Diana Padrón is a researcher and freelance curator. With a BA and an MA in History of Art, she is currently completing her doctoral thesis on cartographic behaviours in contemporary art. She has delivered papers and lectures in various international centres and institutions, and has curated projects like Perder el Norte, Translocaciones, and Loop Barcelona 2016. Since 2011 she has been a member of the coordination team of the Art Globalization Interculturality research group directed by Anna Maria Guasch at the University of Barcelona, where she is currently editor of the journal REG|AC (Revista de Estudios Globales y Arte Contemporáneo) and coordinator of On Mediation: Platform on Research and Curatorship.
A French-Algerian artist born in Moscow, Zoulikha Bouabdellah grew up in Algiers until the civil war forced her to leave her country for France. Her work draws its inspiration from this plural identity. Through installations, videos, photographs o drawings, her work questions our dominant political, social, moral, religious, and even formal representations. A 2002 graduate of the École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts of Cergy-Pontoise, Bouabdellah rapidly made a name for herself on the international art scene. She has exhibited at the Mori Art Museum (Tokyo), the Brooklyn Museum (New York), the Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation (Vienna), the Museum Kunstpalast (Düsseldorf), the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (New York), the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (Doha), and the Moderna Museet (Stockholm). She has participated in several biennales and festivals, including the Venice Biennale (2007), Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine in Bamako (2003), the Thessaloniki Biennial (2011), the Turin Triennale (2008), and the Aichi Triennale (2010). Her work is represented in the collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (Doha), the Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation (Vienna), and the Sindika Dokolo Foundation (Luanda). She has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Abraaj Capital Art Prize (2009), the Meurice Prize for Contemporary Art (2008), and a Villa Medicis Hors les Murs residency (2005). She lives and works in Casablanca, Morocco.
In order to approach an artist like Zoulikha Bouabdellah one has to try to set aside certain artworld conventions and come to terms with her desire to overstep limits. Her desire, to begin with, to overstep the limits of form itself, something that has led her to explore manifold formats that enable her to focus her practice on the production of meaning; to overstep, as well, enforced symbolic boundaries, thresholds, and limits in order to adumbrate other ways of looking at the world, ways that are often more concealing than revealing; in short, to transcend readymade conceptions of love, power, domination, and politics. Bouabdellah granted me an opportunity to talk about all of these issues from a geopolitical perspective, and Atlántica was the ideal forum for our discussion.
Diana Padrón (DP): It’s a pleasure to be able to talk with an artist who, despite her youth, has already had a considerable career, having exhibited in institutions like the Centre Pompidou, the Tate Modern, MoCADA, and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as at major events like the Venice Biennale and the Bamako Biennial. Nevertheless, in Spain we haven’t had the opportunity to see a solo show of your work, except for one at the Sabrina Amrani Gallery. CAAM (Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno) intends to correct this oversight by organising an exhibition for this coming fall. What intrigues or motivates you about this particular context?
Zoulikha Bouabdellah (ZB): Naturally, I’m excited to be able to display the current state of a career that began fourteen years ago. Furthermore, being able to do so in a place like CAAM is a huge motivating factor for me, given how symbolic its geography is and given the historical relationship between the Canary Islands and the South. Located between Africa and South America, these islands lie along a “South to South” path that I’m delighted to have the opportunity to explore.
DP: In your case, you were born in Moscow and grew up in Algeria, which you had to leave during the 1990s. After many years in Paris, you are currently living in Casablanca. This intricate personal geography seems to put the idea of a perfectly delimited cartography into question, and this is, precisely, something that CAAM has brought into play since its beginnings by means of its tri-continental mandate. Can you give us your thoughts on this?
ZB: It’s strange, but I thought I had already started to answer that question at the beginning of our conversation! To my way of thinking, there is no geographical complexity. People have always moved all over the world. What makes it complex today is the existence of borders, whether they are geographical, cultural, or legal ones. CAAM is fortunate to find itself in an intriguing geographical location in the Atlantic Ocean, off the African coast, while at the same time belonging to Europe geopolitically. It’s a territory with a lot of problems that need to be addressed, which is precisely what makes it such an exciting opportunity.
DP: What you’re saying has a lot to do with your practice, given that your works — across a multiplicity of formats like drawing, installation, video, and photography — are often marked by a poetics of subversion and humour, as well as an interest in occupying the time and the space of each given context. But these strategies also seem to be coupled with a desire to explore issues such as globalisation, power, and geopolitics.
