Waiting for Omar Gatlato: Introduction



non-hierarchical surface of appearance, a level playing field between artists from the diaspora and those based in Algeria, I should exclude work made by those who are routinely called upon to represent Alg rienit to a global audience. The conditions of production, in the Marxist sense, are not considered equivalent by some, and this non- equivalence would make it impossible for work by those based in Algeria to fully appear. 13 As a feminist with some ambivalence about the reduction of value to the material conditions of production, I nevertheless saw their point. The first question I was asked in almost every studio visit I conducted in relation to this project was, why are you interested in Algeria? It is a fair question, I am a white woman in soft cotton button-down shirts and bright blue sneakers. The answer is complex: I am inhabited by Algeria, a place to which I am entirely exterior, by virtue of a personal history over which I have no control. I was born in Marseille to an American mother and a pieds-noirs father, a settler colonist who immigrated to France with his family after several generations in Algeria. I was very close to my paternal grandfather, and so my earliest relationship to Algeria was constructed through his experience of exile and conditioned by his nostalgia. This nostalgia was also complex: my grandfather’s best friend and my father’s godfather was Jean Sénac, a poet who was fiercely militant on behalf of Algerian Independence in word and action, and remains well-respected by the country’s artistic and literary community. He was murdered in 1973 by his lover, though some claim he was assassinated by agents of the Algerian government for his unrepentant homosexuality. A painting by Mohammed Khadda, to whom Sénac was close, hung opposite my childhood place at the dining-room table in my grandfather’s house. As he told the story, he had bought it directly from the artist in the early 1950s because Sénac chastised him for failing to support emerging artists in Algiers. I began the research that would eventually result in this exhibition when my grandfather was dying, and living ever more firmly in the past, in an Algeria he left in the middle of his life. He grew Algerian jasmine from a pot so that it draped over the doorway to the kitchen, its scent the first thing he encountered in the morning as he stepped on to his small terrace deep in the heartland of France. He rolled couscous by hand in a giant wooden bowl made from a single olive tree, which he never washed for fear of losing the taste of olive oil left in the wood grain. I think there is no one who touched my grandfather more deeply than Sénac, and as the years between my grandfather’s exile in 1967 and his present moment stretched out, his nostalgia for the country and his grief at Sénac’s death became entangled. Perhaps because of the research I had just embarked upon, perhaps because I had always been fascinated by the open, raw quality of his longing for the Algeria in which he and the poet were young, or perhaps because he sensed some similarity between *

13  A number of people have pointed out that the reverse is also true: that it benefits artists with fewer resources to show with artists whose reputations are already international; it opens doors, creates more context for their work, and increases their visibility. I let the contradiction stand, hopefully to provoke a more engaged and rigorous debate on whether international

visibility produces better artwork or

better commodities, or something in between.

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