Sofiane Zouggar in conversation with Angelika Stepken (2013)
Shortly before you arrived in Florence, you organized a group exhibition in Algiers, which obviously found a strong public response. Could you tell me something about this project?
Yes, the exhibition was entitled Picturie Générale like the food shops in Algeria called Alimentation générale. It was meant as a critique of the business and consummation of art in Algeria.
What is the business of art in Algeria, to which kind of commercial system did you refer?
We do have few little professional galleries. The art world is more about decorative things, orientalism related to history, memory. It is hard to find support for a contemporary project. Private as well as governmental foundations are looking more for traditional materials and media, like painting or sculpture. For example, photography and installation hardly accepted.
How did you proceed in realizing your group exhibition?
It has been our first experience in public. Since 2008/2009 we have formed a group of young artists, called Box 24. We are doing things ourselves, without any help, we have made presentations in private apartments. Box 24 is working in a kind of underground, also cooperating with other groups. When we started this recent exhibition project – myself and Mourad Krinah – we did not see ourselves as curators who select. It is more a cooperation between artists, friends, all young, under 35, but even this has not been a selection criteria. We tried to work in a professional way, prepare the media, make the project accessible to more people. We tried to communicate with other people than usual. We wanted the normal people. It was very successful, we had Facebook, blogs, radio. The exhibition was successful in the way that artists were showing: we are here! A lot of artists from Algeria are showing abroad in Europe, but in Algeria only in a underground way.
Where did you install this exhibition?
The place was Artissimo, the art school in the centre of Algier. Really a lot of people came to watch and also to ask questions. For many people was the first time they saw a video installation or an interactive video installation as my work or the work of Walid Aiidoud. It was very interesting to talk with them, to answer questions, to explain, to exchange, to be present. I was not aware that my images were so powerful. The video in my piece was showing the visitor himself as long as he was making noise. The image disappeared when he was silent. If you were making more noise you would see more images. Maybe the image of themselves was interesting for them. There are so many images around about the Arab spring, the European crisis, what is happening in Africa and Palestine. People are following TV and have no idea about the selection of news and images.
My artistic work deals with the concept of media and control. Why is the news about the Arab spring dealing with Syria and Lybia but not about Bahrein? Why are they not talking about what is happening in Congo? Images are so powerful, we believe in them.
Inter-activity is a key word for your practice…
Yes, and it was interesting for me, while talking to these people they gave me many more interpretations of my work than I was aware of.
How will you develop this dialogue, what are the next steps?
The next project is a magazine Ch’kara. Mourad and I have been working on it since two years. Ch’kara is a word that existed before, but changed it’s meaning during and after the terrorism period. There was a lot of corruption, a kind of mafia made a lot of money at that time. Ch’kara means bag and for those people who took the money it was said: they have the Ch’kara. But bag now could also mean: a bag of energy, a bag of new, young artists…
You are talking about the terrorist period which in european politics is still called the civil war in Algeria.
It was not a civil war inside Algeria. It was a strategy of the government and one party. The country was divided in two parts, it was govermental anarchy. People could not understand and follow what was happening. It was a very hard time, I did a lot of research about it. My last work at the art academy was about art during terrorism and afterwards. There were only very few artists doing things during this period, a lot of them were killed. Artists felt afraid. Many of them resigned because those cruel images on TV you saw every day were so powerful that you could not interpret them anymore. These images of violence took over all feelings and reflections.
But now the younger generation of artists is dealing a lot with this traumatic experience?
Yes. I am preparing a work which is dealing with all those words changing their meaning from the terrorist period. These words are symbols and they are still a kind of rejected words although originally they come from everyday life or religious sources.
Tell us more about your last work at the art academy…
My last work at the art academy, was a performance where I destroyed an installation of mine with ceramic sculptures. It was an act to destroy what you are afraid of.
Those sculptures were figurative and mirroring the professors of the academy. It was a critique on how judged art works.
Because the professors had to judge your performance, not the ceramics.
Yes, I criticized the way they reject some new form of media in the academy. I looked for a professor to work on this for one year.
How did you succeed in this conservative surrounding to find such a conceptual approach?
I was working with the national theatre and other theatre groups, starting with scenography. Maybe I learned from theatre how they use the body. But I also studied the work of Beuys, Abramovic, and how they rejected the materials of art.
We were working in groups, sharing ideas and supporting each other. In the meantime, things have changed, there are a lot of students trying to change, doing video, performances etc.
Is this an effect of social media, easier access to information and/or “Arab spring”?
With social media information is available. We also do have a Museum of Modern Art in Algiers. Now with internet you can contact people directly, your work is visible on the net surface.
How does your plan of an art magazine refer to this?
We want to be present in Algeria, visible, to give a forum for young critics and intellectuals to write. We want to show what young artists are doing, even if they do not have access to galleries. It will be a printed art magazine, the first one for visual arts in Algeria. We are preparing a french-arab version in Algeria and an english-arab version for abroad. It will be given for free because otherwise we would need professional authorization. Without it we may print up to 3,000 copies. But this allows us to stay outside the system.
During your two month stay at Villa Romana in Florence you were working a lot on this magazine, it is funding etc. Did the distance from Algeria change something in your working mode?
In Algier I am working as a freelance artist, doing graphic design, working in theatre. I have little time dedicated to my own art work and projects, meeting with people. Here I do have time and exchange with the other artists living here. It is also interesting to watch the conservative situation in Florence, talking with curators, everybody has their own opinion. To see things outside of your country always gives a larger view.