ZB: It’s true, I’m unable to isolate myself from the world. I can’t stop analysing my surrounding reality. You’re right. I’m as keenly interested in geopolitics as I am in the irony produced by history and current politics, which can sometimes lead to disasters and turn people’s lives into a nightmare. As far as humour is concerned, I try to hold onto it as much as possible, because for me it is a form of resistance.
DP: I know you once spoke about the Kantian idea from the Critique of Pure Reason that “thoughts without contents are empty, intuitions without conceptions are blind.” How does this maxim translate in your artistic output?
ZB: I love Kant’s analysis. It’s unquestionably the source of modern thinking in the visual arts, and the point of departure for abandoning the idea of academic beauty in favour of the artist’s more individual and personal focus. What fascinates me about this quote is that it sums up to perfection the relationship between inspiration and the idea. In principle, they could strike one as similar, except for the fact that the latter is of a purely rational order, while inspiration comes from the unconscious and is driven by an emotional impulse. In this regard, I’m interested in locating my art practice halfway between my emotions and my ideas, so that the result is neither blind nor empty.
DP: Now that you’ve raised the question of emptiness, I’d like to hear your opinion on a particular issue. At the moment, the ubiquity of images — which is something you’ve also addressed — seems to produce, paradoxically, the invisibility of images. Does this mean that we need to defend a kind of ecology of vision?
ZB: Advocating an ecology of vision could be a fraught enterprise. I would say, however, that we have to learn to look at images independent of their nature, origin, or mission. Each image contains a paradox, given that the very image itself can serve two contradictory discourses. There is some concern for future generations, who have replaced reading with television, so that makes it imperative for us to be able to get a handle on the language of images, which also calls for specific learning. Looking at artworks could be a very good exercise in this regard.
DP: If images inundate our everyday lives, then pornography and the representation of sex are undoubtedly at the forefront of our consumption of images. You’ve approached the question of erotica from various angles, often rethinking the transformations of this imaginary, but you’ve also been concerned specifically with the language of love, as is borne out by several of your sculptures, installations, and videos dealing with the Arabic word hūb (Love, 2009; Al-Attlal, 2009; Hobb, 2009-2010; Two Lovers, 2010). While the Syrian poet Salwa Al Neimi has said that language is the “tomb of the emotion of love,” 1Cited by the artist on her website. See: https://www.zoulikhabouabdellah.com/loveworkswords and Byung-Chul Han has warned us of “the agony of Eros,” 2Han, Byung-Chul. Agonie des Eros. Matthes & Seitz, Berlin 2012 how can we address the question of love today from the standpoint of art practice?
ZB: I simply believe that love is a powerful emotion capable of the best and the worst. Love can be as beautiful as it is unpleasant, as charming as it is despicable, as warm as it is frivolous, or as happy as it is sad. It’s at once the simplest and the most complicated feeling. Love is in itself a paradox. I don’t know what more to add on the subject of love. It’s the feeling that has been most dissected in human history, but as an artist I believe that it helps us to recount our own experience. Love isn’t merely a concept, because it also represents a multitude of feelings. In Arabic culture there are hundreds of words connected with this emotion. That’s what I was expressing in the series Chèris (2007), where I used red lacquer to write 365 words in Arabic that speak of love. I like this piece because it shows the wide experience Arabs have in the celebration of love.
DP: Can you tell us a little about the installation Doors to Heaven (2012)? At one point you called for the need to situate yourself between the dominant being and the dominated being.
ZB: Here I wanted to experiment with the concept of the threshold — the line that separates two spaces or two worlds — and more specifically with the question of the relationship between man and woman, and thus conjure up the history of the relationship between the two genders. There are many cultures in which the tension between men and women seems to be connected with a struggle for power, and I think that the question of who is more powerful than the other has been a waste of time. Generally speaking, men are concerned with profit and women with improving their conditions. Unfortunately, this male domination has been reinforced thanks to a biased interpretation of religion that maintains the perspective of a patriarchal vision. To be able to start from scratch, I believe that it’s necessary for the relationship between men and women to be pacific. That way we could also take the well-being of both into consideration.
DP: In fact, the issue of gender and feminism is one of the core concerns of your art practice. Could you tell us more about your approach to the subject?
