When Mohamed Bourouissa was at art school in Paris, a friend showed him Jamel Shabazz’s photographs of the hip-hop scene in 1980s New York. Bourouissa was transfixed. Born in Algeria in 1978, raised in a Parisian banlieue (suburb), he’d never seen art about people like him: young people of colour, from poor neighbourhoods, proudly displaying their fashions. He marvels, “I couldn’t find that kind of thing here, which recounted our history without making a social demonstration, but more cultural, about identity.”
Today, Bourouissa is a master of many art forms, everything from sculpture and painting through smartphone video to repurposed Polaroids of shoplifters. His work, which won the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize last year, reflects both a new direction in art and a new France. His exhibition HARa!!!!!!hAaaRAAAAA!!!!!-hHAaA!!! is upcoming at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art in London. (The title refers to a cry used by lookouts for drug dealers in Marseille.)
“My path is quite banal,” he shrugs over Zoom from his studio in the banlieues. “I arrived in Paris, aged five, with my mother. When I was 10, 11, we moved to the suburbs and I grew up in social housing. Drawing for me was a means of communication. Drawing allowed me to integrate with the other pupils.”
Most Parisian suburbs are not known for their white picket fences and big lawns. They tend to be relatively poor, immigrant neighbourhoods segregated from the white French mainstream. This is the world that Bourouissa comes from. It has similarities to African-American neighbourhoods in the US, and he grew up imbibing African-American art.
“When I was young, I had a rap group. African-American culture had a real impact on France. Hip-hop, the culture of the neighbourhoods, Harlem had a direct echo in the Parisian suburbs. Today, France is one of the countries that produce most rap.
“But I understood that that story was much older. I also saw it in the encounter with the Black Panthers when they went to a pan‑African festival in independent Algeria [in 1969]. These round trips between America, Africa and France were very present in history.”
Bourouissa’s first series of photographs, Nous sommes Halles (2003-2005), is a French update of Shabazz: portraits of young ethnic-minority banlieusards, sporting their finest streetwear, in Paris’s downmarket shopping district Les Halles. Bourouissa says he’s telling the story of recent immigrants to France, “people who are in a transitory moment when they aren’t fully integrated into this [French] story”.
In 2005, the banlieues rioted. Suddenly images of suburbanites were everywhere, but typically rendered as sensationalist photojournalism. For his next series, Périphéries (2005-2008), Bourouissa staged suburban youths in often threatening poses inspired by historical paintings such as those by the 19th-century Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix. Bourouissa says, “There was this idea — simplistic but quite strong — to integrate that world into the history of art.”
Other artists have done the same. Some of France’s best-loved musicians today are rappers from the banlieues, while the banlieues-set 2019 film Les Misérables — about police violence, rather than a version of the musical — was an international hit. “You could even say it’s become a hype [fashionable] to say you’re from the banlieues,” he says.
Bourouissa transitioned early from photographer to multimedia artist. For his short film Temps mort (Dead Time, 2008-2009) he persuaded Al, a friend in jail, to record his daily life on his smartphone. Bourouissa intersperses Al’s images of lonely meals and of motorways and trains seen from behind bars with his own smartphone videos of the outside world: a trip to Helsinki, for instance. It’s a film about both imprisonment and freedom. Bourouissa displays the messages he and Al exchange in French digital slang: for instance, “j’espère” (“I hope”) becomes “Jesper”.
In Bourouissa’s projects, his subjects become his collaborators. While shooting Périphéries, he says, “I had ideas of gestures and movements, but the gestures and movements offered by the person being photographed sometimes had much more impact. In Temps mort, you see that at the start the person I worked with sent me the images I asked for, and he finished by sending me the images he chose.”
But how does Bourouissa manage the inequality between a successful artist and his poor collaborators? “For Temps mort, the first time the work was sold, half the sum went to the person who participated in the filming.” He says there is often “a financial recompense”, but not always. “For Périphéries it happened, but not for all the photographs, because sometimes you don’t see the people again. I also gave people images. Some of them have pictures of mine at home today.”
For Bourouissa’s 2010 film Legend, about hawkers of illegal cigarettes in the Métro system, he could finally afford to pay his subjects. However, “when I told people I’d pay them, they became suspicious. It was very complicated to make that video.” Finally, he stopped offering money, and just started filming with friends, and then the hawkers actually asked to be involved, even when he said he couldn’t pay them. “I think what happened was that they had the power to choose. Since I wasn’t paying, they became the decision-makers.”
Economics and crime fascinate him. In the video Nasser (2015), his bespectacled, middle-aged immigrant uncle struggles to read to camera an official letter in convoluted French legalese that states his conviction for theft with violence. Here he turns his focus on the experience of the semi‑literate person in a bureaucratic society.
But Bourouissa also delights in showing minorities expressing themselves on their own terms. The project Horse Day (2013-17) depicts his immersion among African-American horse riders in Philadelphia, with whom he lived for eight months. Footage of black men riding through Philly subverts not just the notion of the white cowboy but also of the city, cars and modernity. Bourouissa had other artists create costumes for the horses, and convinced the riders to stage an equestrian show for an audience — the climax of his film.
His variety is dazzling. In the recent video project about virtual sex, people get it on with latex dolls. Last year’s show Brutal Family Roots uses a nano-computer to capture soundwaves emitted by acacia trees — their breathing, as Bourouissa sees it — intermingled with Australian rap music. How did he shift to plants?
“In 2015 I visited the psychiatric hospital of Blida, [the town] where I was born, in Algeria. It’s the Hôpital Frantz Fanon. Fanon [the psychiatrist and political philosopher from the French Caribbean] worked there when he was in Algeria. And I came across a magnificent garden. I was told that a patient of the hospital had created it. And I met this gentleman, Bourlem Mohamed, who had lived almost his whole life in that hospital, and had created his own knowledge. I became his pupil.”
Bourlem Mohamed helped Bourouissa create a garden for the Liverpool Biennial festival. Bourouissa has always tried to place marginal, non-white people at the centre of his work. He attempted to do something similar with plants. “I wanted to plant an acacia in Liverpool, thinking it was nice to have a plant that came from Algeria. Not at all, it turned out. In fact, the acacia comes from Australia, was exported by the English and found itself in Algeria through the French colony. So I had appropriated a story, thinking very naively that it was my own. It has much more to do with colonial history.”
In lockdown now, Bourouissa is painting watercolours of plants to complete an unfinished old botanical book that he found at a library in Algiers. He also watched last year’s global protests against police violence, fascinated by the political “counter-power” of social media. “Instagram too has an impact, images have an impact,” he notes. The video of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis sparked the Black Lives Matter protests.
Do Bourouissa’s own images have a political impact? He winces: “It would be very pretentious of me to say that.”
Mohamed Bourouissa’s ‘HARa!!!!!!hAaaRAAAAA-!!!!!hHAaA!!!’ is upcoming at Goldsmiths CCA, St James’s, London SE14 6AD
Photographs: ©ADAGP Mohamed Bourouissa; courtesy the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris/London; ©Archives Kamel Mennour, Paris/London
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