On the outskirts of Algiers, in the Ain Zebboudja neighbourhood far from the city’s crowds, a group of young artists have nurtured the Art Zenkawi Project between wild olive trees and concrete walls.
“Art Zenkawi” by the way is Algerian slang for graffiti.
The area of Ain Zebboudja – from the word zebboudj, meaning wild olive – was a wasteland as recently as several weeks ago, where trash piled up amidst the asphalt and underbrush. It is essentially a cul-de-sac located in Telemly, one of the rare quiet neighbourhoods on the heights surrounding central Algiers, away from the city’s shopping centres, administrative buildings and deafening noise.
This fallow land has now been transformed by the founders of Art Zenkawi into the scene of their creative harvest. Chafik, alias El Panchow, who holds a diploma in Fine Art, explains the purpose of their initiative: “We admire what graffiti artists have done in other Arab countries, like Lebanon and Egypt, but our experience in Algeria hasn’t been the same. The potential is there but everyone works alone, unseen.” For Art Zenkawi therefore, it’s first and foremost creating a place where the capital’s graffiti artists can meet on their own terms.
Art students, aficionados and the simply curious have been flocking to Ain Zebboudja every day for several months, staying until late in the evening to paint under the light of old-fashioned street lamps. “We wanted to replace the gray of these concrete walls with living colours” shrugs Chafik.
Other members of the group repeat that they want Art Zenkawi to be a space for free expression: no censorship over the subjects chosen by the artists. Anyone can paint what he or she wants, as long as the work isn’t overly provocative – on religious or sexual matters in particular. The founders want their project to inspire similar initiatives in other Algerian cities. Artists from Constantine, Bejaia and Souk Ahras have already contacted the group to come and paint in Ain Zebboudja. When they return home, it is hoped, they will carry the spirit of Art Zenkawi into the streets of their own cities.
Chafik was the first artist in Ain Zebboudja; he painted his dog, Rex, on one of its walls. When his faithful companion died only a little while later, he added “RIP” next to the graffiti portrait. Others are inspired by places. Mahdi Boubekeur, for example, has painted a dying tree encircled by concrete, making reference to the many new buildings being constructed in the capital, where once there had been green spaces.
This sudden spurt of activity in Ain Zebboudja had initially left locals somewhat perplexed, but once they understood the purpose of the initiative they became supporters. Some even go to watch them work. Chafik describes how he is always being asked to draw the Algerian flag, or “Je Suis Mohamed” – a local retort to “Je Suis Charlie”. To which he tends to respond: “Why would I draw ‘Je Suis Mohamed’ when ‘Je Suis’ Chafik?”
Upon hearing about Art Zenkawi, some of Algiers’ municipal officials went to confront the group, demanding to see their authorization to paint on the walls. The visit proved to be no more than a formality, as young artists have continued to paint in Ain Zebboudja without being disturbed or arrested by the police. “People dump their garbage here without permission. I want to make it more beautiful – why would I need permission for that? It doesn’t make sense. The idea behind graffiti is to paint freely, and so I continue in that spirit,” insists Chafik.
The group is happy to accommodate beginners, young people interested in the art of graffiti, on a regular basis. Sarah, a German-Algerian 22-year-old, works on a mural of Papa Smurf, whose white beard she lengthens a bit from that of the original character. “It’s been two months that I am in Algeria. I thought that, with only a few days left before my return to Germany, I had to leave some trace to mark my time here”, she says. “I don’t know how to draw, but the group encouraged me to come paint with them”.
Sarah discovered Ain Zebboudja through the Facebook page of the Art Zenkawi project. “Social media has really helped to get the word out about the project,” remarked Chafik, “but above all it’s by word of mouth that we have been able to breathe life into this new headquarters of Algerian street art”.