French-Algerian artist Katia Kameli’s work exhibits a diverse array of photography, films and other multimedia, showcasing the blind spots of French-Algerian history and interrogating the third space and its transitory nature.
Like many contemporary artists seeking to rewrite cultural narratives, Katia Kameli cannot be defined by her biography or heritage. But, as a Franco-Algerian artist, she’s aware of her uniquely complex personal and political identity and uses these tensions to create art beyond boundaries.
Her childhood and adolescence were spent between France, where her mother lived, and Algeria, where she lived with her father. « As a child, my father took me to Algeria a lot,” she told The New Arab.
“My family lives in Medea, in the mountains, south of Algiers and Blida. I used to spend time with my cousins there, singing and dancing to rap music. Then in the 1990s, during the civil war, the region changed. »
« What is immediately striking about the multifaceted work of Katia Kameli is its breadth and audacity. She doesn’t hesitate to take on difficult topics and knows how to grasp new techniques to do so »
Katia feels like she « belongs to two worlds at the same time ». In Algeria, this double nationality « allowed her access to both female-only and male-only circles, » so that she could report back what had happened to her female cousins.
The Algerian Novel: How to show an authentic Algeria to European audiences
What is immediately striking about the multifaceted work of Katia Kameli is its breadth and audacity. She doesn’t hesitate to take on difficult topics and knows how to grasp new techniques to do so.
Known for her video and film work, in particular the films Blédi and the ambitious Roman Algérien, Katia Kamelia now integrates photography, drawing, sculpture, music, tapestry, texts and archives into her work. She is also increasingly interested in collaboration and has teamed up with prominent weavers, writers, actors, musicians and storytellers.
Her recent shows demonstrate how deeply the poetry of her art has grown while retaining an experimental and avant-garde character.
The film Bledi (shot between 2002 and 2004) is one of her first films about Algeria, shot at the end of the civil war in 1999. « There were so few images then, of this country, of this war,” she says. “Communication has long remained sporadic. My film was the result of a process to understand and to produce images while constantly questioning them. »
Katia travelled by boat from Marseille to film in Algiers. In this project, some of the founding elements of her artistic approach are revealed: the relationship to her dual culture, feminism, the relationship to image but also to sound, including music, and in particular raï.
It is one of Katia’s « founding works », according to the curators at the Institut des Cultures d’Islam in Paris (ICI), Bérénice Saliou, who was one of the first to exhibit her works. « Everything was already there in this film,” admits the artist.
Her photograph from 2010, titled ‘Friday’, shows an Algerian family one day relaxing at the beach near Tipaza, where young Algerians rub shoulders with grandmothers and children.
« Once again, here, several layers of my work are brought together,” according to Katia. « The question of ‘the third space’, the shadow of the colonial house in the background, and the idea of producing images that these characters would potentially produce themselves, in which they recognise themselves in any case, feel neither manipulated nor betrayed.”
Taking inspiration from the first Algerian female director Assia Djebar, Katia explains how it’s important « not to forget history. » Her film La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chenoua is a good example of this. « The film includes a reflection on bodies, » Katia says, « on missing bodies. It’s an evanescent story that passes through oral narratives in the Algerian Arabic dialect. »
Finally, the last chapter of Katia’s Algerian Novel is profoundly modified by the explosion in 2019 of the Hirak revolution in Algeria and its unprecedented « tsunami of images,” in particular of flags.
« These exhibitions offer Katia Kameli the recognition she deserves. For the audience, they’re great opportunities to review or discover her work on Algeria, deeply contemporary and socially, politically and poetically prescient »
On universal Stories and their origins: ‘The Conference of the Birds’
Katia Kameli’s most recent work examines Indian and Persian fables and tales, especially the Iranian Sufi text The Conference of the Birds. As a response, she imagined a series of paintings and musical sculptures, which can be played like wind instruments.
The fables of Farîd od-dîn Attâr, a classical Sufi poet who lived in twelfth-century Iran, were translated from Persian to English via other languages.
They later inspired, among others, the French poet Jean de La Fontaine. His texts have since been taught in every French school, but without acknowledging the Persian origins of the fables.
“We were told the story this way in France. We’re told that La Fontaine is the originator, and we believed it,” Katia underlines. But she wanted to highlight its Middle Eastern origins.
The poem follows thousands of birds on their journey of initiation in search of the mythical bird Sîmorgh, an allegory for the divine. This quest, passing through seven stages represented by seven valleys, embodies a journey to understanding oneself and the world.
« I wanted to make bird sculptures, » Katia explained. « I worked with Marie Picard, a musical ceramist, who knows how to make the earth sing. The musical sculptures which ‘sing’ were then played by flautists in the film. »
After showing her mesmerising installation in Paris in the winter, at ICI, the exhibition was then shown in Berlin at the Ifa-Galerie last month in May.
« I identified about fifteen common fables, » says the artist. « Coming from India, from a text that the Persians searched for, brought back to Persia, and translated. Then when the Arabs invaded Persia, they were also interested in the text, translating it into Arabic. It is considered the ancestor of the Arabian Nights too and was then the source of fables that have become essential in Europe, including those of Anderson and Jean de la Fontaine. Once they arrive in Europe, after the English translation, they are found absolutely everywhere.”
The installation also displays a tapestry, designed in collaboration with the textile artist Manon Daviet, accompanied by a sound piece, produced with the actress and director Clara Chabalier, read by the author Chloé Delaume.
These exhibitions offer Katia Kameli the recognition she deserves. For the audience, they’re great opportunities to review or discover her work on Algeria, deeply contemporary and socially, politically and poetically prescient.
Melissa Chemam is a French-Algerian freelance journalist and culture writer based between Paris, Bristol and Marseille, and travelling beyond
Follow her on Twitter: @melissachemam