Brian Holmes on Sat, 23 Dec 2006 06:23:08 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> review of THE MAGHREB CONNECTION

Below is the exhibition review of The Maghreb Connection, which I wrote 
at the request of eipcp's Transform project:

The ambition of Transform is to explore how mainstream institutions can 
be adapted to support, extend and distribute some of the breakthroughs 
of processual and politically oriented art. To that extent, it's natural 
they were interested in this project.

Happy holidays to those who celebrate, BH


Movements of Life Across North Africa

Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, December 11, 2006 - January 13, 2007
For further info and traveling schedule:

To the left of the factory space is an animated cartoon video by the 
Cairene artist Hala Elkoussy and her collaborators, From Rome to Rome, 
sketching out the unlucky travelogue of an Egyptian who has become 
fascinated with life in Italy, all because of the tall tales and 
concrete material wealth of the people in a delta village nicknamed 
"Roma." On the right is a wall-sized black-and-yellow map of the 
militarized Strait of Gibraltar, researched and designed by the Spanish 
activist group Hackitectura (whose larger network, including Helena 
Maleno and Nicolas Sguiglia Pincolini who both came to speak, has just 
released a new book, Fadaiat: Libertad de movimiento, libertad de 
conocimiento). Against the back wall one sees a projected sequence from 
Agadez Chronicles by Ursula Biemann, showing a migrant transit hub in 
the Saharan state of Niger. Closer to us, on a small monitor, are views 
from her descent through the uranium mines of Arlit, also in Niger. To 
the right of that are two equal-sized and somewhat more imposing 
screens, one with ghostly informational images from surveillance drones 
gliding over the Sahara, the other featuring an interview with a Tuareg 
man named Adawa, who runs clandestine transportation lines from Arlit to 
Algeria and Libya. The place where we encounter all these images is the 
Townhouse Gallery, smack in the middle of Cairo.

Take a few steps from the entryway, then sit down to watch the tightly 
articulated video-essay by the young Swiss-American Charles Heller, 
presented next to the map by Hackitectura. Entitled Crossroads at the 
Edge of Worlds: Sub-Saharan Transit Migration in Morocco, it will embark 
you on a journey from the city of Tangier and the forest camp of Bel 
Younnech above Ceuta, through Oujda on the Algerian frontier and all the 
way down to coastal Laayoune, where migrants leave for the far-off 
Canary Islands in boats they must in some cases build with their own hands.

The exhibition marks the latest stage in Ursula Biemann's collaborative 
quest to invent a visual geography, deeply informed by social science 
and at grips with actuality, but using the tools of art and presented on 
the museum circuit. With this project where she is both participant and 
curator, an important step has been taken toward the realization of what 
is undoubtedly a widespread desire, that of making such collaborations 
fully cross-cultural. The process of research unfolded over the course 
of two years, not as a tightly concerted effort but rather among a loose 
network whose exchanges were sparked by a number of meetings. In 
addition to the show there is a book, also entitled The Maghreb 
Connection, which can be read in two directions, beginning at either 
cover, since it is in both English and Arabic. The project as a whole is 
informed by the studies of a Algerian geographer in exile, Ali Bensaad, 
and a Franco-Moroccan sociologist, Mehdi Alioua, both of whom 
contributed excellent essays, along with the urban anthropologist Michel 
Agier, the architect Keller Easterling, the no-border activist Florian 
Schneider and a group of students from the School of Fine Arts in Geneva.

While media attention is devoted almost exclusively to the arrival of 
migrants on Europe's heavily guarded southern shores, the exhibition and 
book explore the risky crossing of the Sahara, as well as the conditions 
of temporary or permanent residence for sub-Saharan migrants in the 
Maghreb countries of North Africa. In addition to the works I've already 
mentioned, the show includes a series of allegorical photographs by the 
Moroccan artist Yto Barrada, entitled Sleepers, and a video on the life 
and work of Chinese women selling clothes in the poorer neighborhoods of 
Cairo, by the Egyptian artist Doa Aly. The latter work, entitled Chinese 
Sweet, Chinese Pretty, brings something particular to the audience in 
Cairo: a gaze on immigration in their own country, and a look at the 
city from the radically different perspective of Chinese peasant farmers 
who find a way to improve their life back home by means of a temporary 
stay in Egypt.

