Voices from Casablanca, Jerusalem, Tambacounda, Algiers

Notes from the waiting room #3

(Texte nur auf englisch)

The virus obliges everybody (who has a home) to stay at home within closed borders. But despite the equality with which the virus puts humanity in check, it encounters the non-simultaneity of political, economic and social conditions in different regions. In the past few weeks, we were asking some our artist friends how they assess the situation on the ground: Aliou Badou Diack and Jeewi Lee in Casablanca, Benji Boyadgian in Jerusalem, Negga Dou Tamba in Tambacounda, Senegal and Sofiane Zouggar in Algiers.

Aliou Badou Diack

artist, Casablanca, Morocco, participant in the research and exhibition project SEEDS FOR FUTURE MEMORIES
a conversation with Agnes Stillger

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Aliou Badou Diack in his studio in Casablanca

Badou, we met shortly before your departure to Casablanca in Dakar and talked about the fact that during your one-month residency there you would finally have time to concentrate fully on painting. How do you experience your prolonged stay in confinement?

My time in Casablanca is more or less complex for me, since I am in a country for the first time and am not allowed to visit cultural places. For example, I was so excited to discover the natural pigments in Fes. The quarantine itself is something I feel I have already experienced.  As a painter, I am a very lonely person even though I am surrounded by so many things. So for me quarantine is a kind of a state of germination.

Whenever possible, you include nature and creatures from your immediate surroundings, I think of the pigeons in your Dakar studio or when you painted outdoors at Villa Romana in 2018 and the paintings were exposed to rain, dust, cats and falling leaves. In your works, everything is interconnected and in constant metamorphosis, you seem to negotiate the relationship of humans with non-humans.

My sources of inspiration are here. I feel a strong presence of the elements, facing the sea, and I am surrounded by many birds as several built nests in our house. The fact that I am in quarantine and deprived of freedom makes me think even more about the place of man and his rights in this world. I consider this virus as a part of nature, and the problems it brings us confirms my view and my understanding, which I generally express through my work: to constantly reflect our interaction with nature and to respect nature.

As you have described above, in the artistic process one is thrown back on oneself, but otherwise the understanding of the role of the artist is not necessarily private or individual. Whether as an artist or in another role, in Senegalese culture it is not unusual to support family and friends, your kin, if you can. How has the Corona crisis affected you as being a part of a supporting network?

You know, everyone is involved in this crisis, I think that the situation we are commonly experiencing now requires a rethinking of how we live, in which everyone must participate, directly or indirectly. In Senegalese culture it has been customary for generations to help each other. Even if the pandemic is causing an economic crisis for the whole of society and it is therefore more difficult to help each other, the spirit of support is still there. It is unfortunate for me that I cannot be in Senegal at the moment, because I know that my family and relatives are suffering from the economic collapse. From afar, I am trying my best to support them with the little means I currently have. I also trust the Senegalese community because they are, first of all, united people and will help each other as they normally do.

Jeewi Lee

artist, Casablanca, Morocco (temporarily), Villa Romana Fellow 2018
a conversation with Agnes Stillger

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Jeewi Lee, Interval, 2020

Jeewi, your visit to Aliou Badou Diack in Casablanca turned unexpectedly - due to the sudden shutdown by the Moroccan government on 22 March 2020 - into a cohabitation for several months now. You are both somehow stuck in some sort of limbo, an in-between world, with no real access to the space around you nor exchange with the cultural world in Casablanca, even access to working materials is limited.

Yes, from the originally planned six days it since became over 60 days. The lockdown came unannounced in Morocco, the border closure just as suddenly, and there have already been two extensions of the lockdown. The Moroccan government is not only acting very radically, but also very much on the short term, so that one cannot really guess what the next days will look like.

There was the big return-campaign for all the Germans organized by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including tourists and travellers in Morocco. What was actually your first thought: who to turn to so as to be able to leave, and where did you want to go? You are South Korean, living in Berlin? Was the question of citizenship /nationality at that moment something you became more aware of than usual? With the lockdowns, nationality and border has unfortunately come back to the foreground.

