TIED TO MY IDENTITY: WOMAN, ARAB, FRENCH
MARTHA KIRSZENBAUM IN CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST ZOULIKHA BOUABDELLAH
You are often described as a French-Algerian woman artist coming from an immigrant background and working on subjects related to the Arab world and feminism.
I would not picture myself this way, but I am tied to my own history in this space, “France.” If you ask me about my origins, I would of course answer that I am Algerian because that is the reality. But I became French, so I would rather argue that I’m French-Algerian. As far as my work is concerned, I believe that my position blurs the lines that form borders. In that sense, all my projects automatically imply my identity: Woman, Arab, French. I naturally gather all these elements of my personality in my artistic approach. I grew up in Algiers and went to Algerian public schools, but my artistic education started to form while living at the Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Alger, where my mother was the director. My parents, sisters, and I lived in this imposing building that exhibited Western and North African artworks. Divided between the school’s religious instruction and my parents’ modern education, I instinctively developed a critical attitude towards a society that was nevertheless fascinating to me in its complexity. During my Algerian years, I saw my mother fighting for women’s rights and against the Algerian family code as she felt it contradicted the evolution of the Algerian way of life. Being very concerned with the question of women’s rights, to which there is still no clear answer, I cannot separate it from my work. However, my art should not be considered militant or political; I want to be viewed as a visual artist utilizing concepts, forms, and colors.
Many of your videos and installations are related to the theme of the veil (Vois-le, Monochrome Bleu, Holly Hybrid). What role does the veil play in your work as an object, a symbol, or a metaphor?
To me, the veil is foremost a plastic and rhythmic solution. As an object, it enables the illustration of such actions as hiding/showing, blocking/ revealing, masking/unmasking, veiling/unveiling, and distorting/ restoring the natural. Even before the Veil of Veronica and the Shroud of Turin, the veil was the expression of the relationship between the visible and the invisible. The revelation of the hidden, its ritualization, and the way it is used in an image or a movement is the principle of the sacred, the magical, the religious, the symbolic, the abstract, and the conceptual. Vois-le depicts a side view of the face of a woman. She looks at herself, contemplating her reflection, which is an electronic image. She sees herself through a monitor screen. She is veiled, conscious of it, and plays with it. How so? She is unveiling in order to veil her own reflection. Beyond a simple state of mind, she is not a subject anymore, but an object to stare at. My installation Monochrome Bleu, like Yves Klein’s monochromes, is a synthesis of nature seen from different angles. It is a modern landscape, an interpretation of the sky, the sea. In this blue space everything seems to be permitted, so why not incorporate the concepts of nudity and veiling within it? Monochrome Bleu is also a piece in which I wanted to claim my relationship with the heritage of Western art history – Duchamp, Delacroix. I am immersed in Arab culture, and this leads me to use the veil as a pretext to approach the space or the notion of looking. When the veil meets Klein’s monochrome, it creates a hybrid form corresponding to my own identity.
Current situations in France reveal a very specific position towards the question of the veil in public space, which is often misunderstood abroad. Does this social and political aspect of the veil in France affect the way you create your pieces?
What really bothered me about the constitution of the committee on laïcité (strict secularism) in 2003 were the circumstances of its creation. I think that respecting the principles of laïcité is a more general debate and should not depend on some individual cases. These cases came from Muslim women who disagreed with the committee, deeming it stigmatizing and aggressive to all French Muslims. My work expresses the hatred behind stereotypes and prejudiced ideas, closed mentalities, and a uniform view of the world. The 2003 committee on laïcité, even if legitimate in some sense, took a form that revealed how part of the French society refuses a world built on pluralism.
Talking about your video Vois-le, you declared that a woman hides herself in order to better reveal herself, playing with the visible and the invisible. Would that express the paradox of the hijab: its simultaneous perception as a metaphor for submission versus a particular strength of the veiled woman?
I am not veiled myself, so I can’t really talk about the strength of veiled women. However, I can attest to the strength of the Muslim women who surround me – my cousins or aunts. For active and independent women, the veil is just fabric allowing them to exist socially without having to justify themselves. This piece of fabric became a symbol of submission but remains an ambiguous accessory. It was hidden behind a veil that Algerian women fought for national independence, and it’s hidden under burqas that Afghani women filmed the obscurantism in their country in order to testify against executions and stonings of adulterous women. I strongly admire Afghani women artists, writers, and filmmakers, as well as the Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf. They showed a huge amount of courage to face the violence of a masculine society in countries that have fallen into disgrace and backwardness.