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A painful artwork on Algeria’s black decade

Algerian artist Ammar Bouras is participating in the 10th Sharjah Biennial between March 16 and May 16 with his multimedia exhibition Tag’out. His art deals with the tragic events that tormented Algeria during the 90s and, in many ways, this work is a private journey into the trauma of these years. The title Tag’out means “tyrant” with a religious meaning; it comes from taghout, an old arabic word. It’s a play on words between this expression and the popular contemporary word “tag”. Mashallah met with Bouras in Algiers and spoke about his artwork and participation in the biennial.

How was your idea born? And why this title?

The topic of this year’s Sharjah Biennial is “Plot for a Biennial” and artworks deal with the notion of treason. In Algeria, during the 90s, the traitor was the intellectual, the artist and the man of culture. It is him who goes against accepted ideas and established orders in moral, politics and culture. He breaks both the law and social taboos. So, my idea is to come back through the period that we call “black decade”, the 10 years of terrorism in Algeria. I’m revisiting the word “taghout”, a term that was used also by Islamists to describe all those “different” from them or in opposition to their ideology. The taghout could be the teacher, the artist or the journalist. In other words, he or she was the ‘other’ who was rejected, threatened or even killed.

Participating in the biennial was a chance for me to bring up something essential: the question of tolerance in our society. The issue is more important than ever today, as we go on feeding this intolerance. What frightens me today is that I have the impression that the same acts of violence that we saw in the 90s, could start again in the future. The worst thing is that we did not learn anything from what happened back then. In the late 80s, we were not conscious enough to foresee the disaster that was ahead of us. And today, we are as unconscious as before! We don’t pay attention to the violent and intolerant talk of some students. We forget that, still today there is no psychological or social support for the thousands of young people who experienced the violence in the 90s. We act as if we don’t see conservatism anywhere, in the streets or on television.

Even on Facebook, I read incredible comments about the importance of Jihad. I can sense the paranoia of those who feel persecuted only because they are Muslims. True, in Algiers today we are less afraid of bomb attacks, but there are other dangers. Intolerance, in my opinion, is the most serious of them. The question for us Algerians is: What are we going to give to pass on to our children? What kind of values are we going to transmit? In what sort of society will they live?

Saïd Mekbel (in Tag’out)

Was it difficult for you to revisit your stored pictures and sounds?

It was painful. In many ways, I feel like I’m still living in the 90s. It sometimes frightens me. Working on this exhibition, I rediscovered pictures of Saïd Mekbel, a journalist that got killed in Algiers on December 3, 1994. He used to call me “the artist”. I was a student when I began photojournalism for the newspaper Alger républicain. Captured in photos was Mekbel’s smile and kindness, and it was still very painful to see these pictures. But at the same time, working with them is a kind of therapy to me. It’s difficult and a personal deep wound, but it also makes me wonder: What remains of all the others who have been killed?

How will your exhibition look like? What will we see in your exhibition?

There will be a 50 screens mosaic board, broadcasting news images from the 90s and private images from my personal archives. From time to time, some of them freeze to create a large portrait of president Boudiaf, taken only a few minutes before he was killed. The exhibition is a mix between, on the one side our visible and material world and history, and on the other side, our personal lives, friends and daily lives. Working with these pictures and videos, I wanted to create something beautiful from painful images. On each side of the board, there are two walls with fixed images on plexiglass. There is special lighting and sound effects, highlighting pieces like demonstrations of the Islamic Salvation Front and an old speech of Boudiaf. But, importantly: to me, aesthetics is fundamental. The beauty of the piece is as important as the feelings that will arise in people who see and hear these pictures and sounds. I’m not a politician, but a creator of images.

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