I absolutely agree with you that borders and nationalities are emphasized by the Corona crisis. When my return flight was cancelled, I called first the Korean Embassy to ask for advice. They advised me to "stick with" European organizations because they had no options to help me. After that, I tried to contact the German Embassy and the Consulate, but it ended unsuccessfully. Although I did discover through the media that I could register on the website of the German Foreign Office to be put on the "rescue list". Unfortunately, the registration system was set up in such a way that you had to indicate whether you had German citizenship. If you clicked "no", you automatically had no possibility of continuing the registration. By a roundabout way I learned that there was a temporary stand of the German Embassy at the airport and I drove straight there. The airport was crowded with people who had been literally camping there. The atmosphere was quite dramatic. My latest news is that the German Embassy was allegedly able to negotiate two commercial flights but I guess priority was given to special cases. It is not clear to me by which criteria people have been selected. Many, like me, did not receive any information at all.

I imagine it has been difficult for you to get back into your artistic practice under the circumstances? You usually have a conceptual approach, your works are based on extensive material research, relate to certain places, and you also work collectively. How did you adapt?

That is absolutely right. I had a hard time at the beginning because of the enormous restrictions of the lockdown, not being able to go out and explore the history of the place or discover new work subjects in the area. Thanks to Badou's influence, I dared to go to the screen again after a very long time. Although I studied painting I have always worked very conceptually and used all kinds of artistic media. During my stay at Villa Romana in Florence I developed a strong wish to express myself through painting, which I was not able to follow up yet. But here, torn out of my daily studio routine, I finally got over the hurdle, meanwhile I am working very intensively on a painting series, using coffee grounds either on canvas or on Korean Hanji paper which I brought with me. Out of this I have created so far two series, entitled Insomnia and Interval.

Benji Boyadgian

artist, Jerusalem, Villa Romana International Guest Artist 2019
a conversation with Agnes Stillger

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Benji Boyadgian, Phantasmagoria of drones, ink on paper, 55 x 75cm, 2015

The meme "Dear world, how is the lockdown? Gaza" which came up in social media in the first weeks of the global COVID-19 pandemic, implies that to manage (real and imagined) risks, nowadays drives societies towards containment, enclosure and various forms of incarceration. Closing borders, controlling and restricting movement all of a sudden became the new normal in the rest of the world.
Benji, your artistic work centres on observations of the interaction of bodies and space, on building-structures, infrastructures and you investigate all these materials as an archive. In 2015 with Phantasmagoria of drones you were drawing in great detail the urban fabric of Bethlehem including the separation wall, roads, checkpoints, refugee camps etc. What are the changes that have now additionally been physically inscribed in this landscape with the Corona crises and governmental measures?

I was actually thinking about the drawing when the curfew began, it felt premonitory, but not for the reasons one could have imagined. The drawing depicts the entrance of Bethlehem devoid of people, activities and closed borders, fitting the times of the pandemic pretty accurately. This scenery is not unfamiliar to the memory of this place, because of Israeli military curfews imposed in times of high tension. Lockdown/ Occupation analogies have come up quite frequently in social media platforms since the pandemic began, but those are totally different circumstances, and this analogy downplays the nature of the occupation, which is not a state of exception but rather a permanence. Since I did the drawing in 2015, some small changes happened, a few new buildings were erected, and the neighbourhood blossomed into the epicentre of Occupation tourism. I probably would not have thought of doing this drawing had I not been commissioned to imagine a subjective map of this place. I find the use of images of the wall conflicting, because it has the potential to assert itself in the imaginary of this place, to commodify it and normalize it. Contrary to the incentive of shedding light onto a situation, it seems to shine a light onto it. Inadvertently but predictably, the wall becomes a monument of the 21st century, commemorating our times and the perpetual present events we live through. A monument understood as an idea that stems from hegemonic structures to remind us of something. In the process of elaborating this work, I noticed that views from above of this area are not accessible to the public and you cannot fly a drone because it is a politically sensitive area, basically this image did not exist. In that respect, I thought the only thing that made sense was a map that attempts to show realistically the different layers of the landscape and the wall being another trace, a sense of looking at the distant past of a present that unfortunately is here to stay.
Bethlehem was the first city to go under lockdown in early March; a couple of weeks ago those orders were relaxed. The Israeli checkpoint re-opened, but with tougher crossing restrictions, a few hundred metres apart, a mobile Palestinian Authority patrol car sifts those who enter through the checkpoint, an ironic momentary reversal of roles considering the context at large. Life is slowly getting back on course, but tourists are absent and not about to come back. It will be quiet in this open-air museum whose image overshadows the hopes of people dreaming of a better life and equality.

