16 12 06

The Maghreb Connection: Movements of Life Across North Africa

Brian Holmes

To the left of the factory space is an animated cartoon video by the Cairene artist Hala Elkoussy and her collaborators, From Rome to Rome, sketching out the unlucky travelogue of an Egyptian who has become fascinated with life in Italy, all because of the tall tales and concrete material wealth of the people in a delta village nicknamed “Roma.” On the right is a wall-sized black-and-yellow map of the militarized Strait of Gibraltar, researched and designed by the Spanish activist group Hackitectura (whose larger network, including Helena Maleno and Nicolás Sguiglia Pincolini who both came to speak, has just released a new book, Fadaiat: Libertad de movimiento, libertad de conocimiento, Against the back wall one sees a projected sequence from Agadez Chronicles by Ursula Biemann, showing a migrant transit hub in the Saharan state of Niger. Closer to us, on a small monitor, are views from her descent through the uranium mines of Arlit, also in Niger. To the right of that are two equal-sized and somewhat more imposing screens, one with ghostly informational images from surveillance drones gliding over the Sahara, the other featuring an interview with a Tuareg man named Adawa, who runs clandestine transportation lines from Arlit to Algeria and Libya. The place where we encounter all these images is the Townhouse Gallery, smack in the middle of Cairo.
    Take a few steps from the entryway, then sit down to watch the tightly articulated video-essay by the young Swiss-American Charles Heller, presented next to the map by Hackitectura. Entitled Crossroads at the Edge of Worlds: Sub-Saharan Transit Migration in Morocco, it will embark you on a journey from the city of Tangier and the forest camp of Bel Younnech above Ceuta, through Oujda on the Algerian frontier and all the way down to coastal Laayoune, where migrants leave for the far-off Canary Islands in boats they must in some cases build with their own hands.
    The exhibition marks the latest stage in Ursula Biemann’s collaborative quest to invent a visual geography, deeply informed by social science and at grips with actuality, but using the tools of art and presented on the museum circuit. With this project where she is both participant and curator, an important step has been taken toward the realization of what is undoubtedly a widespread desire, that of making such collaborations fully cross-cultural. The process of research unfolded over the course of two years, not as a tightly concerted effort but rather among a loose network whose exchanges were sparked by a number of meetings. In addition to the show there is a book, also entitled The Maghreb Connection, which can be read in two directions, beginning at either cover, since it is in both English and Arabic. The project as a whole is informed by the studies of a Algerian geographer in exile, Ali Bensaad, and a Franco-Moroccan sociologist, Mehdi Alioua, both of whom contributed excellent essays, along with the urban anthropologist Michel Agier, the architect Keller Easterling, the no-border activist Florian Schneider and a group of students from the School of Fine Arts in Geneva.
    While media attention is devoted almost exclusively to the arrival of migrants on Europe’s heavily guarded southern shores, the exhibition and book explore the risky crossing of the Sahara, as well as the conditions of temporary or permanent residence for sub-Saharan migrants in the Maghreb countries of North Africa. In addition to the works I’ve already mentioned, the show includes a series of allegorical photographs by the Moroccan artist Yto Barrada, entitled Sleepers, and a video on the life and work of Chinese women selling clothes in the poorer neighborhoods of Cairo, by the Egyptian artist Doa Aly. The latter work, entitled Chinese Sweet, Chinese Pretty, brings something particular to the audience in Cairo: a gaze on immigration to their own country, and a look at the city from the radically different perspective of Chinese peasant farmers who find a way to improve their life back home by means of a temporary stay in Egypt.
    The primary aim of the show is to approach the self-understanding of those who “go looking for their lives,” particularly the modern-day “adventurers” (their own word) who leave their birthplace in black Africa to seek passage to the Maghreb and then eventually to Europe. A key image is that of the small fishing boats, never intended for travel anywhere beyond the coasts, in which they now must brave the often fatal 120-kilometer trip to the Canaries, since intensified surveillance has made the incomparably shorter Gibraltar crossing practically impossible. Charles Heller’s video essay shows two of these boats set ablaze on the sand by the Moroccan border police, who make us of the computerized air support I referred to above. Biemann’s own work focuses on the people who organize the middle stages of the passage from distant Niger, where she filmed extraordinary shots of the giant vehicles that leave for the Saharan journey with their human cargo perched precariously on top of a high-piled truck bed. The former Tuareg rebel Adawa, whom she interviews in French, has been accorded an uneasy position as a desert coyote by the Niger government, undoubtedly to compromise and neutralize him while at the same time channeling the flow of migrants in predictable directions. Adawa has this to say about his own situation, and that of the Tuareg people split among five states by the colonial borderlines between Algeria, Libya, Mali, Chad and Niger: “What pushed us, the Tuareg community, to run all these risks: death, arrest by various authorities? In some ways we are still in rebellion … If this crazy square of the Tuareg was somewhat under control there would be no passage to the north, nor to the south. There would be no crossing through. But if this society is forgotten, it will seek ways to survive. This is what pushes us to do all this today.” Such a strong declaration will leave each visitor, and maybe each participant in the show, reflecting about the sources and the meanings of their own motivations, and the larger frames in which they are inserted.
