New Cartographies: Algeria-France-UK

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New Cartographies: Algeria-France-UK

Cornerhouse Manchester 8 April to 5 June

'New Cartographies' maps out changes in cultural perception of boundaries inside and outside Algeria. The exhibition is arranged over three floors using these themes: migration; resources--physical, economic and human; and memory and history. Both emerging and established artists reflect the diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds of the Algerian diaspora. Indicative of a raised level of consciousness across North Africa, ideas have been conceived with political acumen in new media formats yet the subject matter is expressed and espoused with considerable feeling.

Katia Kameli's large-scale video and sound installation Dissolution, 2009, forms a locus of many of the critical issues in the show. A short, looped video sequence intends to place the viewer in the position of an Algerian, perhaps a child, gazing across the Bay of Algiers where the occident, as Katia describes, 'blurs like a fiction'. In the background haze lie stationary tankers out of focus. In the foreground the tops of two industrial chimneys exhaust heat and smoke into the middle-ground of this seascape, where a colourful tanker traverses the screen as it makes its turn into port. Just as the tip of the ship touches the chimney vapour, a small tug enters the screen from the left-hand side. The miniature guide escorts the flaming colossus as it liquefies through industrial heat. Katia describes this event as a 'transition or rebirth' as the tanker enters the orient. The dissolution of the ship is echoed by a wall of sound that engulfs the viewer in the installation. The sound is the audio equivalent of the visual evidence of heat emanating from the chimneys: a discordant and meditative hum. Dissolution uses the moving image to demonstrate where radical opposites momentarily fuse.

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'Harragas' means to burn or transgress boundaries and is a term used to describe migrants desperate to leave Algeria for the West. The metaphor of the flame develops as transcendental homelessness in Harragas, 2010, the title of Zineddine Bessai's installation of small photographs of male figures with candles strapped to their backs like effigies. Bessai, an Arab Muslim, is a recent graduate from the School of Fine Arts in Algeria and was not granted a visa to come to the opening of the show: immigration authorities claimed that he might not return home.

Most of the work in the exhibition does not make reference to Algerian history beyond the end of the War of Independence in 1962. Where reference is made it is as spectre or as erasure. Amina Menia's photomural Chrysanthemum, 2011, is a comparative study of grave monuments shown immaculately kept or in various states of neglect, depending on the political acceptability of those commemorated. Sophie Elbaz's video installations L'Ile fantastique, 2007, and Qacentina, 2007, trace her Sephardic Jewish heritage. Born in France she returned to Constantine, in Algeria, which boasts a landscape of large gorges and natural rock arches; her video journey records simultaneous layers of enchantment and lamentation. In conversation with me she described the pre-Roman beginnings and the subsequent history of Jews in Algeria. The video evokes her family's experiences, now completely disconnected from their origin. Portraits of her grandfather from the colonial era, her father and herself are superimposed, merge and fade to become enveloped, dream-like, by billowing sand. The memorable image of a down-turned bed is suggestive of her phantasmagorical journey. …