Waiting for Omar Gatlato: Introduction



own image and, simultaneously, a strong rejection of that legacy by postcolonial authors such as Kateb Yacine and by artists such as Mohammed Khadda. As a result of an unrelenting yet ambivalent struggle for self-determination at every level of the sociocultural sphere, no digestible, unified narrative has emerged for the West to read Algeria. Further contributing to this obscurity is the fact that cultural production across all sectors—in fact much of public life in Algeria— came to grinding halt in the 1990s during the Black Decade. In December 1991, the ruling government canceled national elections when it became clear that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) would carry the popular vote. In the aftermath of this decision, the military took over the government, banning the FIS and arresting its members, but a violent Islamist coalition movement emerged in its place. The various groups that comprised this movement targeted journalists, theater producers, writers, artists, and professors specifically, but they also massacred entire villages. Unveiled and professional women were shot in public, and tens of thousands of people thought to be collaborating with either the military or the militias were disappeared. Because it was often a case of violence perpetrated between neighbors, people who knew one another, the effects of the conflict chilled all forms of shared experience. People stayed home, locked themselves into the space of the family behind reinforced metal doors. The infrastructures for cinema, music, and art atrophied. Artists, journalists, and intellectuals responded to the threat against them in various ways, but many left Algeria. This exodus and its repercussions on artists’ lives and professional trajectories is part of the reason the diaspora remains important to a nuanced understanding of artistic production in Algeria, but it is not the only reason. Fifteen years after the end of the conflict in 2004, there is still a systematic disinvestment on the part of the Algerian cultural ministry, especially with regard to the visual arts and film, which is due in part to a lingering fear of artistic expression as a vector for sociopolitical destabilization in a country that has experienced enough of violent conflict on ideological grounds. The government’s neglect of the arts not only affects the opportunity to exhibit within Algeria, it also impacts the intellectual infrastructure for critical debate about the function and value of art. There are very few dedicated art critics, no pedagogical structures to train curators or art writers, apart from independent initiatives such as Aria, a residency and professional development organization in Algiers founded by Yasmina Reggad and Zineb Sedira, and the more free- form Rhizome Culture, cofounded by Myriam Amroun and Khaled Bouzidi in 2017, which is described in more depth by Bouzidi in the final pages of this volume. The ground of political contestation is moving, nevertheless. On March 11, 2019, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika dropped his bid for a fifth term, and citizens filled the Place Audin in the center of Algiers, the colonial orientalist portico of the Grande Poste, and other major urban intersections, such as Martyr’s Square and May 1st

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