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Périphérique
The Mirror

By Simon Njami
(Translated from French by David Ames Curtis)

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Mohamed Bourouissa Photography Art Paris Suburbs Street Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
A few years ago, the world watched in astonished disbelief mixed with a dash of ironic pleasure as the poor outlying suburbs of France’s large cities were set ablaze. This feeling of amazement that seized hold of those who viewed this violent fury stemmed from the fact that, still today, France is seen in the world as the land of the Rights of Man and cultural diversity.

To be honest, we were not the only ones to be moved by this kind of revolution, which still remains anchored in people’s memories. We were witnesses to an event, in the most etymological sense of the term –– that is to say, to the rising up of the unexpected. France awoke to find itself forced to face its ghosts, to look squarely at the failures of its colonial past and its inability to really integrate into the French Republic all its subjects who were not considered to be “French like the rest.” Suddenly, a generation left to its own devices, tired of being treated as nonexistent and systematically stigmatized, stood up and shouted out its despair and its anger. They are French –French like the rest.

Though confined within the horizonless setting of high-rise housing projects far removed from city centers, they are citizens of the French Republic. Their countries of origin, the lands from which their parents or their grandparents came, are quite often nothing but an old dream kept up within the family, a fantasy from which they know they are already excluded. So, they burn in order to exist. They break things in order to say that they are alive and breathing. They lure in the television news cameras, which are wont to turn their lenses only toward an event, a spectacle that has become news.

Aware of the trap set beneath his feet, he has preferred to turn himself into a narrator and to enter into the necessarily fictitious world of artistic creativity in order to recount for us the incoherent details of the society in which he lives. His gaze betrays no anger, just an acute sense of irony, a disabused look of amusement, a clear acknowledgment of the facts, done in a joking way. Before turning toward video, he chose photography as his primary medium, undoubtedly because of the documentary nature of the photographic print.

Their countries of origin, the lands from which their parents or their grandparents came, are quite often nothing but an old dream kept up within the family, a fantasy from which they know they are already excluded.

––Simon Njami
Mohamed Bourouissa Photography Art Paris Suburbs Street Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
Mohamed Bourouissa, 'La république', C-print, 2006, Périphérique series of color photographs, variable sizes, ©Mohamed Bourouissa ADAGP
Mohamed Bourouissa Photography Art Paris Suburbs Street Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
Mohamed Bourouissa, 'Carré Rouge', C-print, 2005, Périphérique series of color photographs, variable sizes, ©Mohamed Bourouissa ADAGP
Mohamed Bourouissa Photography Art Paris Suburbs Street Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
Mohamed Bourouissa, 'La fenêtre', C-print, 2005, Périphérique series of color photographs, variable sizes, ©Mohamed Bourouissa ADAGP
Whether we like it or not, photography still makes us believe that what it reveals to us necessarily contains a slice of truth. With his constant mises en abyme (“placing into infinity”), these self-reflexive embeddings he shows us in his photographs, Bourouissa has decided to play on this slice of truth and to deconstruct things to his heart’s content. He makes light of clichés and received ideas while making them his own, adopting an intelligently distanced attitude that turns to ridicule French society’s most consistently recurring prejudices simply by staging them. With dark humor, his tableaux are composed like a classical painting, underscoring all the contradictions inherent in that society. The models are chosen with care. Their clothes perfectly cling to their roles, and their attitudes are meticulously choreographed by a stage director who is a stickler for details. And Bourouissa succeeds in creating the illusion he wishes to achieve.

These young people who are playing their own roles have necessarily entered into what Jean-Paul Sartre had called the process of splitting. In becoming aware of the image they are projecting within society, they become other, abstractions, thinking beings who are making an ontological and political comment on the gaze of those who want to trap them within the image they have agreed to take on. This is a fool’s game, a game of mirrors, in which those who thought they were looking are in fact those who are under the watchful eye of others. The mirror affords this necessary splitting.

What is expressed here is the impossibility of being “one,” the fact that this reflection of ourselves comes back deformed because it is but a reflection. This is the reflection of a subject, no doubt, but still more it is a reflection of the world that surrounds this subject and of the setting that conditions the subject and dictates to him his humanity.

Bourouissa’s work is eminently political, even though he would undoubtedly refrain from saying so. For, in being content to be a neutral observer and in being persuaded that there is no need to add anything to the obvious facts he reveals, he becomes subversive. He starts to sing a sometimes forgotten hymn, the one Ernst Bloch had called the “key question:” the self-contained question of “we.” For, in every “we,” there is first of all an “I”.

And how will we ever succeed in constructing a way of living together that accepts difference as an item of wealth, as the sole guarantee of our aptitude for humanity? These are the pressing questions raised by Bourouissa’s photographs, the violence of which appears so contained. And the French Republic–this symbol represented by blue, white and red–had better watch out, if it proves incapable of loving and protecting its children. All its children.

_____

This essay originally appeared in the catalog of Mohamed Bourouissa’s solo exhibition Le Miroir (The Mirror) at SCAD Museum of Art. The essay is published here with the permission of the author.

Return to the exhibition page here

In this breakthrough series of photographs, Mohamed Bourouissa chose to appropriate the codes of history painting. The artist composed his photos by staging scenes with his friends and acquaintances in the Paris banlieues where they used to hang out. Confrontations, gatherings, incidents, looks, and frozen gestures all suggest a palpably dramatic tension. Readings of these images were inflected from the start by the violence of the 2005 riots in the French banlieues. Invoking Delacroix as much as Jeff Wall, the artist appears to give a place in French history to agents whom that country usually neglects.
Mohamed Bourouissa Photography Art Paris Suburbs Street Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
Mohamed Bourouissa, 'Le hall', C-print, 2007-2008, Périphérique series of color photographs, variable sizes, ©Mohamed Bourouissa ADAGP

Simon Njami has organized numerous exhibitions of contemporary African art, among them Africa Remix (works by eighty contemporary African artists shown at five venues worldwide) from 2004 to 2007, and curated the African pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2007 and the FNB Joburg Art Fair 2008 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

He was a co-founder and chief editor of Revue Noire, and artistic director of the ‘Bamako Photography Biennial’ for ten years, and has published numerous writings on African art.

@mohamedbourouissa
mohamedbourouissa.com

Mohamed Bourouissa implicitly describes contemporary society by its contours. With a critical take on the mass media image, the subjects of his photographs and videos are people left behind at the crossroads of integration and exclusion.

Preceded by a long immersion phase, each of Mohamed Bourouissa’s projects builds a new enunciation situation. Unlike false simplistic media constructions, the artist reintroduces complexity into the representation of the margins of hypervisibility.

His work has been exhibited in numerous solo exhibitions, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Centre Pompidou de Paris, the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the base in Frankfurt am Main, the Ball, Paris, the Haus der Kunst, Munich and the FRAC Franche-Comté in Besançon.

He has participated in the Sharjah, Havana, Lyon, Venice, Algiers, Liverpool and Berlin Biennales and the Milan Triennial.

In 2018, he was nominated for the Marcel Duchamp Prize. In 2017, he was selected for the Prix Pictet photography prize. His works belong to leading collections, including that of the LACMA in Los Angeles, the Centre Pompidou, the Maison européenne de la photographie in Paris, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

ISSUE No.
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Community Spirit

SEP–NOV
2021
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