Making Algiers Visible: A. R. I. A.

The following interview took place through e-mail correspondence with Yasmina Reaggad (curator) and Zineb Sedira (artist) on their new residency project in Algiers and was conducted by Angelika Stepken.

How was the idea for /A. R. I. A / born? Tell me something about the name?

(YR) The idea of /A. R. I. A. / came about when the artist Zineb Sedira met with international artists who expressed an interest in visiting Algeria because of its history, politics, and landscape, which is very much connected to their artistic work. Most of them felt uncomfortable visiting the country as little is known about it. Algeria is mainly known for its civil war, which is a sad misrepresentation considering that it concluded ten years ago. Additionally, given the lack of tourism, hotels are scarce and therefore costly. Providing a framework for an artist will help redress misconceptions and neutralize these obstacles.

(ZS) Compared to other North African or Middle Eastern countries, Algeria has a modest art scene, which is desperate to be developed. Artists struggle to grow locally or internationally, as there are few platforms or opportunities for dialogue and interaction with other artists. The École Supérieure des Beaux Arts is a traditional school and although the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMA) in Algiers was created recently (2007), there is still a lack of private and public exhibition spaces. Another obstacle is that artists living in Algeria struggle to obtain visas necessary for travel abroad. In addition, international curators tend not to travel to Algeria, partly because of language difficulties and concerns about traveling in this country.

(YR) Since 2005, Zineb has used a private apartment as an informal platform to invite artists, curators, and academics. She has also facilitated meetings between her guests and local artists and curators. These exchanges have been very fruitful in order to share and discuss ideas and working practices with the local art community. It has also provided the opportunity for local artists to exhibit in Europe. It has enabled them to converse with artists and curators outside Algeria.
/A. R. I. A. / is a way to further develop this informal arrangement by implementing it as an official platform or institution.
As the Maghreb has tended to be overlooked by the international circuit, /A. R. I. A. / seeks to redress this imbalance by eventually setting this framework within a broader artistic landscape as an international residency program. Zineb single-handedly created /A. R. I. A. / in May 2011, hence the choice of the name /A. R. I. A. / which is defined as an elaborate accompanied melody sung by a single voice. In January 2012, I joined the project as a coordinator as well as Association Chrysalide (local structure).

Would you describe the space (exhibition + research + residency)?

(ZS) An artist in residence is hosted in a large apartment located in the center of Algiers. It includes a living space, a studio and research room, a bedroom, and a large living room. The apartment is a base for the artist to connect with the local community and allows them the opportunity to immerse themselves in the heart of busy Algiers.

(YR) The residency has been designed as a process and research orientated residency, and is still in its pilot phase. We will be able to examine this model of residency within the Algerian context and according to the artists’ needs after monitoring and evaluating the three artist residences scheduled for 2012. The production of a complete new work is not compulsory, rather /A. R. I. A. / is an invitation to return.

(ZS) The selected artists first proposed a direction of research relating their artistic practice within the context of Algeria. One additional artist in residence from Gaza will be selected through an open call.

(YR) Using their proposal as a starting point, we are designing and organizing public and outreach programs, which addresses the artists’ needs and interests, as well as needs of the local artistic community and the general audiences. Our aim is to develop /A. R. I. A. / through local engagement and talks at the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts within the framework of Nadira Laggoune’s seminar on photography and visual arts, as well as conducting tutorials and workshops with art students.
We also collaborate with Association Chrysalide, a local non-profit organization dedicated to the performing arts and cinema. They will ensure local logistics and liaison with the guest artists.

(AS) Who is responsible for the operation, support, and funding this project?

(YR) /A. R. I. A. / is a non-profit organization based in London whereas the residency program is located in Algiers. Zineb is the funding director, Yasmina Reggad is the coordinator, and Association Chrysalide is the local liaison partner. As a non-institutional initiative, /A. R. I. A. / doesn’t receive funding from Algeria. We have received the very important support of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), which made possible the launch of the pilot project and secured two artists’ residencies this year. We also receive support from the French Embassy that will cover the cost of the airfares. The third residency is the result of a partnership with ArtSchool Palestine, a non-profit organization based in Ramallah, and founded in 2005 — this guest residency program is founded by UNESCO. We are already thinking ahead and preparing a two-year residency program and a fundraising schedule.

What is the difference between an institutional and a non-institutional project in the Algerian situation today?

(YR) In Algeria there are some institutions (museums and others) funded by the government that host and organize art exhibitions or cultural events. This means that large amounts of funding is available. A non-institutional initiative in Algeria cannot survive unless privately funded but there are no such institutions and/or projects. There are only few and small private initiatives, often led by artists and/or cultural programs such as Association Chrysalide.

You invited Alfredo Jaar from New York and Nicene Kossentini from Tunis as fellows for your residency in 2012. How did you proceed in your selection? It seems—aside from the high artistic quality—to also represent an exchange with Maghreb as well as the “international” art world …

(ZS) In its first year, /A. R. I. A. / is intended as a pilot residency. It aspires to project positive awareness and visibility of Algeria and its surroundings to global audiences by hosting one artist from the Maghreb region and another from elsewhere in the international artists’ community. The selection process so far is internal.

(YR) We invited artists who are interested in Algeria as regards context, politics, landscape, or architecture and whose artistic practices somehow connect with this idea. We are also initiating a partnership with other artist in residence programs; the first one is the collaboration with ArtSchool Palestine to host an artist from Gaza through an open call process.

You and Zineb are both currently based in London and were educated in Paris. Is it now time for emigrated artists and curators to have an interest in Algeria?

(YR) I studied in France and Zineb studied in the UK — we are both now based in London though (for which we belong to the French diaspora by definition!). We have very different reasons for working on this project and we would prefer not to enter the discussion of the role of the diaspora, which is a very tricky one. Zineb’s wish to create an exchange platform in Algiers started eight years ago so the idea is not a new one. We think it is time for international and Middle Eastern curators (and artists) to begin a dialogue with the artists in Algeria. Despite the blooming art interest in the Arab World, Algeria and its art scene has been largely ignored yet it has so much to offer.
We believe that all art practitioners should engage with Algeria because it is an interesting yet under-represented art scene, and also because there is a mutual clear demand for exchanges. We don’t think of ourselves as emigrated artist and curator or belonging to a diaspora. /A. R. I. A. / is a formal continuity of what Zineb has been naturally and genuinely doing for the past seven years.

(ZS) We are very much interested in addressing issues that have informed the development of /A. R. I. A. /, including assessing if the residencies are an appropriate response to the lack of visibility of the art community from an underrepresented country in the international art world and if residencies help nurture the local art scene?