Curator and Head of Archives at Autograph ABP, Renée Mussai, led a conversation with the CSCA in the former’s latest exhibition “Bruno Boudjelal, Frantz Fanon” (2 October – 5 December, 2015). In the small, second-floor exhibition space at Rivington Place, Mussai has curated an environment that engages the psychological complexities of personal identity, racism and colonialism. In a surprise cameo by the artist, French-Algerian photographer Bruno Boudjelal provided a series of insights into his work. Boudjelal calls himself a photographer “by happenstance,” as he only started making photos in his later life when he finally began to research his father’s heritage in Algeria. Just before his first trip to Algeria in the 1990s, Boudjelal’s friend gave him a camera and encouraged him to visually document his journey. Proving difficult to use a professional-standard camera in the country, Boudjelal would eventually turn to disposable cameras. The search for his father’s family was long and frustrating, but finally successful. Only after returning to France and developing his photographs did his artistic pursuit begin. His “toy” cameras, as he jokes, get ignored during official and unofficial security checks and are only used in motion at waist-level to avoid retribution or drawing too much attention to himself. The results look almost like accidental pictures. Grainy and ambiguous, like snapshots of moments in time, the images play with the uncertainty of visual information, contesting the assumption of photography as fact and speaking to theme of “impossibility of access” in his work. Boudjelal emphasized that the formal qualities of his photos are not a stylistic choice, but a product of his restraints and profound metaphor to the circumstances of his journeys.
In the works exhibited at Autograph ABP, Boudjelal traces the steps of Frantz Fanon, a French-Algerian psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary whose works are seminal in post-colonial thought. As Algeria is nearing its fiftieth year of independence, Boudjelal saw it fit to reconsider the theories, life, “and finally the story of [Fanon’s] journey as a human being.” This undertaking took Boudjelal all over the world. The series of 23 photographs chronicle his search for traces of Fanon’s legacy starting from his birthplace in the Caribbean island of Martinique, to Tunisia, where he spent the last years of his life in exile from Algeria. Many of the photos are taken in Bilda, Algeria, where Fanon worked as a psychiatrist during the revolution and developed his most significant contributions to post-colonial thought. The photos themselves: old hospitals, rural fields, abandoned buildings and blurry figures are colourless, speaking again to Boudjelal’s difficulty in photographing Algeria and tracing Fanon’s legacy through countries he had so deeply interacted with. Boudjelal once again wrestled with the impossibility of accessing reliable information and his photographic forms are marked by that harsh reality.
In the dark exhibition space, the majority of the photographs are displayed in two simple rows and Boudjelal’s own feelings of melancholy, desire, confusion and loss of identity in his search are successfully echoed. On the opposite wall, Mussai created a collage of Fanon quotes speaking to the affects of racism, oppression, revolution, liberation and hope he experienced. There is a clear division between the photos and text so as not to impress a particular theoretical standpoint on the viewer, but rather to strike up visual-textual dialogue. The text provides the viewer with another form of representation in contemplating Fanon’s legacy, one perhaps necessarily absent in Boudjelal’s photos. Mussai also pointed out that the psychological emotions imbued on each wall, Boudjelal’s search for an identity and Fanon’s experience with the oppression of colonialism, are similar and profoundly intertwined.
- Statement from the artist, http://autograph-abp.co.uk/exhibitions/frantz-fanon.
- Online summary of exhibition, “Bruno Boudjelal, Frantz Fanon” ibid.