Negga Dou

rapper and activist, Tambacounda, Senegal, collaborator on the research and exhibition project SEEDS FOR FUTURE MEMORIES
a conversation with Agnes Stillger

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Negga Dou, Jo Da Scholar, Bi Faye, video to spread information about the Corona virus, 2020, video still

Negga Dou, in February, you organized the Festival de l’Union in Tambacounda and Villa Romana was also invited to participate with a group of artists. Shortly after we left at the end of February, Senegal closed its borders and took measures to contain the pandemic. International organisations had predicted that the continent would be the most affected. In the meantime, after seeing images of the situation in Northern Italy, friends from Tambacounda sent me Whatsapp messages, hoping I was doing well. Very different perceptions!?

Yes, just after the celebration of the 5th edition of the festival of union in Tambacounda we experienced a very tense atmosphere because of the appearance of COVID-19 which has become a global pandemic and has pushed all countries to take strict measures to be able to limit the spread of the virus to contain this pandemic. In Senegal we had the first case of Corona virus on 2 March; it was a case imported by a French citizen who had an apartment in the Allemadies in Dakar and it was through him that the virus entered Senegal. That is why the president declared a state of emergency in the national territory by closing the borders, schools, mosques, public markets, transport and other gathering places.
In Tambacounda we had just one case of Corona in the department of Goudiry. This person had come into contact with his family and relatives in the village, but the governor of the region automatically quarantined the whole village where this person lives and the medical staff of the commune of Tamba, who are very efficient, took charge of the situation and now they have all recovered. Alhamndoulilah.

What is the current situation in Tambacounda? Knowing that it is also Ramadan and that people generally gather even more and especially after dark, how did confinement measures change daily – and night - life?

The situation is very difficult at the moment because it is Ramadan and, since the president declared a state of emergency, most of the people are no longer working. The young people who used to drive the Motorcycle Taxis no longer work and nobody is allowed to leave their house between 9 pm and 5 am. It´s really complicated and that is why yesterday (19 May 2020) the young people who had been driving the Motorcycle Taxis rioted all day long; they burnt tyres all over the city to block the roads and they confronted the police because they want to go back to work. They were without work for almost 2 months and the state did not help them. It is really hard.

With your association Dugu Tigui, you organize many different activities in Tambacounda for the benefit of the citizens, and react to the issues of the city - environmental pollution or lack of cultural support, etc. How did you react to the crisis?

The Dugu-Tigui /Arts association is always at the side of the people at all times, good and bad. Since the appearance of this virus, we have been raising awareness and communicating a lot to support preventive measures for the population against this pandemic. We have distributed masks and hydro-alcoholic gels to the population, with the support of the Minister of the Armed Forces. I have also produced a very relevant video clip with a strong awareness in different languages and subtitled in English to better sensitize, better communicate and better protect our populations by informing them of the facts of this dangerous pandemic that is wreaking havoc in the world.

I observed this for all of Senegal, whether comedians, actors or rappers, there seemed to be a very effective information network, through Whatsapp and Facebook.

Yes your perception is absolutely correct because in Senegal it is the rappers and actors who are always at the forefront of communicating, raising awareness and sharing with the population in Senegal and we use all the communication platforms we consider necessary and useful to get our message across.

Sofiane Zouggar

artist, Algiers, Villa Romana International Guest Artist 2013
a conversation with Angelika Stepken

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Sofiane Zouggar, from a series of photographs following the Ultras during the Hirak

Sofiane, how is Corona affecting everyday life in Algeria? Do you live in a state of emergency? What are the Corona policies towards people? How are you - and other artists - dealing with this situation?

I think that in Algeria we are living the lockdown like everybody else in the world. It affects work of course, but also every aspect of our daily lives. Everybody’s trying to adapt to this situation never seen before. We do not live in a state of emergency and the government seems to be taking sanitary measures which seem to work for now.  As for the artists, we are also adapting our way of working. I, for instance, am used to doing a lot of interviews, talking to people and consulting archives. It is obviously not possible to continue the process for now, so I turn to the other aspects of my work.

Now digital media are almost the only means of communication. What will communication as the media of control and exchange look like after the Corona breakdown?

