them to develop their ideas. This reminds me of the Diaspora Pavilion in Venice, where emerging artists were paired with more established colleagues. As an established artist yourself, were you acting as mentor to these young artists?

SR: What David A. Bailey and Jessica Taylor have done, as curators of the Diaspora Pavilion in Venice, and which is very interesting, is to create a pavilion structured as a project. They had the great idea to put out an open call for emerging British artists of various backgrounds in 2016. These young artists had not only to develop work for the biennial, but also participated in a two-year program of mentoring by a group of established artists. What we wanted to do at the Mediterranean Biennial of Contemporary Art in Oran, was very similar. We were working with a certain sense of urgency, because we are significantly behind in this area.

I worked closely with three young artists, and it was a great experience for me as an artist and as a supporter of change in the cultural and academic programs in our country. My collaboration with these three young artists: Islem Haouti, Nora Zaïr, and Djamel Benchenine is a good example of what can be done to help young artists to take a step forward. Following our mentoring sessions, Djamel came up with an installation called ‘Camps’ – a model of a Sahrawi refugee camp (Dakhla) in the city of Tindouf in Algeria. The artist made models of camp tents out of wood painted in black to reflect the tragedy of the people who inhabited them. Shortly after, Djamel was invited as an artist to participate in The International Film Festival of Western Sahara (Fisahara), which takes place in the Dakhla refugee camp with simultaneous screenings, in Spain. The aim of the festival is to raise the awareness of the Saharawi refugee crisis among international media and the general public.

AM: Are you satisfied with the way the last edition turned out? Retrospectively, is there anything you would have done differently?

TAC: At this stage the shape of the Biennial greatly depends on the finances. If our association had a sustained financial support from the Ministry of Culture for this event it would have been different. We would have hired an event agency that could create the programming for this international event a year in advance. We would have worked with independent curators focusing on different areas: the Algerian diaspora, local art scene, and foreign artists. We would have probably used more venues around the city and have a catalogue ready before the opening of the show. Finally, we would have had guided visits with professional mediators and educators. Without a doubt, the availability of the venue and the support of state institutions play a crucial role in the continuation of the Biennial. Previously we had no financial support from the Ministry of Culture, and yet, thanks to various sponsors and partners, we were able to mount this biennial anyway. Now with the recently renovated Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art as a partner, we have an optimistic outlook for the future.

AM: How do you feel about the Venice Biennial and Algeria not having an official representation there?

SR: In Algeria since its independence in 1962, protectionism, populism and above all nationalism are very present. I wonder how the Algerian state resisted an opportunity like the Venice Biennial to show its power and greatness as is often done during military parades and other nationalist occasions.

TAC: The Venice Biennial remains the principal frame of reference for excellence. Even though our chances are slim, we are preparing a proposal for the Ministry of Culture hoping that they will finally decide to make a formal contribution to the next edition of the Venice Biennale.

SR: For a very long time artists of Algerian origin participated in the Venice Biennial under so many other flags other than the Algerian one: Kader Attia, Zineb Sedira, Samta Benyahia… In 2015 Massinissa Selmani was featured in Okwui Onwezor’s ‘All the world’s future’ and received a special mention.

AM: How do you see the attraction of Algerians to the Venice Biennial and what are some of the issues related to the contemporary art scene in Algeria that you see manifesting themselves?

SR: Many artists leave Algeria because there is a great lack of infrastructure and above all the art market here is underdeveloped. Most of these artists move to Europe or the United States. Artists who are still in the country rely on international events to showcase their work and to make a living. Events such as the Venice Biennial are the ideal opportunity for Algerian artists to prove themselves and their very artistic existence.