Zoulikha Bouabdellah at South African National Gallery
by Kim Gurney
The work of Zoulikha Bouabdellah, an Algerian artist living in Paris, is currently on view on 'Africa Remix', the group show of African artists installed at the Pompidou Centre in Paris before it heads to Tokyo. Capetonians got their chance to see for themselves why Bouabdellah's work is earning accolades when the SANG screened several of her short videos last month - including the 'Remix' work, Dansons (2003).
This video homes in on a woman's bare midriff, with low-slung white trousers. Her hands tie a series of long cloths in the colours of the French flag around her waist. That task completed, the silence is violently broken by a hearty rendition of the French national anthem. The woman belly dances in time to the beat. Her action breaks the silent suspense and provides a humorous release for the audience.
The video's engagement with cultural hybridity seems just as pertinent to the melting pot at the southern tip of Africa as it is to multi-cultural France. The tricoleur cloth connotes 'the freedom of Delacroix', as Bouabdellah put it, while also pitting the concept of self against that imposed by cultural tagging.
Bouabdellah, who gave a public talk at the SANG on August 16 in conjunction with the screening of a selection of her videos, was born in Russia, raised in Algeria and has studied and worked in Paris for 10 years. This biographical information is pertinent to her production, which engages with the notion of a global citizen as marked by various identity tags both imposed and chosen. Her works often engage with preconceived ideas about Islamic and Arab culture and all share a combination of humour and surprise that lighten up the heavy themes of gender, culture, nationality and religion. The videos are short, pointed anecdotes that communicate hard-hitting messages in an accessible way.
La Robe is a three-minute video of the bodice of a heavily beaded white dress spread out horizontally on the screen, a dress that takes on the nature of a darkening landscape as sidelighting creates deepening shadows causing it to gradually darken in a series of ongoing, slight permutations. The soundtrack is of festival music and women ululating.
In an artist's statement, the video is described thus: 'An individual life, life itself or life in general, is no longer safe or secure from changes and this possible phenomenon is symbolised here by the movement from light to dark ... La Robe does not only make allusion to the probabilities of metamorphoses between fashions in life, or the character of human beings, but to those states of joy versus melancholy, of love as opposed to hate, of feasting as opposed to mourning, of the woman to the man, of the cry of joy to the lament of life to death.'
That seems rather heavy for such a short film and it is perhaps the more subtle aspects of the work that speak more eloquently. A dress lovingly spread out in anticipation of a big event - perhaps a wedding - turns over time into a dress of mourning. The white satin and beads on a lacy bodice turn through incremental plays of light into a dark grey evening dress and, finally, a funereal black garment.
Vois-le (2004) is a game of revelation and concealment as a woman's face is obscured by a veil. Bouabdellah says the woman hides herself to discover herself, playing between the visible and invisible.
Croisée f crossing (2005) again uses the element of surprise. A young Muslim woman, only her eyes visible through her veil, stares at the camera. She lifts the cover from her mouth and slowly draws out a series of beads from the corners of her mouth. In the final moment, accompanied by expressions of discomfort bordering on pain, the last element is pulled from her mouth: a crucifix. The woman's action is disconcerting as it is, at first, not clear what this object is. She seems to mock the idea that behind her veiled appearance lies some secret. The final gesture also brings a religious critique to the piece, which was inspired by the artist's travels to Syria.
The final video, Ecran (2000) has in common with its predecessors a simple idea cleverly deployed. A woman, illuminated by the light of a television showing a man's motionless face, gradually covers the screen with a muddy substance from the top to the bottom. As the light from the TV is blocked by her efforts, so the light that enables the event to be photographed is also extinguished. The scene ceases to exist when the final patch is covered.
Bouabdellah's interrogations of difference and advocacy of acceptance are compelling and refreshing. It is a pity that only La Robe remained on show after her public talk. It will be interesting to see what transpires during this artist's three-month residency in Cape Town.
Closed: August 29
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