Studio International: Mohamed Bourouissa – Interview: ‘I See Art as a Playground'

March 30, 2021

Joe Lloyd

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Mohamed Bourouissa – Interview: ‘I See Art as a Playground'
By: Joe Lloyd

Last year, Mohamed Bourouissa (b1978, Algeria) was approached by a fellow resident of Gennevilliers, in Paris’s north-western banlieue. “He knew I was an artist,” he says, “and he came over to me and said: ‘Hey, I have some ideas about films.’” Bourouissa decided that his next project would be to bring these films to life. “I’ll take the place of the producer, which is the artist’s place for me.”

For many artists, this might represent an extraordinary degree of self-effacement, but Bourouissa’s art has often focused on the lives of others. In the video Legend (2010), via hidden microcameras worn by cigarette hawkers on the Paris metro, we get a glimpse into their lives. Nasser (2014) shows Bourouissa’s uncle struggling to read a convoluted court order stating his conviction for violent theft.

Bourouissa’s earliest works were photographic, and there remains an element of documentary about his practice. His first series, Nous Sommes Halles (2003-05), a collaboration with fellow photographer Anoushkashoot, captured the Lacoste-wearing youth of Châtelet-Les Halles in central Paris. But Bourouissa quickly transitioned to works that bear a more complex relationship to contemporary reality. For his solo breakthrough, Périphérique (2005-08), he marshalled acquaintances into dramatic tableaux redolent of Delacroix paintings. Shot in the aftermath of countrywide riots in France in 2005, it problematised the codes and conventions of history painting.

Photography has remained part of Bourouissa’s arsenal; last year he won the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize for his 2019 survey exhibition Free Trade, at Rencontres d’Arles. But the past decade has seen his work branch out considerably. The installation Brutal Family Roots (2020) transmutes the electric activities of acacia trees into sound, with spoken word and rap interludes, in a comment on the colonial dispersal of the plants. At the 2018 Liverpool Biennial, he collaborated on a community garden, inspired by one planted by a psychiatric patient in Algeria.

Horse Day (2014-15) saw Bourouissa spend eight months living with the African-American horsemen of north Philadelphia, with the intention of creating a “contemporary American cowboy movie”. The resultant two-channel video work depicts the community and a rodeo that Bourouissa convinced the riders to put on, with costume designs by local artists. It has since blossomed into sculpture, photography and installation.

From May, London’s Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art will host an exhibition of Bourouissa’s work. Entitled HARa!!!!!!hAaaRAAAAA!!!!!hHAaA!!! – after a call used by drug dealers in Marseille to signal the presence of police, the basis for the sound piece Hara (2020) – it will be the first show in Britain to collect work from throughout his career.

Ahead of the exhibition’s opening, Bourouissa spoke to Studio International from his studio.

Joe Lloyd: HARa!!!!!!hAaaRAAAAA!!!!!hHAaA!!! is the most extraordinary name for an exhibition I have ever encountered. What does it refer to?

Mohamed Bourouissa: It came from a piece I made in Marseille. Sometimes, the drug dealers in the suburbs have a guy looking out to check for the police. And these guys, called le guetteur [the lookout], make this sound, which means police to them. It’s a form of signal, like an alarm. Without the context, it can mean something else: for me, this makes it more like The Scream of Edvard Munch, for example, or the first cry of a baby, or the signal of an alarm when someone tries to break into your house. It’s something very simple, something strong.

JL: Why did you decide to become an artist?

MB: I didn’t really decide, it just became something that happened naturally. When I was young, I was always drawing, but I didn’t know what an artist was. I didn’t have an idea about what it is. And to define myself as an artist can still be complicated: you have to accept how people will define you, but to define myself is something different. I think I was affected by drawing and representing the world that’s going on around me. I decided to follow it through, because, for me, it was the only place I would feel good.

But it took me until I was 25 years old to really decide to be an artist. I didn’t really understand exactly what an artist was, because I didn’t really have any examples where I came from. But with my studies, I had the opportunity to meet different people, teachers and friends. Meeting friends was very important. I started to understand more about what it means to be an artist through the figure of Joseph Beuys, conceptual artists and minimalists. I knew that this was the direction I wanted to follow. This came at the same time as the series Nous Sommes Halles (2003-05), the first series of pictures I made with people in Châtelet-Les Halles.

JL: That series sits within the tradition of documentary photography. Why did you begin with that medium?

MB: In the beginning, when I started my studies, I was more focused on drawing and painting. I was making a lot of graffiti, all that stuff. With photography, you get the impact directly. I liked this idea of, “OK, that’s the image I want to make,” and then to have it. I wanted to record the moment. And it allowed me to conceptualise a project and my intention. 