The primary aim of the show is to approach the self-understanding of 
those who "go looking for their lives," particularly the modern-day 
"adventurers" (their own word) who leave their birthplace in black 
Africa to seek passage to the Maghreb and then eventually to Europe. A 
key image is that of the small fishing boats, never intended for travel 
anywhere beyond the coasts, in which they now must brave the often fatal 
120-kilometer trip to the Canaries, since intensified surveillance has 
made the incomparably shorter Gibraltar crossing practically impossible. 
Charles Heller's video essay shows two of these boats set ablaze on the 
sand by the Moroccan border police, who make us of the computerized air 
support I referred to above. Biemann's own work focuses on the people 
who organize the middle stages of the passage from distant Niger, where 
she filmed extraordinary shots of the giant vehicles that leave for 
their Saharan journey with their human cargo perched precariously on top 
of a high-piled truck bed. The former Tuareg rebel Adawa, whom she 
interviews in French, has been accorded an uneasy position as a desert 
coyote by the Niger government, undoubtedly to compromise and neutralize 
him while at the same time channeling the flow of migrants in 
predictable directions. Adawa has this to say about his own situation, 
and that of the Tuareg people split among five states by the colonial 
borderlines between Algeria, Libya, Mali, Chad and Niger: "What pushed 
us, the Tuareg community, to run all these risks: death, arrest by 
various authorities? In some ways we are still in rebellion.... If this 
crazy square of the Tuareg was somewhat under control there would be no 
passage to the north, nor to the south. There would be no crossing 
through. But if this society is forgotten, it will seek ways to survive. 
This is what pushes us to do all this today." Such a strong declaration 
will leave each visitor, and maybe each participant in the show, 
reflecting about the sources and the meanings of their own motivations, 
and the larger frames in which they are inserted.

You would think that someone who was involved in editing the 
publication, like me, could experience no absolute surprise at the 
opening. Yet there were two. The first was the photography of Armin 
Linke, whose visual intelligence is such that he is able to strip every 
syllable of discourse from his images, which still say it all. 
Particularly remarkable are the pictures of the Sahrawi nomad camps 
parked along a 2,000 kilometer boundary-wall, built by the Moroccan 
military in an effort to stabilize the Polisario rebellion. Strangely 
sculpted boulders, decorated with contemporary paintings and 
inscriptions, open up to the temporary quarters of soldiers. Tents the 
color of desert sand fan out in hundreds beneath a hazy sky. Inside an 
empty cloth space, a nomad child is immobilized before a TV. The images 
are presented in a large white book set down on a table with nothing on 
the cover; the captions appear on a printed sheet stuck between the last 
blank pages.

The other surprise was the film SUDEUROPA, by Raphael Cuomo and Maria 
Iorio, which stages a complex joust between the spectacular media 
coverage of immigrant disembarkations on the Italian island of Lampedusa 
and the far more intimate and circumspect explorations of the artists 
themselves. The film is structured with a kind of infinitely 
intransigent care that recalls the cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and the 
late Daniele Huillet; it constantly returns to scenes shot through the 
grillwork of fences, including the one that encloses the detention 
center. Another such image is a long, patient traveling along the fence 
that cordons off the island's dump, where the wooden boats of the 
migrants are hauled to their fate after interception by the coast guard. 
The narration, in playfully rhythmic and and highly self-reflexive 
Italian diction, informs us that a special machine grinds these boats 
into powder, which is then shipped to a factory in North Italy and made 
into furniture, so that one might find oneself sitting someday in a 
chair made of the boats of forgotten migrants. The text is read by 
"Paolo," an employee at a local hotel, who is in fact of Tunisian 
origin, himself a successful immigrant who had studied acting in his 
youth (thus the perfect diction) and now prefers to pass himself off as 
an Italian, thus avoiding what others have to suffer. Another constantly 
recurring motif in the film is the German journalist who returns to the 
tourist isle every year, but has been unable to film any 
disembarkations. The cameramen are looking for two good stories before 
returning to Rome, two good stories full of emotion - "I can pay for 
them, do you realize?" intones "Paolo" repeatedly. Without ever giving 
all the keys to its fragmentary and elusive montage, the film closes on 
scenes of airplanes run by obscure companies, departing enigmatically at 
night without anyone seeming to know their destination. Then suddenly 
there is a moment of total darkness, while we listen to the 
characteristic rasp and jingle of a ring of keys, of the kind not an 
allegorist but a jailer would carry, one supposes.

It was striking for me to realize, in faraway Cairo, just to what degree 
an Adornian aesthetic, stung to the quick by all the abuses that 
humanitarian idealism permits, still forms part of the common ground 
between myself and those whom I consider my contemporaries. In the 
silences of the videos, and in the warning signs they seek to erect 
around the possible or documented excesses of police and military 
powers, this powerfully ethical concern is constantly at work, informed 
by historical experience. But at the same time, how much more striking 
to see, among practically every popular bookseller's wares spread out on 
the Cairo streets, editions in Arabic of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of 
the Elders of Zion. To be sure - as the Jewish friend who pointed out 
these books explained to me with remarkable equanimity - there aren't 
many people living in Cairo to remind the Egyptians about the Holocaust, 
and what they are all too familiar with instead are the actions of the 
contemporary state of Israel.

Ideally, the symposium of the project, held on December 11, would have 
been a place to hold transcultural debates about this and many other 
issues, aesthetic, philosophical, diplomatic and scientific. But the 
difficulties only begin with translation, and extend much further into 
vast realms of unfamiliarity and reciprocal ignorance, compounded by the 
current geopolitical situation. There are not yet many people able to 
hold such debates, in truth. It is clear that if we expect to meet 
someday around the Mediterranean sea that separates, but increasingly 
joins, there will have to be a great revision of political, military and 
economic policy, which remains tilted dangerously away from the vital 
interests of a majority of people living on and near those shores, or 
even in sub-Saharan Africa. But there is an urgent need, in the 
meantime, for many more collaborative projects with the depth and scope 
of The Maghreb Connection.

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