    You would think that someone who was involved in editing the publication, like me, could experience no absolute surprise at the opening. Yet there were two. The first was the photography of Armin Linke, whose visual intelligence is such that he is able to strip every syllable of discourse from his images, which still say it all. Particularly remarkable are the pictures of the Sahrawi nomad camps parked along a 2,000 kilometer boundary-wall, built by the Moroccan military in an effort to stabilize the Polisario rebellion. Strangely sculpted boulders, decorated with contemporary paintings and inscriptions, open up to the temporary quarters of soldiers. Tents the color of desert sand fan out in hundreds beneath a hazy sky. Inside an empty cloth space, a nomad child is immobilized before a TV. The images are presented in a large white book set down on a table with nothing on the cover; the captions appear on a printed sheet stuck between the last blank pages.
    The other surprise was the film SUDEUROPA, by Raphael Cuomo and Maria Iorio, which stages a complex joust between the spectacular media coverage of immigrant disembarkations on the Italian island of Lampedusa and the far more intimate and circumspect explorations of the artists themselves. The film is structured with a kind of infinitely intransigent care that recalls the cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and the late Daniele Huillet; it constantly returns to scenes shot through the grillwork of fences, including the one that encloses the detention center. Another such image is a long, patient traveling along the fence that cordons off the island’s dump, where the wooden boats of the migrants are hauled to their fate after interception by the coast guard. The narration, in playfully rhythmic and and highly self-reflexive Italian diction, informs us that a special machine grinds these boats into powder, which is then shipped to a factory in North Italy and made into furniture, so that one might find oneself sitting someday in a chair made of the boats of forgotten migrants. The text is read by “Paolo,” an employee at a local hotel, who is in fact of Tunisian origin, himself a successful immigrant who had studied acting in his youth (thus the perfect diction) and now prefers to pass himself off as an Italian, avoiding what others have to suffer. Another constantly recurring motif in the film is the German journalist who returns to the tourist isle every year, but has been unable to film any disembarkations. The cameramen are looking for two good stories before returning to Rome, two good stories full of emotion – “I can pay for them, do you realize?” intones “Paolo” repeatedly. Without ever giving all the keys to its fragmentary and elusive montage, the film closes on scenes of airplanes run by obscure companies, departing enigmatically at night without anyone seeming to know their destination. Then suddenly there is a moment of total darkness, while we listen to the characteristic rasp and jingle of a ring of keys, of the kind not an allegorist but a jailer would carry, one supposes.
    It was striking for me to realize, in faraway Cairo, just to what degree an Adornian aesthetic, stung to the quick by all the abuses that humanitarian idealism permits, still forms part of the common ground between myself and those whom I consider my contemporaries. In the silences of the videos, and in the warning signs they seek to erect around the possible or documented excesses of police and military powers, this powerfully ethical concern is constantly at work, informed by historical experience. But at the same time, how much more striking to see, among practically every popular bookseller’s wares spread out on the Cairo streets, editions in Arabic of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. To be sure – as the Jewish friend who pointed out these books explained to me with remarkable equanimity – there aren’t many people living in Cairo to remind the Egyptians about the Holocaust, and what they are all too familiar with instead are the actions of the contemporary state of Israel.
    Ideally, the symposium of the project, held on December 11, would have been a place for transcultural debates about this and many other issues, aesthetic, philosophical, diplomatic and scientific. But the difficulties only begin with translation, and extend much further into vast realms of unfamiliarity and reciprocal ignorance, compounded by the current geopolitical situation. There are not yet many people able to hold such debates, in truth. It is clear that if we expect to meet someday around the Mediterranean sea that separates, but increasingly joins, there will have to be a great revision of political, military and economic policy, which remains tilted dangerously away from the vital interests of a majority of people living on and near those shores, or even in sub-Saharan Africa. But there is an urgent need, in the meantime, for many more collaborative projects with the depth and scope of The Maghreb Connection.

Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, December 11, 2006 - January 13, 2007
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Brian Holmes