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  • Lilly Cao

In Review: The Wallach Surveys Contemporary Algeria

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Resisting the Core's hegemony from one of its major geographical loci.

By Lilly Cao

When viewers approach the Wallach Art Museum’s nascent Manhattanville galleries on the sixth floor of the Lenfest Center of the Arts, they are confronted by an expansive painting of three women standing by a rocky landscape. Set against a flat blue and red background reminiscent of Barnett Newman, the rocks and figures are outlined with wavering tan lines, the washy black infills of the women’s clothes revealing the painter’s hand. These two seemingly contradictory styles—panoramic abstraction versus the tactile experiences of daily life—create, it turns out, the central tension in Waiting for Omar Gatlato: Contemporary Art from Algeria and Its Diaspora, on view for free until March 15.

The exhibit amalgamates its name from two distinct narratives: Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot and Merzak Allouache’s film Omar Gatlato. According to curator Natasha Marie Llorens, both stories reject “European regimes of knowledge” and instead center on their protagonists’ day-to-day lives. Applying this framework to the contemporary history of Algeria, Llorens convincingly collects artworks that mediate this line, challenging both national mythologies and colonial philosophies while emphasizing prosaic experiences through found-object art and vernacular photography.

Illustration by Lilly Cao

Amina Menia’s stark photos of commemorative stelae, for example, question the role of nationalist ‘public art’ in undemocratic Algeria, while Sadek Rahim’s carpet fiber, entitled Cube, asserts the advantages of physical experience in a rather literal manner. Likewise, where Sara Sadik satirically investigates the social incongruencies of France and Algeria in the highly conceptual MEKTOUB, Fethi Sahraoui’s Triangles of Views rejects this teleological approach and presents a spontaneous collection of everyday photographs instead. Llorens’ success thus lies in her dual commitment to presenting conceptual and material expressions of her abstract theme.

One of the show’s standout works is Dania Reymond’s Le Jardin d’Essai, a 42-minute film whose title translates to “The Trial Garden.” Following a small cast of people directing and acting in their own miniature movie, Raymond cleverly intersperses the idyllic movie narrative with the uncomfortable realities of the filming process. Tranquil violin music and thoughtful monologues are interrupted by tips from the director, and at the end of the film, the project halts for lack of funding. Set in a colonial-era botanical garden in Algiers, the film reproduces the same intersection of fantasy and reality that occurred during French occupation. The other film in the exhibit, Louisa Babari’s Close-Combat, presents a racing visual and auditory narration of a text by Seloua Luste Boulbina on Frantz Fanon, a welcome inclusion for Columbia sophomores eager to encounter the great anticolonial thinker’s work later this spring. The minimalist flashes of text and markedly high-brow academic language feel out of place among more vernacular pieces, calling into question the place of academia in the realities of daily life.

Waiting for Omar Gatlato is an incredibly important exhibit that both sheds light on often overlooked Algerian narratives and resists the hegemony of European philosophy that our Core prides itself on. Where Llorens might fall short is not in her rigor or comprehensiveness, but in her small-scale arrangement choices: At one point, she appears to divide two components of the same artwork by Lydia Ourahmane, bewilderingly placing each part on near opposite ends of the exhibit. But a few odd arrangements ought not stop you from making the short trek uptown.


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