Even before the Corona pandemic, it was difficult for Algerian artists to travel. And now with the borders being closed we wonder if it is temporary or if it will exacerbate certain logics. If digital media facilitate communication, and of course they do, we cannot forget that proximity and exchange, human interaction, as well as the actual experience of different places, forge our perceptions and our vision of ourselves and of the world…

We recently invited you to talk about one of your project Ultra(S) politics at Villa Romana. Unfortunately we have to postpone your lecture. But can you already tell us something more about your artistic project, which you also wanted to present at La Colonie in Paris? In what way does this title refer to football Ultras ?

The title refers to the political engagement of Ultra Football Fanatics. I started this project after having observed the media in Algeria and how they were falsely portraying these fans by focusing only on the violent aspects. This bias is mainly because these groups disrupt the system and have a real political impact through their social engagement and chants that have recently become more popular within the general population. When you dig a little deeper, you realize that these groups have a deep-rooted political heritage that dates back to the Algerian Revolution. The project is also dealing with the political strategy of several funding platforms, where you fail with unattractive subjects until they become the headlines of media news.

Could you tell us something more, how these strategies demoralize (or encourage) artists in Algeria? Are these foreign foundations the basic financial support and public platform for you and other artists - as is the case in many countries in the MENA region and Middle East.

It is a very complex situation which depends on each artist and her or his method of research and practice. Often, when they do not have access to funding, artists have to personally finance each project which then makes the creative process very long and arduous, and that’s if they do not give up in the meantime.
Also, when there is a very clear political aspect to a project, and when this political facet gets media attention inside and outside of the country, artists risk being branded as conspiratorial or even traitors at the service of some foreign political agenda.
I usually do not get funding for my projects here. The calls are very precise and often directly linked to media-related issues, whereas my research interests are more long-term oriented. That is why I like applying for residencies in different countries where I have the freedom, the time and the resources to advance my projects. I think most artists are confronted with that, and therefore they seek funding from institutions outside of Algeria.

Are they considered traitors because they fulfil the expectations of foreign foundations or do I misunderstand? And what are the crucial political points which cannot be touched on?

The word traitor might be a bit much. What I wanted to say is that the question of political agenda is still predominant in the approach of art in general as regards national cultural policies.
There are several foreign foundations based in Algiers but sometimes, they too will seek projects which are believed to be relevant to media-related issues and might not grasp the complexities of certain approaches. For example, my project Memory of Violence, which is centred on the civil war of the 1990s, seemed to be of interest to these foundations. I did not accept collaborations and to date I have only showed parts of it, at Villa Romana in 2013.
What that means for artists and their work is that there always remains the haunting question of visibility. Where and how will we show our pieces? And can we share our projects in Algeria? And so on.

Tell us a little more about the visibility for contemporary art in Algeria. Did new places emerge in recent years? What about artists self-organization, artists groups? Exchange with France and other countries?

The question of visibility for artists is an important one and it is very difficult to showcase your work without being labelled as an Arab photographer that can be linked to the Arab Spring for example, or an African artist for the African season, or an Algerian artist for The Year of Algeria in France and so on.
Box24 in Algiers is a great platform and outlet for artists since the collective collaborates on amazing projects, through residencies, with Norway, Sweden, Spain and Tunisia for example. Through our collective, we create and share dynamics with other artists and the issues of institutional strategies sort of disappear…

I followed you on Facebook during the Hirak, the civil movement which is claiming a civil society, a change of political (non-) culture, a civil participation in Algerian society. Hirak succeeded in preventing another mandate of Bouteflika, but not yet a change of the political power system. What is the situation now, after almost 15 months on the streets?

I do not think radical change will happen this year or even the year after. The Hirak has already achieved quite a lot; civil society has driven the creation of many collectives and organized groups and has shed some light on unions that have been active for years and which are now even more active on the social and political scene. The Hirak is an idea and you cannot repress an idea no matter how many people you put in jail and how many actions you take to try to stifle the movement.

I remember that there were negotiations with the new government about the needs of artists and the cultural field in Algeria. What did you ask for and what happened since then?
I did not participate but my understanding is that the initiative is geared towards the cinema industry which, of course, if financed correctly can be a way to generate a lot of revenue as well as employment. It would be great if national cultural policies were a way to steadily support the arts. I am not against collaborations with the Ministry of Culture for example, if everything is clear and transparent.