BE­TWEEN TWO WORLDS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Al­ge­ria oc­cu­pies an im­por­tant place in the French mind, but its his­tory and cul­ture, de­spite its fa­mous sons Ca­mus and Der­rida, re­main fairly ob­scure to most of the English-speak­ing world. It is not nearly as well known as its west­ern neigh­bour Morocco, or even Tu­nisia to the east, be­cause it never de­vel­oped a com­pa­ra­ble tourist busi­ness or in­deed al­lure. Also, for the past few decades civil war (1991-2002) and prob­lems with Is­lamic mil­i­tants — which be­gan be­fore the world in gen­eral had any idea of the scale of the men­ace — have made it un­safe for trav­ellers to visit.

The re­gion first comes into his­tor­i­cal fo­cus in the Ro­man pe­riod, af­ter the Ro­man Re­pub­lic re­placed the Phoeni­cian city of Carthage as the dom­i­nant power in the west­ern part of north Africa — or what is still called to­day the Maghreb, from the Ara­bic word for west. Part of what is now Al­ge­ria fell within the king­dom and later prov­ince of Nu­midia, while the west­ern part, as well as Morocco, con­sti­tuted the king­dom of Mau­re­ta­nia. Mau­re­ta­nia be­came a client king­dom un­der Au­gus­tus and was an­nexed to the em­pire un­der Claudius.

The na­tive in­hab­i­tants in an­tiq­uity were orig­i­nally tribal Ber­bers — whose de­scen­dants to­day are the Tuareg — but as part of the Ro­man Em­pire many of them as­sim­i­lated the Ro­man way of life. Af­ter the fall of the em­pire in the 5th cen­tury, the Maghreb was in­vaded by Ger­manic bar­bar­ians, then re­con­quered by the Byzan­tine em­pire 100 years later. Fi­nally, in the 7th cen­tury they were over­run by the Arab con­quests that fol­lowed the es­tab­lish­ment of the new re­li­gion of Mo­hammed.

The Arab in­va­sion led to an eth­nic di­vi­sion that is still a source of ten­sions al­most 1½ mil­len­nia later: Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism, for ex­am­ple, is more com­mon among Arabs than Ber­bers. To Eu­ro­peans, the area was long known as the Bar­bary Coast, and for cen­turies Al­giers be­came a base for pirates prey­ing on the south of Europe, the Mediter­ranean is­lands and Euro­pean ship­ping.

Pirates not only plundered smaller com­mu­ni­ties but car­ried off their men and women to sell as slaves or to hold for ran­som. In 1541 the em­peror Charles V at­tempted un­suc­cess­fully to in­vade Al­giers and put an end to the pi­rate threat, but by that time the pirates were an im­por­tant part of the fleet of the Ot­toman sul­tan Su­ley­man the Mag­nif­i­cent. Bri­tain was much more suc­cess­ful in the bom­bard­ment of Al­giers in 1816, re­sult­ing in the lib­er­a­tion of thou­sands of slaves, but the slav­ing and kid­nap­ping trades did not dis­ap­pear un­til the French in­vaded and an­nexed Al­ge­ria in 1830.

The French held Al­ge­ria for 132 years from 1848 not as a colo­nial pos­ses­sion but as a fully in­te­grated ad­min­is­tra­tive area of France. By the time they left in 1962 there were more than 900,000 Euro­pean Al­ge­ri­ans and 100,000 Sephardic Jews, al­most all of whom left, caus­ing fur­ther dif­fi­cul­ties in the places where they re­set­tled, such as Cor­sica.

But far more se­ri­ous in the long run were the con­se­quences of Al­ge­rian em­i­gra­tion to France: many ed­u­cated and Euro­peanised Al­ge­ri­ans al­ready lived in or moved to France, and Al­ge­rian sol­diers con­tin­ued to serve in the French reg­u­lar army. But the large num­ber of aux­il­iary troops known as Harkis were not for­mally en­ti­tled to em­i­grate to France. Many did, with the help of their French of­fi­cers, but tens of thou­sands were aban­doned to be tor­tured and mas­sa­cred by the FLN rebel fight­ers. The Harkis in France, mostly un­e­d­u­cated and unas­sim­i­lated to French cul­ture, were marginalised un­til re­cently, when pres­i­dents Jac­ques Chirac and es­pe­cially Ni­co­las Sarkozy at­tempted to im­prove their sit­u­a­tion.

Kader At­tia was born in France to an Al­ge­rian fam­ily (his mother is a Ber­ber) liv­ing in the outer sub­urbs of Paris, and spent his early life al­ter­nat­ing be­tween his two coun­tries, aware, as his fa­ther al­ready was, of be­long­ing com­pletely to nei­ther. Through­out hu­man his­tory, the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple have lived and died in al­most the same place; but in cer­tain pe­ri­ods of dy­namism and mo­bil­ity, such as the Hel­lenis­tic age or the Ro­man Em­pire, ex­pa­tri­a­tion and move­ment in both di­rec­tions be­tween metropo­lis and colonies be­came com­mon.

Ge­o­graph­i­cally too, the Mediter­ranean has al­ways been a par­tic­u­larly fluid zone of mi­gra­tion and cul­tural ex­change. Such mo­bil­ity favours a higher level of self-con­scious­ness, but also of ex­is­ten­tial dis­com­fort among all con­cerned, from the melan­choly of the colonist, un­sure of where home is, to the anx­i­ety of the colonised, who may dis­cover new in­tel­lec­tual hori­zons and new op­por­tu­ni­ties, but who also suf­fer the pain of sep­a­ra­tion from the un­re­flect­ing cer­tain­ties of their na­tive cul­ture.

At­tia, who is the sub­ject of an ex­hi­bi­tion in Syd­ney, em­bod­ies this predica­ment, which be­comes a cen­tral pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of his art. In one set of works he con­sid­ers the phe­nom­e­non of the “phan­tom limb” — where the brain pro­duces il­lu­sory sen­sa­tions of a limb that has been am­pu­tated — as an ana­logue of the ex­pe­ri­ence of cul­tural loss and dis­place­ment. But whereas much art on such sub­jects is vi­ti­ated by self-pity or re­sent­ment, At­tia sees loss, trauma and mourn­ing in a broader per­spec­tive and is in­ter­ested in the pro­cesses of heal­ing.

In an in­ter­view shown in the ex­hi­bi­tion, At­tia takes as an ex­am­ple of his con­cept of re­pair a pre­cious Ja­panese tea-bowl that had been bro­ken and re­paired with gold. In the West, he says, we tend to think of re­pair as restor­ing a thing to its for­mer state. But such in­vis­i­ble mend­ing can be­come a form of am­ne­sia; in the

Kader At­tia’s J’Ac­cuse (2016)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.