Art in Algeria

A former family apartment is now an artist residency space in the heart of Algiers


Sheyma Buali


Atef Berredjem


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Sedira, who was born and raised in France, started out thanks to the familial network that brought her to the programme’s lucky locale. ‘My parents had an apartment which wasn’t being used because my family lives outside of Algiers, so I took it over. It’s a French colonial building built around the early art deco period. It still has the original art deco tiles and it’s all in very good shape.’

Its history, Sedira explains, is ‘like that of any French colonial building in Algiers.’ The district was once known as the Quartier Européen. ‘No Arabs lived there, except for servants,’ Sedira clarifies.

By the end of the 1800s, French, Spanish and Italian families had settled in the quarter. The city was divided between the European area and the Kasbah on the hillside (dating back to the Phoenicians of the 6th century BC, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site), where most of the Arabs lived. After declaring independence in 1962, local families started to move back in. ‘We bought the flat from a young Imam who worked in the mosque nearby, I can only guess that before him there was a European family living there.’

The Quartier was quite large. European influences dominated the architecture in the area. ‘The flat is very much like one you’d find in Paris, with high ceilings and big windows. There is good natural light because the balcony is on the building’s corner,’ Sedira explains.

The size of the flat makes it a great place to work. ‘The front is large so we divided it – there’s a bedroom, an office studio and the living room is huge,’ Sedira says, describing the space of production. Work at aria is grounded in the local, with resident artists obliged to interact with existing art infrastructures, give a talk at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts and host workshops at the flat for local artists.

Located in the centre of town, it’s just minutes away from the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, restaurants, the market and the sea. ‘I prefer visitors to be in the popular area, in close contact with the everyday people of the city,’ Sedira explains.

aria hosts three to four artists per year, at least one of whom must be from the Maghreb region. Sedira and London-based freelance curator Yasmina Reggad, with whom she works closely, are working to fulfill the programme’s mission by partnering with regional galleries and artists, developing ways to incorporate the surrounding community in Algiers, and bringing all that together in international projects.

Currently at the aria flat, the programme’s fifth artist and first Algerian resident, Annaba-based Atef Berredjem, is hard at work. His one-month stay is the first production-based residency aimed at creating an aria-commissioned piece. Berredjem’s residency builds on a project he began while at Villa Romana in Florence, Italy.

In collaboration with the Marrakech Biennale, Villa Romana initiated the project ‘Pas de Deux: 5x2x2’ in May 2013: a series of five staged two-week encounters between artists from the southern Mediterranean and curator Alya Sebti of the Marrakech Biennale. During their respective residencies, the interlocutors are meant to explore artistic approaches to addressing the question, ‘where are we now?’

The conversations produced by the residency will be recorded in a book of essays written by the participating artists and curators. Atef Berredjem’s residency at aria is a follow-up to the two-week session he engaged in with London-based curator Nora Razian. In Algiers, he will create a work based on the collaborative essay he began in Florence.

‘Atef is a good artist to have as our first Algerian resident because he is always challenging his own practice. With us, he will be doing his first participatory project,’ Sedira says, animated by Berredjem’s defiance. His physically taxing plan requires him to carry out seven 11-hour trips between Algiers and Annaba, located just under 600 kilometres away at the eastern border by Tunisia. He will conduct interviews with people he meets along the way, recording their stories and collecting images and videos.

‘Back at the space, I will transcribe and translate the notes and send them to Nora in London. Some information will make it into the essay, and some will be part of the project,’ Berredjem explains, revved up for his locomotive process, yet still unsure how the end result will pan out. ‘Nora will come to Algiers at the end of the year,’ he says.

‘We are mainly interested in projects that will involve Algeria itself. We want proposals that will explore the country, and give back to it,’ explains Sedira, who is clear about her intentions. The next resident, Canadian-Tanzanian performance artist Kapwani Kiwanga, aims to develop a project about Algiers’ Emir Abdelkader Square.

Resident artists are not the only part of the space’s expanding exchanges, however. Sedira and Reggad’s contact with international artists means that their visits to Algiers are frequently facilitated by aria by, for example, assisting with the bureaucracy of visa processes or offering up a room in the flat as accommodation.

This informal assistance also often leads to aria-presented workshops and talks outside of the apartment. The Paris-based abstract painter Djamel Tatah had a solo show at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art running from September until November 2013. His visit to Algiers included a specially organised workshop for selected Algerian artists at the aria space.

‘It’s interesting for us because we are connecting to the rest of the world in an art context,’ Berredjem explains, a testimony to aria’s main aim. ‘This is a great way to promote ourselves as artists from and working in Algeria within the global landscape of contemporary art,’ Sedira beams. These first two years have proved an optimal start for this downtown Algiers production space.

This article appears in the issue42Buy Now