At the same time, I spent so much time looking at photographs of my uncle’s family when I was growing up. It was like our Instagram. I think maybe it was unconscious: I was trying to replay this moment with the photography. Another thing is that painting and drawing are more an inside practice, but with photography I had the opportunity to go outside and connect with others on the street. It is a much more exterior art. 

JL: Since then, you have gone on to work in all sorts of different media: film, sound, even gardening.

MB: I see art as a playground! You have different languages, different possibilities. I like to use them to say different things, create different feelings. It also depends on the subject and the situation. Sometimes, I’m not looking at the medium I’m going to use, but looking at where I am. I see the context and the environment. And I want to relate and be closer to the intention and the people I work with. I just try to find the right form, the language with the intention I have with an idea.

For example, we can talk about the garden project at the Liverpool Biennial. It came about because I was in Algeria, and discovered a garden. The structure in Liverpool was inspired by Bourlem Mohamed, a patient at Frantz Fanon’s psychiatric hospital in Blida. I was quite shocked, quite impressed by what he made in Algeria. And it was important for me not to lose his knowledge. It was something different, maybe something we should share.

With Horse Day, I came with an idea for a film. My first intention was just to make a picture about the black cowboy. But after the experience I had in Philadelphia, the intention of the project changed. I had conversations with people. I began to understand things much more deeply. The rodeo became more important than the film. I decided to split the screen and create two different times. And I think it’s no longer a film. It’s more about video, about questioning the situation between arts and subject, about creating a different time, because you spent almost a year in this place just to make this event happen.

JL: What prompted you to make a film about black cowboys in the first place?

MB: I discovered the book Fletcher Street by Martha Camarillo (2006), and was very impressed. It was the first time I saw the black cowboy, in all culture. And I was quite shocked because I grew up with all the westerns. I spent many, many afternoons watching them with my uncle. I grew up with this image of John Wayne, the white cowboy. And for me it was quite a shock, because it started to deconstruct my vision of the cowboy. I started to question this representation. I think my intention was quite naive in the beginning. Like, I’m going there to make this creative fiction, like maybe Django Unchained. That was the first intention. But, after, it became more complex, because I spent time there.

JL: Horse Day was an enormous undertaking. Do you think you will work on other long-term projects?

MB: I don’t work like that, trying to create the formule of art. I tend to start with techniques. Right now, I’m asking myself to make a more local project. Being critical of my own practice, in the last few years I have made so many projects outside France. Now, with the pandemic, I’m starting to see my neighbourhood. I spent so much time outside, travelling, going back to my home. Just spending a little bit of time in my studio, then leaving. I didn’t have a connection to the place where I really lived. Well, that’s not totally true, but I didn’t really talk to my neighbours.

Right now, living in Gennevilliers, I decided to make an art project here. I think that’s quite different from the past works. The next project I’m working on is with a guy from my neighbourhood. He knew that I was an artist – I don’t know how he knew – and he came over to me and said: “Hey, I have some ideas about films.” And the Théâtre de Gennevilliers proposed that I make an art project with them. I said: “What I want to do is have someone from this place make his own movie.” So my work is to produce his home film. I’ll take the place of producer, which is the artist’s place for me. I want to play with the sort of stature artists have. Right now, my intention is not to create the form, but to help someone create his own form.

JL: How does working in a local context differ from exhibiting internationally?

MB: When you work locally, your impact is already enormous. It’s more complicated if you fail, because you already live there. That makes you more – I don’t like this word, but – responsible for what you do. It’s not that we don’t have any responsibility for projects in other places. It’s more that I’ll go back to my home, and I can’t really see the impact. It’s like: “OK, I’ve done my thing.” There are people who live there who participated with me, and if some trouble happens around the project, it’s going to be complicated for them. Sometimes, we don’t realise all this responsibility, because we don’t spend every day there. When I start this project in Gennevilliers, if I do something wrong, the impact will be real, immediately.

JL: How do you intend to present your works at Goldsmiths CCA?

MB: It’s going to be a very simple, very direct show. I want to be flexible until the last moment. It’s not such an easy space, and, for me, you have to experiment with the space, to be sure where you want to fix stuff. For me, the space is like something living. It’s not just walls – it’s your own experience in the space, your own experience of the art pieces.

I think the pandemic affected the way I wanted to show things. We are in a very complex situation. Right now, it’s so difficult: in an economic way, in an ecological way, in a social way. And the value of the work has started to be more important. Because in the situation we are in right now, the impact of the art that you can present to people is going to be more effective. So, for me, this show is going to be very important.

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