Waiting for Omar Gatlato: Introduction



mandate, as I articulated it to her at the time, would inevitably lead to the symbolic recognition of a state system that should not be considered synonymous with the cultural production of the inhabitants of its territory, and even less that of its diaspora. Though I could not convince her to elaborate on this point, it has profoundly marked the shape both the exhibition and this accompanying book have taken since. I shared her unease at the thought of tethering artistic production to any single nation, and to Algerian nationalism in particular. Having spent a good deal of time in Algeria, and having debated this point at length both with the artists included in the show and those from an older generation, such as Denis Martinez, I acknowledge the difference between artwork made in Algeria by people who were trained and live there, and that produced in relation to Algeria by artists living and working in France. The formatting of artists, as Martinez would say, is different in each national context, as are the stakes of making art and even of identifying as an artist. Yet those living in the diaspora are intimately connected to Algeria formally and culturally, so to exclude them would be to present a reductive and politically naive understanding of cultural legitimacy in relation to artistic practice. It is possible to be inhabited by a place to which one’s belonging is unstable. Further still, “territory is the basis for conquest,” as Glissant reminds. “Territory requires that filiation be planted and legitimated. Territory is defined by its limits, and they must be expanded. A land henceforth has no limits. That is the reason it is worth defending against every form of alienation.” 11 The debate about what it means to be Algerian and to reflect on the impact of the histories of Algeria on aesthetic practices occurs in many places that are not, strictly speaking, in Algeria: Kader Attia and Zico Selloum’s bar and event space in Paris, La Colonie, for example, or La Compagnie, an exhibition space and experimental arts programming center run by Paul-Emmanuel Odin in the Belsunce neighborhood of Marseille for over twenty years. For this reason, a guiding principle of the exhibition’s curation has been to find an (almost) even balance in the list of artists between those based in France and those based in Algeria, with a slight bias toward those in Algeria. 12 That said, there is a tension in the exhibition with regard to the diaspora that must be openly admitted. “Waiting for Omar Gatlato” excludes a number of established artists from the diaspora such as Mohamed Bourouissa, Adel Abdessemed, and Neïl Beloufa, among others, whose work has done much for the visibility of Algeria and its artists beyond its borders. Placing the curatorial focus elsewhere is intentional here, and is largely the result of heated debates I have participated in and witnessed with artists in Algiers and in Paris. In these conversations, people spoke to me very directly about the difference between work that is commercially successful in Europe—high-production-value artwork made to circulate within the international art world—and work made in a country with relatively poor arts infrastructure. What I understood from these exchanges was that if the intention of the proposed exhibition was to create a

11  Glissant, Poetics of Relation , 151.

12  It has been pointed out to me, however, that in Algeria there is a concentration of artists in Algiers and that very little curatorial work has been done to date that reaches beyond the capital’s networks. While I have made some effort to decentralize “Waiting for Omar Gatlato” in this respect, this effort should not be considered sufficient.

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