by Sarah Trad
Throughout the process of curating Echoes, I kept thinking about when Kenza and I met at a café last year and first discussed bringing Algerian cinema to Philly. Developing this show meant a lot to us because we had been discussing how underrepresented Algerian art is, even in spaces with SWANA (South-West Asian North African) programming. Echoes is the first solo exhibition of work by Algerian-American artist, Kenza Bousseloub. On view at Vox Populi Gallery, the show features photography, an 8mm short film, and Bousseloub’s documentary, Nissa’a Djazaïriat, Voices of East Algeria.
Men rarely feature in Bousseloub’s cinema verité style work, which explores themes around time, the history of Algerian women and the emotional labor and care within North African women’s communities. Bousseloub’s photography is experienced as snippets of important events, from family dinners to weddings, in a welcoming but disorienting fashion, outside of time and place. With the black walls and dim lighting of Vox’s gallery, the exhibition feels intimate and insulated. The documentary’s sound is audible in the space, so that the voices of women speaking Arabic, singing and performing zaghrouta (ululation) can be heard from anywhere in Vox Populi’s other galleries, emphasizing how Echoes’ssound design continues the show’s theme of centering the voices of Algerian women.
Recently, Kenza came over to my house where I taught her how to prepare halloumi. We discussed Echoes, what inspires her practice, decolonizing photography, and some recent women-directed Algerian films.
Sarah Trad: How long have you been traveling to Algeria and documenting, even if it wasn’t for material that went into Echoes?
Kenza Bousseloub: I usually always go with my family. I think the first year was 2018 when my friend Nazir gave me a point and shoot camera.
ST: In the last two years, for most of the recent work that shows up in Echoes, I’m curious to know about your process, if you had one? Was there ever any planning ahead of time or was it spontaneous?
KB: With the photos, I don’t really plan those out. I just know that this is where I’m going today with family and I’m bringing my cameras.
With the film, I was going to school for Media Studies and Production and taking film classes. I really loved journalism and film and I fell in love with documentary films because it’s a perfect combination of both worlds. When I felt more confident in using film equipment, my professor suggested making a film about women and that’s where the idea sparked. I sat down with my parents and asked “who are people who I can film who have interesting stories?” Originally, I wanted to make a docuseries. I was actually going through my old notebooks and I found the notes that I wrote for planning everything and I was writing down all the locations and all the women that were potentially going to be in the film.
ST: Outside of journalism, do you have any other influences for the work?
KB: My photo inspirations come from street photographers like Garry Winogrand and Richard Sandler and Arab portraiture photography such as Sabhia Çimen and Ilyes Griyeb. I’m also really inspired by family archives and photo albums.
El Batalett – Femmes de la Medina, directed by Dalila Ennadre, is a film shot in Morocco that actually inspired me to make my film. I was captivated by the filmmaking style, which felt so natural and personal. The film allowed the women to simply be themselves and showcased their lives authentically. When creating my own film, I adopted a similar approach in terms of film style. I aimed to make the film almost invisible.
ST: Can I ask you about the editing of Nissa’a Djazaïriat, Voices of East Algeria? There are two interviews with older women, where one describes how French soldiers attacked her home during the revolution and killed all the men in her family while the women ran to a neighboring village to hide. Next there’s a scene with an elder healer and the final chapter is a henna party for a wedding. Can you tell me why you structured it that way?
KB: Something interesting that I noticed was that the story goes from trauma and war, to healing and to celebration which is a pretty accurate representation of life. Each woman embodies something different for Algeria. The first woman embodies the violence Algerians have been going through for years. The second woman embodies this community and healing with people and our faith, and how we speak to each other. Everyone really takes care of each other and looks out for each other, that’s how the culture is. And Hassiba, my cousin who’s getting married, embodies hope and the celebration of life and growth which I hope to see for the future of Algeria and the women who live there.
ST: Something you mentioned to me before was that you wanted to use this project as a way of reclaiming the practice of photography as a woman and an Algerian. Can you talk about how Echoes attempts to separate photography from its colonialist connotations?
KB: As someone who does a lot of research on Algeria, it’s so difficult to find work, writings, or films from the perspective of an Algerian. Or works produced by Algerians. There’s a lot of work that has been done about Algeria by the French, or there are texts written and published in French and I’m just tired of seeing that.
Throughout history, many spaces in Algeria have been invaded by a Western gaze, with European photographers and filmmakers. Something that often comes to mind are the photographs of Marc Garanger, who removed veils from Algerian women to capture their images.
Another example is Michael von Graffenried and when I was reading his book Inside Algeria, he mentions how the French historically used photography as a form of control and identification. And this is the reason that causes Algerians to distrust photography in general and I want to remove that fear.
ST: Or “culture” as control in general. I’m thinking about KT [Abadir Mullally]’s work about archaeology, archives, and the cultural colonization of Egypt. Museums and well-intentioned explorers have a history of seeing things they want from the SWANA region and then physically taking items back to the West. Although I think Michael von Graffenried has the best intentions, he is profiting off war photography. At the end of the day, it still creates an objectification where his subjects aren’t benefiting from his gallery show in France and the resources made to create it.
KB: And he got a lot of backlash because he had his exhibition and his prints were these huge panoramic prints and a lot of Algerians were really upset. Which is why he went back and made an entire film where he discusses with people he photographed what happened during the moments of the photographs and the civil war in general. Although I see his intent with the film and enjoyed watching it because it gives people a voice, I also felt like this was problematic because he’s basically saying “here’s a picture of you in this really traumatic moment, can you relive it and tell me about it?”
