January 10: A vernissage this evening at La Filature Performing arts theatre, 20 Allée Nathan Katz, in Mulhouse, France will launch an exhibition by Bruno Boudjelal.
Over ten years, from 1993 to 2003, Boudjelal undertook an odyssey ; to discover the life in Algeria of his father, his ancestors, and through that to the history and nature of Algeria itself. In seeing him question his own identity we might be prompted to consider our own, and at a time when African and Arab migration to Europe over the cruel ‘wall’ of the Mediterranean has reached unprecedented levels, his exploration is all the more significant in leading to an understanding of the refugee and the migrant.
A first encounter with Boudjelal’s imagery is difficult. All one knows about composition, focus, design, is thrown out, I should say I was thrown out. The images are haphazard, a mixture of colour and black and white, so many are blurred, fuzzy, blocked by obstacles, unsteady.
Of his father, he says:
Everyone talks to me about Lemaouche, but I don’t dare tell them that nowadays he calls himself Jean-Claude; even when I was young I’d never heard my father’s true name. It was only one day when I needed a copy of my birth certificate that I chanced on his real first name: LEMAOUCHE.
It was in claiming his birth certificate that he realised his father had been absent when he was born in 1961, and hadn’t even acknowledged his birth. His father had got Boudjelal’s mother, a young, lower middle class French woman, pregnant, and had disappeared. It was during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). Her own father, discovering she was pregnant, threw her out on to the street. They reconciled when the baby was born, acknowledging him with their French name, Sombret, and for year after that; he was ‘Bruno Sombret’, though he was placed in a home for illegitimate children;
I was the burden too heavy to be carried. I’d hardly been born and I’d already been abandoned twice; by my father and then by my mother and her family who couldn’t accept me as one of them…”
In May 1993 he set out for Algeria for the very first time. Photography was new to him; “A few days before leaving, a friend said: ‘You should try to make some pictures’ and loaned me a camera, but I knew nothing, ” he says.
His father had not returned to his birthplace since immigrating to France and maintained little contact with his family there. Guided only by having read the birthplace of his father in the official family record book, he found the little village of the Setif region, where a line of crying women welcomed him.
Boudjelal first set out to Algeria at the beginning of a “dark decade” in the country’s history, during the Algerian Civil War that lasted from 1991 to 2002 and there were roadblocks, literally and metaphorically to taking pictures. Soldiers and police were everywhere, suspicious and hostile to civilians with cameras in public places “I could not centre [the camera], or even put it at a certain height. It was always too dangerous, too complicated, always moving.”
It is from this necessity for covert, surreptitious photography that the apparently haphazard nature of his imaging evolved. Shooting while avoiding being noticed lends his images an exigency; blurring, confusion and radical colouration makes even his most mundane observation momentous and convey a fluid flow of movement from moment to moment. They take on the chaotic atmosphere of Algerian of the time.
An examination of an image such as this reveals a logic and an aesthetic that runs consistently through his work. Here Boudjelal finds his name on what appears to a a publicly displayed list of ‘disappeared’ overlaid with text in Arabic and French. The ‘R’ of the stencilled type ‘Disparus’ just overlap the surname. The coincidence is captured in a ‘chancey’ manner; this is not a precise copy made ‘for the record’ but a justifiably emotional response recorded with a sense of fate, or of irony. Tilted and angled obliquely, the shot is interrupted by reflection in the perspex or glass overlay, and vignetted by the peering proximity of his on-camera flash.
So it is that Boudjelal’s photography bears an oblique relationship with photojournalism; it is myopic rather than seeking an overview, personal rather than general, but he is a compelling witness. “I think that all artists are just talking about their own experiences,” he says, categorising himself as an artist rather than a reporter, and calling into question the legitimacy of claiming the ‘higher ground’ of the general view.
In this Boudjelal advances on Gilles Peress’ perspective on the 1979 revolution in Iran in his book, Telex Iran: In the Name of Revolution, which documents the clash of American and Iranian cultures during the hostage crisis which Peress conveyed also in covert images; street demonstrations interspersed with copies of telexes from his editors and grabs from television screens in Iran. Where Peress’ approach constantly seeks out meaning and newsworthiness out of events on the street, Boudjelal capitulates to the futility of such a condensation, surrendering it to the ‘gut response’ of emotion over the rational, content that his photographs remain enigmatic.
It is in his scrapbooks, his ‘daybooks’, which he calls ‘travel logs’ that we see Boudjelal’s process of response and selection, which takes place often years after taking the original photographs in an effort to assemble or determine a continuity of vision. Sometimes these look like proof sheets,
while other pages are painted and individual images toned experimentally, later to be printed with a strong colour cast from the monochrome negative.
Other images from these scrapbooks face pages of handwritten text, observations made on the run sometimes,
or in a more considered, diaristic, or should one say, ‘journalistic’ manner, that is contemplative and interpretive; here a whole page is devoted to commentary on one archival photograph.
While still others justify consideration as stand-alone artworks, as legitimate as a Duane Michals, a Shirin Neshat or an Annette Messager.
In 2009 Boudjelal returned to Algeria. His first visit had enable him to connect with his Algerian family, but he was left with uncertainty about whether he belonged to Algeria or to France, but at the same time with a sense of a cultural deja vu or ‘tribe memory’. He returned to Algeria to question and explore this feeling of belonging.
Bruno Boudjelal’s search for reliable traces of past histories and the imprint of memory brought him in 2103 to the production of a series that examines the life and legacy of Frantz Fanon; a Martinique born French-Algerian psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary and writer whose work is influential in post-colonial thought, and on black or minority activists from Cuba to the USA and to Algeria. “I felt it was important, at a point where Algeria is celebrating its fiftieth birthday, to consider the thoughts and life story of Fanon, his relation with Algeria, his position as one of the most important post-colonial thinkers, and finally the story of his journey as a human being,” says Boudjelal.
This is a journey with an existential father. Frantz Fanon worked as a psychiatrist in a hospital in Blida during the Algerian revolution of the 1950s, where he came to his realisation of racism and colonialism was oppression that was psychological, deeply embedded in the persona of the oppressed, the ultimate consequence of their economic disadvantage or political oppression, thinking that is expressed in seminal books, Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961).
Boudjelal, who himself struggles under the burden and confusion of being of mixed race, follows Fanon’s ghost to Forte de France, Fanon’s birthplace in the Caribbean island of Martinique, and to Aïn Kerma village in eastern Algeria where he is buried. His images find traces of Fanon amongst melancholy structures in Tunis, where Fanon lived his last days, banished from Algeria, and into Ghana where Fanon was sent as an ambassador by the Algerian Provisional Government in 1960. The Fanon series were taken with the low-tech Holga camera resulting in images of a reflective, personal voyage through haunted landscapes.
While in Algeria he also worked on the question of emigration, of the Harragas, which means in North African Arabic “he who burns” (kilometres, identity papers). These are the migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who take to makeshift boats and embark in the Annaba region to try to reach Sardinia or Sicily, or in Oran to try to reach Spain, guided only by the signal strength and location services of Spanish of Italian SIM cards sent to them by Algerians living in those countries. For this series Boudjelal used a Leica, but processes and reframes them to imitate the square format of the Holga for publication in black and white in the French magazine, Mouvement.
Boudjelal is a member of l’Agence VU, a photography agency established in 1986 with headquarters on Rue Saint-Lazare in Paris which works with both photojournalists and art photographers. He has produced a book containing a new project almost every second year since his first visit to Algeria. He contends that his stories are explorations and constructions, not direct reportage.