In the surge of interest for the arts from the so-called MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, Algeria has been consistently ignored. The art world has long been raving about Beirut's edginess, lounging in Morocco's riads, and touring Dubai, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi, but Algiers is hardly ever talked about, let alone visited. There are reasons for this. The tense political and social climate, as well as the aftermath of more than a decade of terrorism, don't necessarily make for an environment conducive to flourishing artistic initiatives. Plus, English is still very little spoken. But this makes the Festival International d'Art Contemporain d'Alger — now its third edition — all the more vital.
The FIAC (not to be confused with that other FIAC) is held in a single venue: Algiers' modern and contemporary art museum (MaMa), a sumptuous neo-Moorish former department store in the heart of the capital. Gathering 26 artists, this edition (December 3 – February 3) is articulated around the idea of "the return," and it manages to be conceptually focused without being dogmatic. "The return is at the heart of today's reality," curator Nadira Laggoune told ARTINFO UK. She has chosen to understand her topic in the widest possible sense of the term — to encompass, for one, the exile's homecoming to the fledgling Tunisian democracy.
The museum has two levels of galleries opening up on a vast atrium. At a glance, one can take in Ivan Grubanov's rectangle monolith covered with posters mimicking concrete surfaces, as if annihilating the communicative power intrinsic to the object ("Wall of Ideology," 2002); Mona Hatoum's world map carved out of a woollen carpet ("Baluchi (Red and blue)," 2008); and Pascale Marthine Tayou's Brancusian column of colorful African cooking pots "Colonne Pascale" (2010). Domesticity, mobility, and the impossibility thereof hung heavy in the air.
An exciting number of Algerian artists in their twenties and thirties directly address their country's specifics. Zineddine Bessaï's "H-OUT" (2010) is a tongue-in-cheek "guide" for "haraga" — the young people desperate to cross the Mediterranean sea in search of a "better life" — presented as an airport-like information terminal complete with signs indicating "starting points," "countries where Algerians don't need a visa to get in," and "Western beauties" spots. Atef Berredjem' lightbox "A Relative Theory of Man" (2011) pushes the humor further with a double self-portrait, one in blackface and shiny epaulettes, the other painted black until upper chin level, both with a brass tap stuck in the mouth — a cringing and absurdist evocation, perhaps, of a people's exploitations.
Of this generation, Oussama Tabti particularly stands out with his with photographic installation "Stand By" (2011). Researching books in a public library, he noticed that there was a gap in the dates on the lending cards between 1994 and 2002 — dates pretty much bookending the Algerian "black decade" during which more than 160,000 people were killed. Tabti presents scans of these cards without further comment. "The death of culture," art historian Zahia Rahmani told ARTINFO UK, "that's what fascism is." The trauma from this period is such that very few visual artists so far have tackled the subject. Tabti's matter-of-fact approach is subtle but brave, and moving. Likewise, the 2011 video "Couvre-feu" ("Curfew"), shot at night by the Tunisian artist Amel Benattia using a mobile phone, offers a fascinating insight in the days following Ben Ali's overthrow. It shows the dark silhouettes of young people secretly gathered in the streets of Tunis. "Personally, I don’t think that 100 percent democracy exists," says one of them. "I'll be happy with 60 percent."
While firmly grounded in North Africa, one of the strengths of the FIAC is its ability to reach beyond its own context. Tellingly, the "poster boy" for the exhibition isn't Algerian, but the Russian Andrey Kuzkin. For his Sisyphean performance "Circle Wise" (2008), he wrapped around his waist a rope anchored to the centre of a fresh concrete pool, and walked in the wet magma with increasing difficulty as the concrete solidified. Dan Perjovschi's quick drawings on the walls and museum's balustrades have the freshness of the outsider's gaze. At times, his humoristic takes on Algiers's street scenes offer poignant comments on individual aspirations within the collective. In one of them, a figure holds a flag shaped like the clouds in the sky above him.
In just three editions — and only two dedicated to contemporary art (every other year the event is dedicated to an historical Algerian painter) — the FIAC has found its feet, striking the very fine balance between emerging and established artists, local and international concerns. It has all it takes to soon become a landmark art event in the region.