Even when I’m back in Algeria and I’m photographing women, I need to be careful of who I photograph and who feels comfortable. But I am also an American and it can feel uncomfortable to document in spaces with family because I don’t live there. And that’s as an Algerian, so I can’t even imagine the damage from someone who has no relation to the country or doesn’t know anyone or live there.
ST: And I think that is something that’s really wonderful about your work because you are asking those questions about people’s comfort levels. I feel like women street photographers just understand public space differently and know that people might not always feel safe there. It feels a lot different than something like Marc Garanger’s work.
ST: I think it’s great that we’re gonna make a little Batikh Batikh film watch list.
KB: There’s really not many contemporary films that are being produced in Algeria. There’s just a lack of resources for film, and art and many things. Film isn’t thriving because the economy is struggling and people are more concerned about making ends meet. It’s also only been 60 years since gaining independence and Algeria is still trying to develop its identity. Almost all the contemporary films about Algeria are produced by huge French production companies.
ST: Or Algerian filmmakers in the diaspora are making work. There was a film that I saw last year, Hard Shell, Soft Shell. It’s about an oyster farmer who has an existential crisis after his white girlfriend dumps him. He develops a crush on his best friend, she’s an Algerian hip-hop instructor. It is interesting because it dissects, through his friendships, where most of his friends are BIPOC men of immigrant families, his masculinity and 1st/2nd generation identity and he ends up kind of owning his sexuality in a cute way. It just culminates with all his friends at a party doing a choreographed dance so it was corny and sometimes it’s nice to watch lighthearted content not centered on trauma and the SWANA region. Very different in tone than something like Papicha or I Still Hide to Smoke, which explore different generations of Algerian women in the civil war.
KB: I Still Hide to Smoke does a good job of showing the accuracy of how Algerian people could not trust each other during that time. Even if it’s another Algerian you don’t know what their intentions are or their beliefs.
ST: I watched Papicha for the first time and one thing it has in common with I Still Hide to Smoke is that they both have scenes of women doing zaghrouta and people shushing them, and then they just keep doing it again, whether it’s in Papicha in these girls’ dormitory or the patrons of the hamam in I Still Hide to Smoke. And this feels very in line with themes of your exhibition, and the idea of echoes. No matter what obstacles are faced, Algerian women won’t be silenced and we will continue to learn from them.
Echoes is on view at Vox Populi Gallery in the Black Box Theater until Sunday June 11th, 2023.
Sarah and Kenza’s Watchlist of Algerian Cinema*
- I Still Hide to Smoke (2016) dir. by Rayhana Obermeyer. Available to watch for FREE on tubi.
- Papicha (2019) dir. by Mounia Meddour. Available to watch for FREE on Amazon Prime, The Roku Channel, and PLEX.
- Inch’Allah Dimanche (2001) dir. by Yamina Benguigui. Available to watch for FREE on tubi.
- Rachida (2002) dir. by Yamina Bachir. Available to watch for FREE on Youtube here.
- La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chenoua (1977) dir. by Assia Djebar. Available to watch for FREE on Vimeo here.
- Hard Shell, Soft Shell (2021) dir. by Emma Benestan. Available to Rent on Amazon Prime.
- Although we can’t find anywhere to currently watch them with English subtitles, we recommend Djouhra Abouda’s trilogy Algérie Couleurs (1972), Cinécité (1974) and Ali in Wonderland (1975). Maybe one day BB can screen them inshallah!
*Some of these films contain scenes with nudity, sexual violence and war.
ABOUT BATIKH BATIKH
Echoes is the second exhibition presented by Batikh Batikh. Batikh Batikh (BB) is a pop-up cinema and gallery that centers South-West Asian North African (SWANA) women and LGBTQ+ artists. Founded by filmaker and curator, Sarah Trad, BB focuses on bringing SWANA films to Philadelphia and helping local queer and women artists acquire resources for solo exhibitions at rented spaces. Based on an anti-capitalist art model, where all art is free to the public with featured artists paid, these screenings and exhibitions will provide programming that showcases SWANA and queer joy outside the Western gaze.
www.batikhcollective.com | @batikhcollective
Kenza Bousseloub كنزة بوسلوب is an Algerian-American artist who works in film, journalism, and visual storytelling. Although her artistry is generally based in the city of Philadelphia, she has created internationally subjective documentary projects and continues to do so locally as she grounds her work in personal stories where she aims to explore larger themes of cultural convergence, identity, and representation. Additionally, her research is centered on Algerian genealogies, visibility, and colonization in archives and oral history. Her focus on the relationship between the evolution of Algerian womanhood and society as a whole, has been an ongoing theme of interest which she continues to explore.
www.bousseloub.com | @kenoozaaa
Sarah Trad سارة طراد is a Lebanese-American filmmaker and curator. Working in fibers, video, and computer art, her practice focuses on Arab American history, queerness, mental health, and alternate realities. She is a previous manager of the artist-run project Little Berlin. Her experience in DIY art environments inspired her to launch the pop-up cinema and gallery, Batikh Batikh (BB), which focuses on bringing SWANA (South West Asian North African) films to Philadelphia and helping local LGBTQ+ and women artists acquire solo exhibitions at rented spaces. Trad is the Director of Programming for the MENA (Middle East North African) Film Festival in Vancouver, the Program Manager at 12Gates Arts and the Digital Content Coordinator for the ICA/Philadelphia. Trad is a recipient of Syracuse University’s Engagement Fellowship and PlySpace Residency Fellowship. Her work has screened at the Antimatter Media Art Festival, Everson Museum of Art, Burlington City Arts, and Currents New Media.