ZB: My viewpoint is necessarily tied to my condition as a woman. That doesn’t mean to say that I believe in the existence of female art and male art, but rather that art production is necessarily tied to the form in which each individual views life. The life of a woman is different from that of a man. This difference reaches to the deepest parts of our mind, and it is from there that we create ourselves. With regards to feminism, it is a cause I’m strongly committed to, because it reminds us that women’s freedom is not a given, but is the result of a struggle. This fight is still ongoing and we cannot drop our guard. In addition, I would also point out that this cause is not circumscribed to women, but is equally the responsibility of men.
DP: On various occasions you have defended art’s capacity to enable people to see things differently, as if aesthetic experience could modify one’s belief system. Maybe we could also wonder whether this capacity includes questioning the established social contract or instead completely reinvents it.
ZB: Indeed, art is what allows us to reflect, even as we enjoy a contemplative experience. It opens up a space for reflection distinct from what we already know. A social contract, in general, is reached in agreement with social changes, but art is very powerful when it’s able to be pre-emptive or visionary
DP: One of your best known works is the installation Silence (2008-2014). How does what we have been talking about take form in that piece?
ZB: I created Silence in 2008 to speak about women’s activism in Islamic societies. It dealt with women activists who act without hate, without violence, and without renouncing their religion, which strikes me as compatible with what we commonly call “modernity.”
DP: It’s precisely the complexity of modernity that you address in your video Envers/Endroit (2016), where you prompt a rereading of canonical works from Western art history. Leveraging a play of opposites, you bring into question the processes of aesthetic legitimisation and of depiction itself. For instance, you put the black maid in the place of the figure from Manet’s Olympia. Does Envers/Endroit show different sides of the same coin?
ZB: The video Envers/Endroit is a continuation of a visual work I made two years ago (Nues Endroit/Nues Envers, 2014). The point of departure is a series of collages made from reproductions of paintings. Each image is a detail of one of those paintings, cut out following the conventional pattern of oriental carpets, comprising a border, a central field, corners, and a central medallion. These collages gave rise to the idea for a kind of writing based on questions about existence, a language continuously articulating acceptance of the world and its challenges.
On the other hand, dividing and fusing images questions two different conceptions in the production of images: one figurative and the other abstract. But, over and above the dichotomy in the conception of the image, the goal of the video is to generate a more complex syntax. The exchange of roles between a lady and her maid complicates its possible reading, with the purpose of inviting the spectator to call into question the order of things. In the case of my black Olympia, it’s also a way for me to discuss issues affecting relationships between different cultures.
DP: Following this line of thought, on relationships between different cultures, one of the main critiques formulated in art since the 1980s has been to dispute the Eurocentric model, largely in light of the repercussions of colonialism. Nonetheless, we’ve just witnessed the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, a decision justified on the basis of a series of conservative and xenophobic arguments. For some time now, certain voices have been warning that the discrediting of Europe is, in fact, part of the very triumph of the neoliberal revolution 3Žižek, Slavoj. En defensa de la intolerancia, Javier Eraso Ceballos and Antonio José Antón Fernández (trans.), Sequitur, Madrid, 2008, p. 41.. What are your views on this situation?
ZB: This problem is too complex for a brief reply, so all I’m going to say is that, in my opinion, taking refuge in victimhood leads you nowhere. You have to try to break away from this condition. You have to move beyond that and construct positive relationships with others. It’s also true that sometimes separation allows you to see yourself, but the biggest danger would be to repeat the same mistakes as the people who went before us.
DP: How then could we conceive of an art that acts, as we said earlier, to modify the belief system? How did Mauvaises Graines (2014) come about?
ZB: A bad seed (mauvaise graine) can sometimes be the best seed. Artists should make us see precisely what we aren’t looking for. They should open up horizons of reading and enable reflection. Unfortunately, many people take a negative view of visionary attitudes that are outside of the ordinary. If you’re considered a bad seed, instead of just getting angry, what you need to do is resist.
- 1Cited by the artist on her website. See: https://www.zoulikhabouabdellah.com/loveworkswords
- 2Han, Byung-Chul. Agonie des Eros. Matthes & Seitz, Berlin 2012
- 3Žižek, Slavoj. En defensa de la intolerancia, Javier Eraso Ceballos and Antonio José Antón Fernández (trans.), Sequitur, Madrid, 2008, p. 41.